mercoledì 15 dicembre 2010

Edwardians on display

From The Times Literary Supplement

Matthew Reynolds “Sargent is in black mourning crêpe”, wrote Claude Monet from London soon after the death of Queen Victoria; and so was everyone else. On the day of the funeral the two artists joined the watching masses. Monet enjoyed the procession; but “best of all” (“le comble”) was the sight of “this immense crowd”. Costumed and expressive, the crowd were not only watchers of the spectacle but a part of it. The same had happened at Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and would again at Edward VII’s Coronation in 1902. The public’s performance on these occasions was reviewed in the papers: their actions were summarized and their “great good humour” praised.

Of course there is potential in many places, and at many times, for observers to become the observed. But in Britain in the early years of the twentieth century the oscillation seems to have been especially cultivated and thought about. The essays in The Edwardian Sense have many points of focus, from Elgar’s processes of composition to the way people held their top hats. The ambiguity of the title (Sense in what sense, exactly?) is uncoiled and entangled by the successive contributors, and the result is an exemplary investigation of the complexity of a culture, each particular element resisting generalization while gaining salience from being seen in its moment.

Through all this variety, the interplay of spectating and performing recurs. As one cluster of essays makes clear, its main cause was the spread of visual media: illustrated magazines proliferated and life – including the royal processions – could now be filmed. The behaviour of a watching crowd mattered because it might itself be watched by other crowds across the country and the empire. Thanks to the new magic of film, audiences on the other side of the world could not only witness an occasion but feel that they, too, were taking part. An advert for a movie show in Australia announced “her Majesty the Queen actually bowing and acknowledging the plaudits of the people of Perth”.

The separation of audience from performers was again bridged by a vogue for heritage pageants. Citizens from Dudley to Dover dressed up to enact glorious scenes from local history; then stepped back to watch their neighbours do the same. These events were avowedly apolitical: the history of Chelsea started with the Romans but was allowed to go no further than the Royal Fête of 1749 to avoid any risk of controversy. Nevertheless, it seems that the mere act of participation brought with it a frisson of new possibility. Deborah Sugg Ryan points out that the great suffragette demonstrations from 1908 to 1911 drew on the look of the heritage pageants, jumping their tranquillized representation of history into the present and giving it point.

Mass entertainments such as the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908 relied on crowds to form part of the spectacle. The “swan-shaped gondolas” and “‘Rialto-like’ bridges” were more fun to look at when loaded with people. And at the London Olympics the same year – David Gilbert argues – what mattered was not only whether the public could see but how they were displayed. Huge crowds had been assembling at football matches since the last decades of the nineteenth century: Glasgow’s Ibrox Park had a capacity of 80,000 when it collapsed in 1902. Some spectators of these spectators were not impressed by their performance. In Scouting for Boys, Robert Baden-Powell slated football fans for “learning to be hysterical as they groan and cheer in panic in unison with their neighbours”. Evidently he did not see any hysteria in his own reaction. For the Olympics at White City, a stadium was built to be not only stronger than Ibrox Park, but better ordered. Different degrees of seating and standing room were demarcated by price. Arrayed in “splendid rising lines”, the crowd was lauded in architectural journals for presenting “a magnificent spectacle of humanity”.

Even private interiors were felt to have something of the stage about them, as essays by Christopher Reed and Christopher Breward explain. A million houses were built in the first decade of the century. Then (as now) guidance on decoration could be had from illustrated magazines and the Ideal Home Exhibition (first held in 1908); and furniture could be picked out in department stores. In choosing from such plenitude you could feel you were expressing your personality; but would that commodified performance of self meet the standards of the design gurus – and, if it did, would it really be you? The trend towards this particular unease had been growing through the previous decades. West End productions in the 1890s had doubled as shop windows for tailors and decorators, and as far back as the 1870s Oscar Wilde had complained of the difficulty of living up to his blue China. By the Edwardian period, the drama of the interior had become a familiar and perhaps rather wearisome theme.

Certainly, this is the feeling suggested by William Nicholson’s “The Conder Room” (1910), a painting which three essays in The Edwardian Sense explore. The elderly designer and connoisseur Pickford Waller sits in white tie, foreground left, looking out of the picture to the right. A pace or two back from him stands his daughter Sybil, also formally dressed, with her face averted. The space feels cramped, for a wall is pushed right up against her, crowding her with a dresser and ornate bench, while thrusting forward is the large watercolour on silk by Charles Conder that gives the room its name. Much of the Conder is whited out by light from a window which must be somewhere off to the left: in this nebulous space of the imagination a shadowy third figure can be discerned.

Perhaps this startling composition registers tensions in the Waller family. But the work is also (as Imogen Hart puts it) “about the experience of being in the Conder room” – an experience which evidently includes some awkwardness. Conder had been an archetypal 1890s figure, painting scenes of flowery idleness, in Paris, with a bottle of absinthe, by night. The shadowy reflected figure perhaps holds out the possibility of stepping back (like Alice through the looking-glass) into that now somewhat faded dream-world. But the Waller father and daughter, so physically present in their awkward poses, seem determinedly to be ignoring its allure. Posed in a room that is designed to be entrancing, they are embedded in their ordinary lives.

It is this feeling of alienation from the interior, and from the 1890s, that marks “The Conder Room” as belonging to an Edwardian moment. For there was nothing new about representing the experience of being in a room. John Singer Sargent had been doing so for decades, inspired by Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”; and Nicholson relies on his example. In Sargent’s “Mrs Carl Meyer and Her Children” (1896) the ten- and eleven-year-old kids are stuck behind an ornate sofa, not wholly at ease in the drawing room: their elaborately dressed mother reaches out both to reassure them and to keep them in their place. In “Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife” (1885), the writer paces an empty corner of a room, with an open door and staircase behind, while his wife slumps in the only chair, half out of frame, shrouded in a gleamingly metallic shawl (“it looks dam queer as a whole”, Stevenson wrote, admiringly). But it is “The Daughters of Edward D. Boit” (1882) that most underpins “The Conder Room”. Sargent shows four girls posed at odd distances from each other in a high, chill room, one of them leaning in profile, her face shadowed, against an enormous, ideal and estranging oriental vase; and all of them receding into darkness where only the reflection of a window gleams.

Volume Five of the ongoing Yale Complete Paintings of Sargent includes none of these pictures since its remit is Figures and Landscapes, 1883–1899. But the interest of this other work of Sargent’s, less lucrative for him than his portrait practice, and still less well known, is asserted by the good reproductions and by Richard Ormond’s and Elaine Kilmurray’s expert commentary. Half the book is taken up by sketches made in the 1890s as preparation for murals on “Jewish and Christian religious history” that had been commissioned by Boston Public Library. Sargent travelled through Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Spain and Morocco, recording architectural details, mosaics and notable faces. These visual mnemonics are lively and sharp-eyed, but what is most striking about them is the blunt orientalist fact that Sargent felt obliged to go out and make them: so many thousand miles of overseas experience to justify filling a few square metres of an American wall.

The paintings in the first half of the book range less widely but are more truly exploratory: they possess a tension that recalls the portrait interiors. Most of them were done in the English countryside – Sargent had left Paris in 1885 after a scandalously perceptive portrait, “Madame Gautreau”, had damaged his prospects there. But France came with him via the overbearing influence of Monet. Sargent copied his friend’s methods, working en plein air and sometimes in a bateau atelier; he imitated his tonalities and adopted some of his subjects and points of view. But there are also gestures of resistance. “A Morning Walk” (1888) is almost a negative of Monet’s studies of a “Femme à l’ombrelle” from two years before. Monet’s model stands atop a grassy bank against the sky, her face in the shadow of her parasol, her white-dressed body evanescing into light. Sargent’s model similarly wears white and carries a parasol but she is seen from slightly above. Most of her body is against a sky-reflecting stream, while her face, brightly lit, has a heavy grass bank for background. The composition stresses the massiness of her body and the earth, setting them in opposition to the surrounding play of light. The same emphasis recurs in several studies of women awkwardly recumbent in punts. Light and colour shimmer beautifully, but something refuses to join in their harmony.

The tustle with Monet continues in the most brilliant – and also best-known – painting represented in this volume, “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”. The work aimed to capture the quality of light on flowers at a particular moment in the late summer evening. But it is also an English genre painting, for it is dominated by two children, aged about ten, lighting Chinese lanterns. Ormond and Kilmurray recount the practical difficulties caused by this combination of Victorian subject and Impressionist mode. The light was only right for twenty minutes at a time, so on many successive evenings the children had to be stopped from playing, posed and bribed with sweets. Sargent had started too late in the summer: soon jerseys were having to be worn under the smocks and artificial flowers pinned to the bare rosebushes. Then the whole thing was abandoned until the following year.

Yet the picture’s conflictedness is also the source of its power. The children are charged with the resources of Pre-Raphaelite symbolism. Two figures in a garden, they recall Adam and Eve. One with arm raised, the other with eyes lowered, they suggest an annunciation (the more so because of the lilies). Holding lanterns, they recall Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World”. They are playing with fire, yet they are also innocently at one with the garden around them, their white smocks and pink cheeks linking to the flowers in decorative play. The question asked by the painting is how much the ominous narrative voltage that has built up in them can be dissipated by that tonal harmony, how much comfort the beautiful colours can bring. The painting buzzes with fiercely contradictory implications, and yet also offers itself as a light work of great charm. This surface prettiness is, finally, the eeriest thing about it, smiling brightly as the darkness presses in.

Morna O’Neill and Michael Hart, editors
Art design and performance in Britain, 1901–1910
328pp. Yale University Press. £45 (US $65).
978 0 300 16335 3

Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray
Volume Five: Figures and Landscapes, 1883–1899 392pp.
Yale University Press. £50 (US $75).
978 0 300 16111 3

Matthew Reynolds’s books include Designs for a Happy Home: A novel in ten interiors, which appeared last year. His The Poetry of Translation: From Chaucer and Petrarch to Homer and Logue, is due to be published next year

sabato 4 dicembre 2010

Romain Gary, l'homme aux multiples visages


Les grands écrivains ont toujours une conscience aiguë de leur oeuvre et Romain Gary n'échappe pas à la règle. "Ce manuscrit de mon premier roman écrit à 17 ans ne doit pas être publié. Il peut être ouvert." C'est seulement le 16 décembre 1979, soit un peu moins d'un an avant son suicide, qu'il trace ces quelques lignes à l'encre noire sur une étiquette qu'il colle sur le cahier de La Geste grimaçante, écrit en 1934. On imagine l'écrivain, en robe de chambre, fatigué, au seuil de ses double, triple, voire quadruple vies (la mystification Ajar n'est pas encore révélée), qui classe ses manuscrits conservés depuis l'adolescence, faisant le tri entre ceux qui doivent passer à la postérité et ceux qu'il entend laisser dans l'ombre...

Romain Gary s'est suicidé il y a trente ans, le 2 décembre 1980, en se tirant une balle de pistolet dans la bouche. L'actrice Jean Seberg, avec laquelle il avait eu un fils, Diego, s'était, elle aussi, suicidée, quatorze mois plus tôt.

Le texte de La Geste grimaçante est pour la première fois exposé au Musée des lettres et manuscrits (MLM), à Paris. Il est l'un des nombreux manuscrits (plus de vingt) du romancier présentés dans le cadre de l'exposition "Romain Gary, des "Racines du ciel" à "La Vie devant soi"", la première à lui être entièrement consacrée. Diego Gary, fils de l'écrivain, a passé un accord avec Gérard Lhéritier, mécène et président du MLM, qui gardera les manuscrits en dépôt, après l'exposition. Sont aussi présentés ceux du Charlatan (inédit), de Chien blanc, de Gros-Câlin, de La Vie devant soi, de Clair de femme, de La nuit sera calme, etc. On constate que l'écrivain affectionnait particulièrement les cahiers noirs cartonnés à 32 lignes, de la marque Dauphin.

Au fil du temps, mais parfois à une seule année de distance, l'écriture de Romain Gary varie énormément. De manière troublante, elle prend parfois des allures féminines. Sa manière de travailler est aussi montrée, grâce à des extraits de sa documentation, des articles de journaux, des pièces manuscrites ou photocopiées, disposés à côté des textes originaux. Dans une vitrine, sont ainsi exposées les neuf versions du premier chapitre des Enchanteurs.

Par un singulier hasard, la première exposition consacrée à Romain Gary et à ses écrits se tient à deux pas de sa dernière résidence parisienne. Dans un supplément de 12 pages du Point, Jean-Paul Enthoven raconte que Romain Gary avait acheté une robe de chambre "Aux laines écossaises", une boutique qui existe toujours sur le boulevard Saint-Germain. Il l'avait choisie rouge pour que les taches de sang liées à son suicide effraient le moins possible ceux qui seraient amenés à découvrir sa dépouille mortelle. Un geste d'une élégance typiquement "garyenne".

Des laines écossaises, on passe forcément au caméléon, un animal totem pour Romain Gary, l'homme aux multiples visages. Ne dit-on pas que, pour rendre fou un caméléon, il suffit de le placer sur un plaid écossais ? Dans le cas de Romain Kacew, juif lituanien, né en 1914 à Vilnius et naturalisé français en 1935, cette parenté tient juste au fait que l'écrivain affectionnait les masques. Dans toutes ses vies (aviateur, diplomate, réalisateur de cinéma...), il a en effet usé de nombreux pseudonymes : Romain Gary, Fosco Sinibaldi, Shatan Bogat, Emile Ajar. Dans La Promesse de l'aube, son roman le plus célèbre, il regrette même de ne pas avoir trouvé "de Gaulle" - dont il fut le compagnon à Londres en 1940 -, mais avec un seul "l", bien sûr. Il écrit aussi en plusieurs langues, en français et en anglais, tout en sachant parler le russe, le polonais, le lituanien.

Pour accompagner cette exposition qui célèbre le 30e anniversaire de la disparition de Romain Gary, deux beaux livres : l'un qui en est le catalogue, mais qui est aussi une relecture de l'oeuvre par douze écrivains parmi lesquels Paul Audi, Pierre Bayard, Nancy Huston, Jean-Marie Rouart, etc. ; l'autre est un livre album, intitulé Romain Gary, l'enchanteur. Publié chez Textuel, dans la collection "Passion", ce deuxième ouvrage est réalisé par Myriam Annissimov, la spécialiste incontestée de Romain Gary, auteur de la biographie de référence Romain Gary, le caméléon (Denoël, 2004), qui est toujours disponible.

Exposition "Romain Gary, des "Racines du ciel" à "La Vie devant soi"", 3 décembre-20 février 2011, Musée des lettres et manuscrits, 222, bd Saint-Germain, Paris 7e. De 10 heures à 19 heures, nocturne le jeudi jusqu'à 21 h 30, fermé le lundi. Entrée 7 €, tarif réduit 5 €. Tél. : 01-42-22-48-48. Sur le Web :
Publications :
Lectures de Romain Gary, Gallimard/Musée des lettres et manuscrits/le Magazine littéraire, 288 p., 35 €, en vente le 5 janvier.
Romain Gary, l'enchanteur, de Myriam Anissimov, Textuel, 192 p., 49 €.

Les principaux titres de Romain Gary sont disponibles en "folio". Signalons aussi Romain Gary, à la traversée des frontières, de Jean-François Hangouët (Gallimard, "Découvertes") 128 p., 14,30 € ; Romain Gary-Emile Ajar, Légendes du je. Récits, romans (Gallimard, "Quarto") 1 428 p., 29,90 €, ainsi que huit carnets, de La Crête de la vague à A bout de souffle, aux éditions de l'Herne (de 8,50 € à 10,50 €).

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Levi Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory
by Patrick Wilcken

David Lan welcomes a biography of the man once hailed as the world's most famous academic

It had been pouring with rain. The hard, red soil of the Zambezi valley had turned to mud. All around me people were hurrying to their fields, taking advantage of this deluge to cut trenches with their hoes to prepare for the sowing of next season's crop. And suddenly I understood everything that had been puzzling me about the origin myth of these people among whom, as a student anthropologist, I'd been doing fieldwork for the past year.

The mythological "first man" was said to have come from the south, from where that day's rain clouds were also riding. His name was Mutota, which means "the wet one". The contradiction I had to account for was this: when local people answer the question "who brings the rain?", they always say that it's under the control of the ancestral spirits of the people who lived in this territory before Mutota, their ancestor, arrived and conquered it. And yet, at the same time, it's an uncontested fact that "Mutota brings the rain".

If you're not tantalised by this paradox, Patrick Wilcken's biography of Claude Lévi-Strauss – the first in English – is probably not for you. But for me, and for thousands of students of social anthropology in the 1970s and 80s, Strauss, Lévi and Claude were the most intoxicating words in any language.

And this despite the fact that very few of us, I'd bet, actually read his books. We whizzed through introductions and maybe an early chapter or two, but his major works – the four-volume Mythologiques and The Elementary Structures of Kinship – are not for the faint-hearted.

Yet he was telling us something important: that all societies are as complex, as sophisticated, as rule-bound and as interesting as our own. The conventional comparative indicators of success were (are) wealth accumulation and levels of technology. Lévi-Strauss cracked open the seemingly secondary worlds of marriage, mythology, linguistics and social and existential identity, showing how each is an intricate system of exchange between individuals and between groups – and that the same sorts of systems operate in the Ardèche as in the Amazon.

Lévi-Strauss's credo is related by Wilcken thus: "Working their own systems, many cultures had succeeded where the west had failed. Inuits and the Bedouin had excelled at life in inhospitable climates; other cultures were thousands of years ahead of the west in terms of integrating the physical and the mental with yoga and Chinese 'breathe-techniques'. Australian Aborigines, traditionally seen as at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, had one of the most sophisticated kinship systems in existence."

The methodology Lévi-Strauss fashioned to allow him to display these hidden complexities was structuralism – for decades the most resonant word across the humanities, its imprecision a part of its power. Its premise is that nothing can be understood in itself but only in relation to other, similar things – and, further, that this relationship can only be understood in terms of the relationships these other things have with yet other, similar things.

The questions that follow are: in each case, in what does this "similarity" lie, and from what perspective do these "similarities" appear? For Lévi-Strauss, all apparent reality is a map to be deciphered, revealing the map of a reality below which in turn leads to the map of the surface below that, and so on. But at the lowest point – what? Is there a lowest point? Or does it just keep going round and round?

From his middle years, Lévi-Strauss was the most famous academic in the world. He had his picture on the cover of Time magazine. His more tactfully written books, such as The Savage Mind and, especially, his marvellously affecting Amazon memoir Tristes Tropiques, sold widely and were, I'm sure, read with pleasure, if not always from cover to cover. His only rival as a public intellectual in France was Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom he fell out on the question unanswered above: what's underneath? What's the driving force? Sartre said: "History". Lévi-Strauss told the Washington Post: "The Sartre disciples said that nothing can be known without history: I had to dissent. But it is not that I don't believe in history. I just feel that there is no privilege for it."

And that did for him. As Tony Judt puts it in Postwar: "As an interpretation of human experience, any theory dependent on an arrangement of structures from which human choice has been eliminated was hobbled by its own assumptions. Intellectually subversive, structuralism was politically passive." The structuralist ship had extremely wide sails – but in the end, the wind went out of them.

The Poet in the Laboratory doesn't quite catch the fireworks that had me and my best undergraduate friend weekend after weekend tearing Andean kinship systems apart, desperate to find out exactly why the father's sister's daughter couldn't marry the mother's brother's son, or whoever. But it lays out the life with clarity, efficiency, readability and occasionally dissent – from the youth's first liaison with his three "mistresses", Freud, Marx and geology, to the hyper-distinguished old fellow tottering into the Académie Française, the first of his tribe to be let in. A superbly thrilling life it was – and one well worth reliving at second hand.

David Lan is artistic director of the Young Vic Theatre and author of Guns and Rain: Guerrillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe.

Killing the Gods


What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity
By Tom Payne
274 pp. Picador.

Never famous in her lifetime, Emily Dickinson had some astute things to say about fame as a phenomenon: “Fame is a fickle food,” for instance, and “Fame is a bee.” But perhaps most evocative is:

Fame is the one that does not stay —
Its occupant must die
Or out of sight of estimate
Ascend incessantly —
Or be that most insolvent thing
A Lightning in the Germ —
Electrical the embryo
But we demand the Flame.

Unlike other luminaries to have weighed in on the subject (from Francis Bacon to David Bowie), Dickinson does not take aim at celebrity’s supposed lack of substance. Rather, she insists that it be taken seriously, identifying two qualities that imbue it with a specific, and dangerous, substance: the impossible, intrinsically destructive pressures it places on the famous (“Its occupant must die”) and the impossible, intrinsically destructive appetites it exposes in the fans (“We demand the Flame”).

In his trenchant, unsettling, darkly hilarious “Fame,” Tom Payne also examines the murky pact that binds stars to their public. For him, this relationship stands to reveal “grim truths about humanity that we would struggle to express otherwise — those desires so unspeakable that we have to evolve a kind of code.” But where Dickinson uses the language of sparks and fire to rewrite this code, Payne, a former deputy literary editor for The Daily Telegraph in England, works to decipher it, uncovering clues in the foundational texts of Western culture. Moving seamlessly between yesterday’s great literature — Greek, Roman, early Christian, Enlightenment and Romantic — and today’s trashy tabloids, Payne advances a persuasive, if disturbing, definition of what fame is now, and what it has ever been. Above all else, it is “a systematic cycle of celebration, consecration and sacrifice,” in which cultures create gods and goddesses in order to kill them.

This may sound like heavy stuff, but Payne wears his erudition lightly, alternating between the highbrow and the low in a way that invests the classics with surprising accessibility and relevance. And he endows modern celebrity gossip with unexpected cultural import. A prime example is his chapter “A Certain Sacrifice: What Was Britney Telling Us When She Cut Her Own Hair?” As anyone who was conscious in 2007 inevitably knows, this question refers to one of that year’s most notorious celebrity news stories: the night when Britney Spears marched into a hair salon and, in full view of photographers, shaved her head. Payne finds this episode noteworthy for its resonance with the ritual shearing of a young woman’s hair that commonly figured in the ancient ritual of virgin sacrifice, of which classical literature offers one particularly well-known example: the sacrifice of Iphigenia to the gods on the eve of the Trojan War. In Euripides’ telling, Iphigenia is lured to the altar with the promise of marrying Achilles. At first, she protests but eventually sees that her death will smooth her father’s, her betrothed’s and her other compatriots’ path to glory. Even more important, she discovers that by sacrificing her life for her countrymen, she will achieve renown in her own right: “And for this,” the Greek chorus tells her, “immortal fame, / Virgin, shall attend thy name.”

In Spears’s case, the “virgin” part of the “immortal fame” equation is markedly more ambiguous than it was for Iphigenia (who indeed got the ax instead of a wedding night). As a teenager, Spears repeatedly said she was saving herself for marriage, all the while starring in sexually provocative music videos, and at one point wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed, “I’m a virgin, but this is an old shirt.” Yet the implied loss of her virginity, like the publicly staged chopping of her locks, clearly partakes of the logic of sacrifice as articulated by Euripides. Spears herself, in fact, appears to see the matter in this way, singing in “Piece of Me”: “I’m Mrs. Lifestyles of the rich and famous (You want a piece of me) / I’m Mrs. Oh My God That Britney’s Shameless/(You want a piece of me).” Like Iphigenia, Spears is prepared to give of herself in order to secure some measure of celebrity for herself. As an ABC News correspondent said of the sacrificial victim du jour: “By going bald, Spears may be seeking a rebirth.” And by Payne’s lights, she found it, if only insofar as “her offering has become part of our folk memory. . . . Britney is sacred; ‘ordinary people’ have made her so.”

So fame is a dialectical interplay of adulation and destruction in which “the crowd wants something, and an individual is prepared to give it to them.” But what is that “something”? What is in it for those “ordinary people” who chase down and photograph and write about — or those who consume stories about and formulate strong opinions of — stars in distress? Why does anyone care about Lindsay Lohan’s drug use or Angelina Jolie’s love life? According to Payne, these narratives belong in the same category as fox-hunting and bullfights and, again, ritual sacrifices: all of them cultural practices that redirect human beings’ inborn aggression away from one another and onto designated victims, thereby strengthening the bonds of the community as a whole. “In the bloodshed and the howls,” of a human or animal sacrifice, he writes, “congregants would have experienced the shock and thrill of death” safely and collectively. “The effect was to bond people closer together. Feelings of guilt would have been attenuated; a feeling of togetherness, of complicity, would have taken their place.” The sacrificial object dies so that the community might live on, its members defined by the fact that they were not the ones singled out for death — and that they did not turn against one another. It is this same dynamic that structures our current obsession with self-destructive celebs: “If people feel bad about seeing Amy Winehouse on TMZ after a night of putting syringes between her toes, at least they have the consolation that it really isn’t just them.” Together we elevate our sacrificial object and together we tear her down. Alone she falls while together we stand, simultaneously colluding in and protected from the carnage.

Recasting this phenomenon in funnier terms, Payne considers today’s celebrity perfume industry:“Have you ever given someone Intimately Beckham for Her? Did you ever receive Lovely, by Sarah Jessica Parker? If so, how did you feel? Were we tempted by Donald Trump, the Fragrance?. . . What was the allure of Mystique de Michael Jackson or Only, Only Crazy, redolent of Julio Iglesias?”

Such fragrances seem to promise an intimate connection between the famous whose names they bear, and the not-­famous who buy them, for as an ad for the Mariah Carey scent M emphasizes, perfume lies “like a second skin on the wearer.” Yet a second skin, Payne points out, “is you, and also isn’t you”: by putting it on (rather, he adds, like ancient Aztecs who used to don the flayed, bloody hides of their human-sacrifice victims), the buyer succeeds in showing “an affinity to the star, as if joining her fan club; but being Mariah Carey has always been Mariah Carey’s business alone.” Fundamentally, such gestures “divide the world into two sorts of people: those who are Mariah Carey and those who are not.” The public — armed with perfumes and glossy magazines and juicy gossip — basks in the secondhand glow of the culture’s shining stars; but the celebrities, like their astronomical counterparts, are in fact dead already. Their light is extinguished in the very process of reaching us, precisely because “we demand the Flame.”

Caroline Weber is a biographer of Marie-Antoinette and a frequent contributor to the Book Review.

Analyzing Literature by Words and Numbers

FROM The New York Times


Victorians were enamored of the new science of statistics, so it seems fitting that these pioneering data hounds are now the subject of an unusual experiment in statistical analysis. The titles of every British book published in English in and around the 19th century — 1,681,161, to be exact — are being electronically scoured for key words and phrases that might offer fresh insight into the minds of the Victorians.

Jon Orwant of Google says scholars will have free use of the new tools.
This research, which has only recently become possible, thanks to a new generation of powerful digital tools and databases, represents one of the many ways that technology is transforming the study of literature, philosophy and other humanistic fields that haven’t necessarily embraced large-scale quantitative analysis.

Dan Cohen and Fred Gibbs, the two historians of science at George Mason University who have created the project, have so far charted how frequently more than two dozen words — among them “God,” “love,” “work,” “science” and “industrial” — appear in British book titles from the French Revolution in 1789 to the beginning of World War I in 1914. To Mr. Cohen, the sharply jagged lines that dance across his graphs can be used to test some of the most deeply entrenched beliefs about the Victorians, like their faith in progress and science: “We can finally and truly test these and other fundamental claims that have been at the heart of Victorian studies for generations.”

Mr. Cohen said that he and Mr. Gibbs hoped that their work could serve as a model for how scholars might use the shopping cart of new digital tools to challenge longstanding assumptions and interpretations across the humanities.

Some of their colleagues are clearly intrigued by the possibilities.

“My own reaction was sheer exhilaration,” said Alice Jenkins, a professor of Victorian literature and culture at the University of Glasgow, who saw Mr. Cohen present his preliminary results at a recent conference on the Victorians.

There is also anxiety, however, about the potential of electronic tools to reduce literature and history to a series of numbers, squeezing out important subjects that cannot be easily quantified.

“I was excited and terrified,” said Matthew Bevis, a lecturer at the University of York in Britain, who was at the same conference. “This is not just a tool; this is actually shaping the kind of questions someone in literature might even ask.”

“It should come in a box marked ‘Handle With Care,’ ” he added.

Such concerns didn’t stop Mr. Bevis or other academics in the audience from asking Mr. Cohen to run a few electronic searches of particular words pertinent to their own work. Meredith Martin, an assistant professor of English at Princeton who is studying the history of poetic form, was interested in the terms “prosody,” “meter” and “verse.”

“I actually sent him an e-mail as he was talking,” Ms. Martin said. She figured he would be inundated with requests, and “I wanted to be first in line.”

Mr. Cohen and Mr. Gibbs’s “Reframing the Victorians” study is one of 12 university projects to win a new digital humanities award created by Google that provides money along with access to the company’s powerful computers and databases.

Some scholars are wary of the control an enterprise like Google can exert over digital information. Google’s plan to create a voluminous online library and store has raised alarms about a potential monopoly over digital books and the hefty pricing that might follow.

But Jon Orwant, the engineering manager for Google Books, Magazines and Patents, said the plan was to make collections and searching tools available to libraries and scholars free. “That’s something we absolutely will do, and no, it’s not going to cost anything,” he said.

One criterion in choosing projects to finance, he added, was whether they were going to create new data sets and computer codes that other researchers would find useful.

Mr. Gibbs and Mr. Cohen’s searches of book titles represent only an initial swipe at the data. Step 2 is canvassing the full texts. The professors will also have the ability to zero in on details, specific titles and passages.

Their starting point was an earlier work that focused on the written word as an entry point into the era: Walter E. Houghton’s “Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870,” a landmark book published in 1957 that has shaped generations of scholarship, even as its conclusions have been challenged. Mr. Houghton sought to capture what he called a “general sense” of how middle- and upper-class Victorians thought, partly by closely reading scores of texts written during the era and methodically counting how many times certain words appeared. The increasing use of “hope,” “light” and “sunlight,” for instance, was interpreted as a sign of the Victorians’ increasing optimism.

Mr. Houghton’s reading list was monumental, yet his methodology raised questions about the validity of extrapolating the attitudes of millions of people from a couple of hundred texts.

The kind of comprehensiveness that digital research offers quells such complaints. “All history is anecdotal,” Mr. Cohen said. “You could read three books and say the Victorians were really obsessed with evil, or you could read 30 books, or 300 books; but you didn’t read 10,000 books.”

But now, he explained, vast digital libraries present “for the first time the possibility that we can conduct a comprehensive survey of Victorian writing — not just the well-known Mills and Carlyles, but tens of thousands of lesser-known or even forgotten authors.”

The preliminary graphs he displayed at the conference mostly confirm what we already know, Mr. Cohen said. A decline in references to “God,” “Christian” and “universal” is consonant with the conventional view that the 19th century was a time of rising secularism and skepticism.

Yet large searches can also challenge some pet theories of close reading, he said: for example, that the Victorians were obsessed with the nature and origins of evil. As it turns out, books with the word “evil” in the title bumped along near the bottom of the graph, accounting for less than 0.1 percent — a thousandth — of those published during the Victorian era.

As Mr. Cohen is quick to acknowledge, the meaning of those numbers is anything but clear. Perhaps authors didn’t like to use the word “evil” in the title; perhaps there were other, more common synonyms; perhaps the context points to another subject altogether.

Ms. Martin at Princeton knows firsthand how electronic searches can unearth both obscure texts and dead ends. She has spent the last 10 years compiling a list of books, newspaper and journal articles about the technical aspects of poetry.

She recalled finding a sudden explosion of the words “syntax” and “prosody” in 1832, suggesting a spirited debate about poetic structure. But it turned out that Dr. Syntax and Prosody were the names of two racehorses.

“You find 200 titles with ‘Syntax,’ and you think there must be a big grammar debate that year,” Ms. Martin said, “but it was just that Syntax was winning.”

Scholars should also remember that the past contains more than the written record, Mr. Bevis said in an interview. Fewer references to a subject do not necessarily mean that it has disappeared from the culture, but rather that it has become such a part of the fabric of life that it no longer arouses discussion. He quoted Emily Dickinson: “Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our mind?”

Of more concern, Mr. Bevis said, is the fear that statistical measures could overshadow meaning and interpretation.

Not to worry, say those who embrace the new methods. There is no need to pit computation against interpretation. If anything, Ms. Jenkins argues, large-scale, quantitative research is likely to highlight “the importance and the value of close reading; the detailed, imaginative, heightened engagement with words, paragraphs and lines of verse.

“Close reading,” she continued, “will become even more crucial in a world in which we can, potentially, read every word of Victorian writing ever published.”

sabato 27 novembre 2010

Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett: review


An engaging Life of Leo Tolstoy reminds us that his myth is being forged even today, says Claire Messud.
By Claire Messud

This month marks the centenary of Tolstoy’s death. It seems hard to fathom that only 100 years have passed, not least because of the mythical stature of the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, considered by many to be the greatest novelist ever.

This icon of the 19th century, grandfather of literary realism and messianic leader of his own Christian sect died only three years before the publication of the Futurists’ manifesto, and weeks before the month in which, according to Virginia Woolf, “human character changed” and modernism was born.

Born in 1828, Count Lyev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was a venerable 82 when he expired – almost twice the age of his younger compatriot Anton Chekhov, who predeceased him by six years, dying of TB at the age of 44 – and above all extraordinary for the reach and longevity of both his literary and spiritual influence.

As Rosamund Bartlett makes amply clear in her engaging and readable biography, “the greatest task facing the biographer of Tolstoy is the challenge of making sense of a man who was truly larger than life”, who was “as much a part of Russia… as the Kremlin itself”, and of whom Chekhov himself wrote, in 1900: “I fear the death of Tolstoy… In the first place, there is no other person whom I love as I love him. Secondly, when literature possesses a Tolstoy, it is easy and pleasant to be a writer… What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature… Were it not for him the world of literature would be a flock of sheep without a shepherd, a stew in which it would be hard for us to find our way.”

That Tolstoy was complicit in the creation of this myth is clear from Bartlett’s account: he was, in spite of the peasant garb and egalitarian Christian ideals of his later years, an entitled aristocrat to the core, whose remarkable achievements were possible only with the help of many minions, and who thought nothing of the sacrifices he demanded of others – including, primarily, his long-suffering wife Sonya and his daughters Masha and Alexandra (his sons appear to have been more rebellious on this score).

He experienced enormous, but often short-lived, passions. In youth, these included peasant women and disastrous gambling: his gaming habit was so severe that in 1854 he was forced to sell off the main house of his beloved birthplace and family estate, Yasnaya Polnaya, to pay his debts. It was dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere, leaving behind two wings with a gaping hole between them.

In midlife, reformed, the highly successful author turned his attention to the education of his former serfs and thence to the drive for popular literacy. He produced a highly influential primer and wrote extensively about his educational ideas. He also undertook, for several lively years, the settlement of a new estate in Samara, dragging his wife and children great distances to a dusty and eventually famine-stricken plain.

In maturity, he donned his cotton smock and launched the spiritual revolution – Tolstoyanism – that would inspire Mahatma Gandhi and, some say, the Bolsheviks, and would prompt his excommunication from the Orthodox Church in 1901.

His vociferous pacifism, his urgent support for sectarian freedoms and his tireless efforts to bring food to the starving masses during various famines – each of these endeavours was of itself as time-consuming, and arguably as significant, as his literary production.

In this sense, Bartlett rightly assesses her challenge: in an age of bloated biographies, the continence of her volume, at less than 500 pages, is impressive; but given the particular variety and the eventfulness of Tolstoy’s long life, it is only just enough.

The immense importance of Tolstoy’s spiritual influence both inside and outside Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been largely overlooked since his death, not least because it served the Soviet Union to claim only the literary half of his heritage. Bartlett sets out to rectify this oversight.

Tolstoy, following a prolonged existential crisis that culminated initially in religious conversion in 1877, spent the second half of his life in the fervent articulation of his personal faith against the Orthodox church. He renounced almost all of his pleasures, including hunting, meat, alcohol and tobacco; and struggled mightily, and for a long time unsuccessfully, to overcome his lust. From the 1880s onwards, in his capacity as spiritual father, Tolstoy welcomed many devoted visitors to Yasnaya Polnaya and entrusted to numerous disciples, chief among them his close confidant Vladimir Chertkov, the dissemination of his religious message abroad.

While he did not entirely abandon fiction, he viewed the art with suspicion and approached it with didactic intent: “The Death of Ivan Ilych” famously marks the beginning of this late literary period. His literary output thereafter was comparatively sparse, although it includes such masterpieces as “The Kreutzer Sonata” and “Resurrection”. After Anna Karenina, his primary focus was on his spiritual and religious tracts, and on the practical undertakings that ensued from his beliefs.

Bartlett charts with considerable sympathy the plight of Tolstoy’s wife Sonya, who spent most of her youth and middle age either pregnant, nursing, or both; she had 13 children, of whom eight lived into adulthood. She also endured the Spartan facilities and rural isolation of Yasnaya Polnaya for many years only to find herself, towards the end, supplanted as her husband’s assistant (she had long been his copyist) by the devoted – and hostile – Chertkov. And she struggled to protect the family finances against Tolstoy’s Christian urge to divest himself of all property, including his literary royalties.

Bartlett’s brief but telling quotations from Sonya’s letters to her sister Tanya reveal, over the years, considerable contained desperation. The story of Tolstoy’s banal death in the stationmaster’s house at the Astapovo railway station while in petulant flight from his wife of almost 50 years, attended by his personal physician and by Chertkov, is as pathetic as his life was noble. Sonya was not permitted to visit him on his deathbed until he was no longer conscious.

That Tolstoy was petty and foolish should not surprise us; and yet inevitably, with each retelling, it does not fail to. Bartlett’s final chapter charts Tolstoy’s legacies, both literary and spiritual, through the 20th century, and the struggles of the keepers of his flame.

In her revelations about the immense difficulties of producing the definitive Collected Works (a task that, under Soviet Communism, proved almost impossible) and in her elucidation of the suppression of Tolstoy’s spiritual influence, Bartlett reminds us not only that the great man is not so very long dead, but also that his myth is being made and remade even now.

* Tolstoy: a Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett is published by Profile at £25

Buy now for £23 from Telegraph Books

Claire Messud is the author of The Emperor’s Children (Picador)

venerdì 19 novembre 2010

The Secrets of Leo Tolstoy



Leo Tolstoy died 100 years ago, on Nov. 20, 1910, and his name has become synonymous around the world with the greatness of Russian literature. But in Russia, Tolstoy’s philosophy — “Tolstovstvo” — with its calls for nonviolence and its free interpretations of the Gospels, still provokes fierce debate. In 1901, the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated the writer; on the eve of this 100th anniversary of his death, the church declined appeals to reconsider.

Actually, it’s unlikely that Tolstoy would have been too upset by this: The force of his talent gave him a unique opportunity to go his own way and to celebrate life in all its manifestations.

I get a physiological pleasure from reading Tolstoy, and the more I read him, the greater the pleasure. His words generate smells, sounds, vibrations of feelings and moods. They are broader than any philosophical doctrine, and more significant even than the author himself, whom his words mercilessly exploit. In all literature, perhaps, there never was so “idea-less” a writer who released into the world writing that fills us with admiration of its power, and fear of its candor.

Tolstoy’s words seem to break away from the writer to reveal the meaning of existence — sometimes surprising the writer himself in the process. Marcel Proust considered Tolstoy to be the almighty lord of his works, controlling all their actions and thoughts. If so it is a generous lord, who is great because he gives freedom to his heroes, and they, on entering our memory, become more alive than the living. Natasha’s first ball, the horse race in “Anna Karenina,” the illness and death of Ivan Ilyich — all these fill the reader with both elemental delight, and also with the horror of confronting the very sources of existence. Sometimes it seems that Tolstoy was born to overturn the rules of literature and to laugh at its pretensions to be a textbook of life.

Tolstoy did not like to discuss “literature,” and did not much like writers like Dante and Shakespeare. He did not regard himself as a professional writer. He was more a serial killer of literary canons. His mind and body raged with such unchecked passions that it was not possible to make ends meet.

He was a monster in his personal behavior; he hated “progress” and the “age of progress”; he hailed freedom for women in a world of stern social convention; he loved the simple peasant, though by blood and habit he was the complete lord. Lenin was unusually accurate when he called Tolstoy a “mirror of the Russian revolution.”

I love to read about Tolstoy’s relationships with his famous contemporaries, so full of misunderstandings and treachery. He hated Turgenev for his “democratic thighs” and love of chatter. He longed to challenge him to a duel with hunting rifles at six paces. He described the horrors of war in his Sevastopol stories, yet his own character was equally belligerent, terrorizing his wife, Sofia Andreevna. His demonstrative vegetarianism and peasant labors became the brunt of jokes (“A muzhik comes before the count and announces, ‘The plow is served”’).

André Gide in an essay on Dostoevsky wrote that Tolstoy obscured the greatness of Dostoevsky. But with time, the prevalent view among intellectuals came to be that Dostoevsky’s mountain was higher than Tolstoy’s. Yes, Dostoevsky has clear goals and defined action. The curtain opens and we watch how a godless existence leads inexorably to sin and evil. Crime becomes punishment. By contrast, when Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina throws herself under a train, what is it? Her punishment? High tragedy? The fate of fallen women? A delirious stream of consciousness? There is no answer. For that, in Tolstoy’s logic, you go to the police, not to the writer. In Dostoevsky, life is subservient to thought. In Tolstoy, thought is in a constant spin, like the grenade that will explode and take the life of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.

Tolstoy’s novels arise out of the small details of his daily diary; they grow out of social gossip, childhood impressions, family legends. He waters this garden, and there grows a tree with heavenly fruit — delicious, fragrant, juicy, unique.

The most unreal literature in history — socialist realism — tried to coopt Tolstoy. It hoped to imitate his style to overturn the world. Yet by definition Tolstoy can not be imitated: To write like Tolstoy one would have to be an unpalatable, individualistic count.

At the end of his life Tolstoy himself came to criticize the excessive praise for “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” — it was the same, he said, as praising a great physicist for dancing the mazurka well. How is that for a brilliant misunderstanding of himself and his creative nature? Eventually, Tolstoy the preacher came into conflict with his own talent. His theory of nonviolent resistance inspired Gandhi and revealed the oriental roots of Russian thought.

The Leo Tolstoy I love, however, is the skeptic, the hedonist, the constant mover. I love the prickly face, the unkemp beard and the childlike search for a magical “green stick” in the forest that held the key to universal happiness. His final secret flight from his home at Yasnaya Polyana appears as the height of madness. It creates the impression that the time had come for the writer to throw himself under the train.

Recently I visited Yasnaya Polyana, about 100 kilometers south of Moscow, and I wandered though his house-museum among the furniture and objects of an aristocratic nest. Suddenly I understood where “War and Peace” came from — it was the long, fuss-free day of the country estate, the samovar tea ceremony, the walks through the clean air.

Two provincial policemen were stationed at the gate to the estate. Had they read Tolstoy? I asked. We did him in school, they replied.

Without Tolstoy, life would be paler and poorer. His phrases, gnarled like the roots of a tree, his observations, as accurate as a marksman’s, belong not only to us, but also to future generations.

Victor Erofeyev is a Russian writer and television host. Translated from the Russian by the International Herald Tribune.

mercoledì 17 novembre 2010

Battle to save George Eliot's unspoilt vista


Victorian novelist's home, which inspired 'Mill on the Floss', is at risk from development

By Rob Sharp, Arts Correspondent

The wide horizons, leafy views and idyllic isolation of George Eliot's former Wandsworth home were the backdrop to the 19th-century author's great semi-autobiographical work The Mill on the Floss. But that might not be enough to save the building's pristine views from the development pressures of the modern world.

Despite the work of increasingly vocal local campaigners, the views from Eliot's former abode are threatened by a south London developer's plans to build a five-storey block of flats opposite Grade II-listed Holly Lodge, where Eliot lived. The proposals, for 22 dwellings, would destroy previously unspoilt views across a section of south London known for its uninterrupted vistas.

A Wandsworth Council spokesperson confirmed there was permission in place to build on the site of a garage opposite Holly Lodge, saying: "It remains to be seen whether or not this permission will be implemented before it expires."

Eliot wrote The Mill on the Floss at Holly Lodge in 1859. She lived there with her common-law husband, George Henry Lewes, to whom she dedicated the book. From its first page, the classic work describes the "wide plains," along with "green banks" and a "loving tide". The story is about Tom and Maggie Tulliver, a brother and sister growing up near the river Floss near the fictional village of St Ogg's in the early 19th century.

According to the house's custodian and owner, Sarah Roberts, the author would have had undisturbed views that couldn't help but influence the author's writing style during her time living there. "It's no coincidence that she chose to live here and found the inspiration that she did," she said.

Holly Lodge was the first building in south London to receive an English Heritage blue plaque, honouring Eliot, and the first to be dedicated to a woman.

The novelist, whose real name was Mary Anne Evans, once entertained Charles Dickens at Holly Lodge, and wrote of her love of the house in published correspondence.

The listed property sits in the West Hill conservation area of Wandsworth, home to a slew of period properties. None of the homes is taller than three storeys high, with builders obliged to pay attention to the "character" of the area. Views can be enjoyed from every stair and room in Eliot's former home, including the conservatory.

"Our home is very comfortable, with far more of vulgar indulgences in it than I ever expected to have again," writes Eliot of the Lodge in a letter in 1859. "But you must not imagine it a snug place, just peeping above the holly bushes. Imagine it rather as a tall cake, with a low garnish of holly and laurel. As it is, we are very well off, with glorious breezy walks, and wide horizons, well-ventilated rooms, and abundant water."

A number of high-profile houses with links to authors are currently under threat. In July, the authors Julian Barnes, Ian Rankin and Stephen Fry backed a campaign to overturn planning permission to carve up for new development the former home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Hindhead, Surrey. Earlier this month Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis added their weight to a campaign to save the DH Lawrence heritage centre at Durban House, Eastwood.

"There is still, amazingly, an incredible uninterrupted horizon view, east to west from Clapham's ridge to Wimbledon Hill and north to south from West Hill and Wimbledon Hill to Crystal Palace and the North Downs," added Sarah Roberts. "No high rise buildings break the skyline other than Crystal Palace radio tower.

"This is Eliot's view and we want to keep it that way."

A local petition has now amassed more than 120 signatures on behalf of 430 residents in the last week that complain against the development plans. The campaign has also written to seek the support ofthe Prince of Wales, who declined to added his support.

The developer, Michael Austin, was unavailable for comment.

An application for an extension to the original scheme was rejected by Wandsworth Council in September on the grounds that it did not provide sufficient levels of affordable housing.

martedì 16 novembre 2010

"Gosto de escrever, não de publicar", diz Ricardo Piglia

Uma das atrações da Fliporto, em Pernambuco, autor argentino quebra jejum de 13 anos e lança romance

"Blanco Nocturno" será traduzido no Brasil em 2011; autor afirma que protagonista "teve mais mulheres" do que ele


O simpático senhor que conversou com a Folha em nada aparenta ser o autor de romances violentos e soturnos, como "Respiração Artificial" (1980).
Bem-humorado, Ricardo Piglia, 68, foi um dos destaques desta edição da Fliporto (Festa Literária Internacional de Pernambuco), que terminou ontem em Olinda.
Após 13 anos sem publicar romances, ele lançou neste ano "Blanco Nocturno", história policial com o personagem Emilio Renzi, espécie de alter ego de Piglia. O livro será lançado pela Companhia das Letras em 2011. Leia trechos da entrevista.

Folha - Por que ficou tanto tempo sem lançar romance?
Ricardo Piglia - Tenho um método de escrita que não recomendo a ninguém. Primeiro faço uma primeira versão e retorno ao manuscrito apenas anos depois. Então escrevo novas versões. Em todo caso, também não creio que deva publicar muito.

Há um excesso de livros hoje?
Penso que sim. Escrever é um acontecimento, um desafio. Hoje há uma circulação excessiva, que não depende tanto da inspiração ou da relação com a linguagem, e sim do mercado. Escrever é, para mim, mais prazeroso do que publicar. Talvez eu seja um escritor um pouco arcaico.

O que o atrai tanto no gênero policial?
Interessa-me porque permite trabalhar questões sociais e políticas sem cair na simplificação. É a possibilidade de fazer um relato que engloba tudo, por isso é um gênero muito poderoso.

O sr. já escreveu que "o crítico é o investigador, e o escritor é o criminoso". Quem seria, então, a vítima?
É o leitor [risos]... Não, não, estou brincando. Porém há sempre vítimas. Uma escrita é sempre contra algo. "Blanco Nocturno" fala dos campos argentinos, dos pampas. Há muitos livros sobre isso. Então "Blanco..." converte em vítima a tradição de narrar esse mundo.

O personagem Emilio Renzi tem muitas semelhanças com o senhor?
Ele tem elementos de minha vida, inclusive fisicamente. Ele vive coisas que eu teria gostado de viver. Sempre está metido com um mundo perigoso, com bandidos. Também teve mais mulheres do que eu [risos].

O que achou do Nobel dado a Mario Vargas Llosa?
Vargas Llosa mereceu o prêmio, mas a obra dele que me interessa só vai até "Conversa na Catedral" (1969). Depois não há mais nada de novo. Politicamente também temos algumas divergências.

sabato 13 novembre 2010

Letters from the man who wrote The Leopard

Giuseppe di Lampedusa's masterpiece The Leopard was rejected twice and published only after the author's death. What did he do with his life? Julian Barnes finds clues in the reticent Sicilian's letters from abroad

Most writers have a slightly paranoid sense of not having had their due; it's often part of what keeps them going. Most sensible writers, however, keep to hand examples of others who have had it far worse. Consider, for example, this abbreviated life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Born 1896. Publishes three scholarly articles in 1926-7, then falls silent. In 1954, begins to write The Leopard. May 1956, sends first version to the publishers Mondadori. December 1956, Mondadori turns it down. Winter of 1956-7, completes second version of the novel. February 1957, submits it to Einaudi. April 1957, diagnosed with lung cancer. 2 July, Einaudi rejects novel. 23 July, Lampedusa dies. November 1958, The Leopard is published by Feltrinelli, and world fame immediately ensues – for the novel, but too late for the novelist.

A puritanical response might be to ask: what on earth was he doing with his life anyway, and why didn't he get down to writing earlier? David Gilmour, in his well-judged biography The Last Leopard (1988), explained some of the reasons. Lampedusa was afflicted with several handicaps (not so much to being a writer, but to being thrustful enough to dream of, and then achieve, publication): extreme shyness; enough money never to need take a job; plus a sense that, as a Sicilian aristocrat, he came from an exhausted, irrelevant culture.

There were other factors too, including a major nervous breakdown in his 20s, and a domineering mother, Beatrice Palma. When Giuseppe made a late marriage to the equally formidable Latvian psychoanalyst Alessandra "Licy" Wolff, Beatrice made her son choose between the two of them. Giuseppe weakly opted for his mother and settled into a lengthy marriage-by-correspondence (in French) with Licy.

As for what he was doing with his life, there are two answers. The non-literary one would be: not very much. In his mature years, on a typical day, he might first visit the bookshop and cakeshop, then sit reading in a cafe for hours, return home for tea and buns, and perhaps go out to the film club in the evening. The literary answer would be: waiting. The nature and texture of that wait – and the extent to which it was necessary for Lampedusa to write The Leopard – thus become of interest. Except that a biography of waiting is the hardest sort to write.

In Gilmour's book the subject's extreme reticence and perfect manners make him not so much a still centre as a black hole, around which more interesting lives swirl. Even the doings of Lampedusa's dogs seem more vivid than those of their master. Giuseppe and Licy had a large number of dogs, some as well-bred as themselves, others rescued mongrels, and spoke to each of them in a different language. The most cherished was called Crab (named after Launce's dog in The Two Gentlemen of Verona), who was addressed in Italian. Giuseppe spent the second world war in Sicily with his mother (Licy was in Riga and Rome), and Crab's diet was its master's constant preoccupation. Crab's birthday would be celebrated with a special dinner – for the dog, that is, not the master. One such consisted of: "Pate, peas and meat, followed by bread and honey; afterwards he would spend an hour in the garden with permission to bark at as many cats as he liked."

As the naming of Crab suggests, Lampedusa was a deeply literary Anglophile. He thought of Britain as his "ideal country". He told his wife that he had an English temperament. In his late 50s he gave private lessons in English literature to a small group of students: his notes were posthumously turned into a 1,000-page book, English Literature, published – perhaps with a touch of retrospective shame – by Mondadori in 1990-91.

Letters from London and Europe usefully illuminates his Anglophilia, shows him at epistolary play, and gets a little behind his perpetual guardedness. His uncle was the Italian ambassador in London from 1922-27, and Lampedusa made five trips to England between 1925-31 (with perhaps another in 1934); his northern journeys sometimes included other cities, such as Paris, Berlin and Zurich. His letters were mainly addressed to his cousins Casimiro and Lucio Piccolo – fellow-members of the Bellini Club, a Palermitan society for aristos only – who had nicknamed him "The Monster". He writes to them in the third person, describing the actions and reflections of "the wandering Monster", "the super-fed Monster", "the Monster made of delicate clay", "the Monster with a monogram on his rear", as he variously signs himself. (This sounds a little arch, and sometimes is; but more importantly, it seems to have been a distancing mode which helped relax the writer.) This additional, non-aristocratic title was awarded – it is a slight disappointment to discover – not for any scandalous or morbid behaviour, but for his "monstrous" habit of always having his nose in a book.

Even for an Anglophile, London came as a shock to the visitor from Sicily. Lucio Piccolo was so appalled by the city that he immediately took the first train home. Lampedusa found the place "dizzying, terrifying and fascinating"; it was "a most delightful inferno". Given that his entry-level was ambassadorial and aristocratic, he was protected from the grubbier realities of English life (he also preferred to visit cathedral towns rather than industrial cities). Though he could read English fluently, and says in one letter that he expressed himself in a "flowery and vaguely Elizabethan" English, other testimony suggests that he was too shy even to speak the language.

One advantage was that his working title happened to be "Duke of Palma": so he received many invitations addressed to "the Duke of Parma" – "perhaps in the belief", as Gilmour puts it, "that he was the heir of the former independent duchy rather than an impoverished nobleman whose title came from an obscure town in Sicily". The Sicilian connection did, however, get him to Powis Castle as a guest of Lord Powys's daughter Hermione, who was married to a Sicilian nobleman. Later, Hermione della Grazie said of her visitor that he was "a most 'shut-in' personality. One 'met' him but did not 'know' him."

Yet Lampedusa, for all his self-enclosure, was a writer-in-waiting: he saw more than he was seen. Sometimes his vision was filled with a distorted enlargement, or correction, of himself: the Anglophile meets the real English, the member of the Bellini steps into London's Clubland, the scion of a provincial aristocracy mixes with examples of the real thing. But the shy Sicilian was too intelligent, and too ironical, ever to kneel. "It is always a pleasure dealing with the English," he writes, "they are courteous and prompt, and their apparent stupidity is merely an immense and uncontrollable shyness."

Once he has overcome the dizzying terror of the metropolis, its great appeal is that it evinces "order without coercion". He loves London tailoring and London policemen. He delights in his English fountain-pen – or rather, his "lapis-lazuli Parker Duofold Senior Pen". He admires "the amazing serenity of the countryside". He reveres English cathedrals, which make him wish the Normans had stayed in Sicily five centuries longer than they did. He gazes wistfully at female typists on the train – "graceful creatures" he imagines taking to the movies. He likes the cinema, both the buildings and the latest films starring Monte Blue or Norma Shearer. Untypically for a foreign visitor, he even approves of English food: toast comes as a great and pleasant surprise; he looks forward, at the end of a meal, to "sinking a greedy spoon into the supplies of the lordly cheeses of Chester, rosy as onyx, or Stilton, green as aquamarine, or Cheddar, transparent and amber-coloured".

All this is playful, and funny, and mostly flattering to the British reader. But there are moments when the playfulness encloses more sober observation, when the seemingly irrelevant aristocrat from "the Iceland of the South", as he calls it, reveals his proper understanding of how the world works. Staying at the "Hotel Great Central, London NW1" in 1928, he finds that a fellow-guest is an African king from the Gold Coast, Nana Sir Ofori Atta. Lampedusa smiles and bows to him in the hotel corridor, and makes some period mock of him, but also notes that:

"He is one of the many princelings whom 'ruling Britannia' keeps chained to her steel trident and whom every now and then she is pleased to reward by inviting them to London so that they may admire the buses, the chorus girls, the artificial hares and other delightful British specialities, also not to forget the number and efficiency of the tanks, cruisers and bombers."

In 1930, he is in Berlin, and much enchanted by the city's "indecency". Scrutinising the "innumerable trollops" and rent-boys that crowd its bars and cafes, he notes how "overly elegant and overly shaven lads . . . sit and sigh at the corner tables until an old fat man, flushed and pop-eyed, decides to write something (what, ye Gods?) on the back of the bill and send a waiter with it to one of them. After that they sit at the same table and ten minutes later they go out together."

The moment passes; Lampedusa broadens his remarks to the German people in general, and "the zeal with which they pursue every activity to the extreme, and the desire for the absolute which always animates them." Here, he concludes, there is "an incredible ferment of life: within ten years they will, I think, send every nation a note, by means of the waiter . . ."

Throughout these letters, the sensibility of a monstrous reader is constantly present: thus a paragraph comparing the policemen of Zurich and London will naturally allude to Dante, while a description of a ball at the French Embassy in London brings in Paul Valéry, Herrick, Madame de Staël, Shelley, Yeats, Rossetti and Meredith. As this implies, the writer-in-waiting is never far away either. Replying to the Piccolos from Berlin, he takes up a point that one of them (presumably Lucio, the poet) has made about William Beckford's Gothic novel Vathek. "We must not forget," Lampedusa writes, "that Beckford is, basically, an 18th-century writer, and that therefore he regards [everything] with overarching irony." A comment which immediately launches us forward a quarter of a century to The Leopard, and to the overarching irony of Tancredi's famous line about the continuance of Sicilian aristocratic life: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

This enterprising publication is supported by Arts Council England. Jeremy Hunt might take a look at it; while Nick Clegg, who chose The Leopard as his book on Desert Island Discs, should definitely buy several copies.

venerdì 12 novembre 2010

The Philosopher of Auschwitz

A book to buy...


The Philosopher of Auschwitz, By Irène Heidelberger-Leonard, trans. Anthea Bell

Reviewed by Rebecca K Morrison

Jean Améry had always wanted to be someone extraordinary. Yet when he became just that, lauded by post-war writers, from Heinrich Böll to Alain Robbe-Grillet, Ernst Bloch to Günter Grass, Alfred Andersch to Ingeborg Bachmann, he still felt he had not achieved enough. He was the darling of the German media. Prizes and honours were raining down: from Switzerland, which had provided him with a living, working relentlessly hard, as a journalist and critic after his survival of the concentration camps; from Germany, the land not only of thinkers and high culture, but also of perpetrators, where he had not set foot during the intervening years; and even from Austria, from which he had been hunted "like a hare" in 1938, but where he returned to take his own life in 1978.

This self-doubt, this desire to be someone other, or someone different in addition –a celebrated man of belles-lettres as well as the fêted essayist – was the flip-side to a writer who took his place beside Primo Levi and Theodor Adorno, while at eloquent odds with both, as chronicler and unique analyst of the experiences of the Holocaust. His searing honesty and clarity brought a further essential level to the discussions taking place in the Germany of the 1960s, prompted by the Eichmann trial and Hannah Arendt's The Banality of Evil, the debate of the Statutes of Limitations, and the Auschwitz trial which started in December 1963 in Frankfurt.

Améry's 1964 essay collection, published in English as At the Mind's Limits, tackles in a subjective, yet highly analytical way, the "situation of the intellectual in the concentration camp". It examines how the mind, or intellect, deals (it cannot) with the overwhelming realities of torture and the camps of the Holocaust. These landmark essays made an enormous impact. Not enormous enough, however, for Améry to feel he had wholly "arrived".

Irène Heidelberger-Leonard's meticulously researched biography, in Anthea Bell's elegant translation, is empathetic, but true to the ambivalences of her fascinating and troubled subject. A rich and intellectually satisfying portrait both of the man and his times emerges, from his loyalty to the tenets of the Enlightenment, his forays into 1930s Viennese neo-positivism, and his belief in the power of education (one of his greatest regrets was not to have been taken up fully by students, nor by the New Left).

When his Jewish-ness could no longer be lived on the periphery with the Nuremberg Laws, his intellectual journey continued in Belgium. There he joined the resistance. After the camps, it was in exile in Brussels that he became "Jean Améry", an anagram of his birth name, Hans Mayer. Sartre, Thomas Mann, and Proust remained constant companions in a life inextricably shaped by thought. As does the presence of the option of death, even before the Auschwitz experience, as his second wife Maria writes in an imaginary letter to him: "Auschwitz number 172363 – for that number sealed your fate... But there was so much else; it was all in you from an early date. It was no coincidence that as a very young man you loved only the poetry of those poets who wrote of decline, melancholy and death."

Améry's legacy is a body of work that still makes essential reading today, be it his essay on "Torture", or his characteristically provocative On Ageing and On Suicide. This prize-winning biography provides the perfect platform to re-enter arguably one of the finest minds of the last century.

giovedì 11 novembre 2010

Misreading Gulliver's Travels

Is Jonathan Swift’s famous satire a defence of humanity rather than a condemnation of it?There is a verbal problem which can be confusing for readers of Gulliver’s Travels. They have ceaselessly been told, almost from the day on which Swift’s novel first appeared, that it was consummately misanthropic; and this was quite true, upon the basis of a certain definition of misanthropy. Moreover, no one has explained this particular definition more clearly than Swift himself. In November 1725, on the eve of the publication of the Travels, he wrote, in a famous letter to Alexander Pope,

"When you think of the world give it one lash the more at my request. I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is towards individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one . . . . But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell."

There is no reason to disbelieve what Swift says here; though if we feel we need proof, we can find it in his biography; for he plainly had very tender feelings for his Stella and Vanessa, and he spoke poignantly of “the terrible wounds near my heart” that the deaths of the Johns Gay and Arbuthnot had been to him. In the same letter he says he defines Man, not according to the classic formula as an animal rationale (a rational animal), but as an animal capax rationis (an animal capable of rationality). This, he says, though he has not proclaimed it, is the theory of misanthropy on which his whole book has been built. It is not, like that of Timon of Athens, just the fruit of personal rage and chagrin; and he will “never have peace of mind till all honest are of my opinion”. It is, one must agree, by no means a fanatical doctrine, indeed quite a moderate-minded one – only, in the cause of self-protective irony, to be called “misanthropy” at all.

Yet what readers tend also to be told is that the moral system of Houyhnhnms, according to which no value is to be attached to personal affections, and death, whether that of others or one’s own, should not be the occasion of any emotion, represents Swift’s notion of an ideal civilization. Gulliver’s account is perfectly explicit.

"They [the Houyhnhnms] have no Fondness for their Colts or Foles; but the Care they take in educating them proceedeth entirely from the Dictates of Reason. And I observed my Master [a dapple-grey horse] to shew the same Affection to his Neighbour’s issue that he had for his own. They will have it that Nature teaches them to love whole Species, and it is Reason only that maketh a Distinction of Persons, where there is a superior Degree of Virtue . . . . If they can avoid Casualties, they die only of old Age, and are buried in the obscurest Place that can be found, their Friends and Relations expressing neither Joy nor Grief at their Departure, nor does the dying Person discover the least Regret that he is leaving the World."

That Swift means us to regard the Houyhnhnms as an ideal contrast to the wayward or sinful behavious of ordinary humanity is plainly false – indeed, frankly, rather absurd. The sooner a reader has cleared his (or her) mind of this idea the better; for it obscures the function that Swift has, in fact, and most ingeniously, assigned to the Houyhnhnms in his scheme. What he presents us with in his Houyhnhnms is an only slightly exaggerated version of the outlook of an early eighteenth-century Deist or devotee of Nature and Reason; and the point that his narrative is making, with steadily increasing force, is that, for a fallible and unwary mortal like Gulliver (or ourselves) an encounter with such rationalizing and Pharisaic doctrines could have a quite lethal effect on our character.

There is no good reason to think that the appalling Yahoos are Swift’s own nightmare vision of the human race: that they are the figment of an author far gone in sick misanthropy. The human race, or “human nature”, as personified in Gulliver, is to be contemplated far more calmly, as up to this point in the novel it has been. The thought that Gulliver may be a Yahoo does not, at first, enter either his or the Houyhnhnms’ mind, for the good reason that he wears clothes. But, his body having been seen in its naked state and found to be indistinguishable from a Yahoo’s, the idea begins, though for different reasons, to take hold of the minds of both of them. It is a pleasant temptation for Gulliver’s “master”, the grey horse, to boast of his “wonderful” Yahoo, who really seems to have a spark (of course only a very tiny one) of rationality; and Gulliver, knowing that his master has decided that he is a Yahoo, and being abashed by the grave and dignified manner of the Houyhnhnms, does not have the strength of mind to reject the idea as absurd.

It is over this question of Gulliver and Yahoodom that David Nokes in his biography of Swift (Jonathan Swift: A hypocrite reversed, 1985) seems to get things wrong – and by no means Nokes only. Nokes points out that Gulliver “never once uses the words ‘man’ or ‘human’” and says, rightly, that from now on Gulliver no longer recognizes himself “as part of the same species as the rest of humanity”. In other words he submits to his master’s judgement that he is a Yahoo, that he is an animal, not a man; and of course to believe he belongs with the monkey-like Yahoos is fearfully disturbing to him. (It is a kind of rehearsal of the Darwinian controversy in the next century.) But after all, forgetting later zoological prejudices, it was open to him, had he had the courage, to have firmly denied that he was a Yahoo, to have asserted that he was a man, a possessor of humanitas. Perhaps, in his shoes, we would have been equally weak. But his decision leaves him in a desperate situation. Loyalty to his fellow Yahoos is, for him, out of the question, so he will have to rest all his hopes on the remote and awe-inspiring Houyhnhnms.

This of course raises the question of what we, the readers, are to think of the Houyhnhnms. They increasingly make literary critics uncomfortable, yet the theory still persists that they represent the criterion, at least in a watered-down form, by which Gulliver is to be judged. David Nokes writes that “There is no doubt that Swift shared many of the attitudes and values that he attributed to the Houyhnhnms”. Douglas Jefferson, in an essay in the Pelican Guide to English Literature, wonders just how seriously we are meant to take the Houyhnhnms, asking if there might not be “a slight humorous awareness in the suavity with which he [Swift] dwells on the their solemn simplicity and innocence”, but his questioning reaches no farther. F. R. Leavis, elsewhere so good on Swift’s irony, declares flatly in The Common Pursuit (1952) that “The Houyhnhnms, of course, stand for Reason, Truth and Nature, and it was in deadly earnest that Swift appealed to these”.

Yet, in fact, the Houyhnhnms strike one as a distinctly sinister crew. This is not simply because of their frightening prescriptiveness and speaking-with-one-voice; for we learn that they have seriously considered getting rid of the Yahoos altogether, either by simple extermination, or, more gently, by castrating all Yahoo males, so that the race will die out in a generation. It is no doubt with their encouragement that Gulliver mends his boots with dried Yahoo skin, and that the sails of the boat in which he finally leaves the land of the Houyhnhnms are made of the same material (young Yahoo skin being found the most suitable).

At all events a curious incident reveals the way Gulliver’s mind is tending. He ventures among a herd of Yahoos, safe in the company of a Houyhnhnm protector, and he strips off his sleeves so that the hated Yahoos can see his bare arms and breast – evidently to score off them and show them he is on conversible terms with one of their superiors. His plans become clear. He means, by toadying and sycophancy, to get as far as he possibly can into favour with the Houyhnhnms. It is not a pleasant sight, and one grows nauseated by his Uriah Heep-like affectations of humility. When his master is entertaining, he receives permission to be in the room and listen to the conversation, and sometimes the guests (so he tells us) will “descend” to ask him questions, though of course he never otherwise presumes to speak – being “infinitely delighted with the Station of a humble Auditor”. On occasion their talk turns on himself, and he listens while they are “pleased to discant in a Manner not very advantageous to human Kind”. Originally, he admits, he had not felt that “natural Awe” which the Yahoos and all other animals feel for the Houyhnhnms, but it grew upon him by degrees, mingled with a “respectful Love and Gratitude, that they would condescend to distinguish me from the rest of my Species”. He falls into the habit of imitating the Houyhnhnms’ gestures and their way of talking and walking, not feeling “the least Mortification” at being laughed at for it.

Thus it is an overwhelming shock to him and to all his hopes when his master tells him that they have to part. The Houyhnhnms, he explains, have formed the impression that there is something almost resembling friendship between him and the Yahoo, Gulliver, which is an indecency “never heard of before among them”; and this, they have said, has to stop. Gulliver must either revert to the status of a lowly servant or swim back to the country that he came from. For Gulliver this is a quite insupportable blow. He faints upon hearing it, and it drives him out of his mind. He is from now on mad, from sheer wounded and insane pride – pride being a vice which he condemns as intolerable in any Yahoo, not realizing that it is what he himself is eaten up with. He builds a canoe in which to flee the land of the Houyhnhnms and is rescued from a desert island by a Portuguese ship en route for Europe. The captain, a most humane man, loads him with kindnesses, but it is only with extreme repulsion that Gulliver can force himself to speak to this “Yahoo” at all. “At last” – these are Gulliver’s words – “I descended to treat him like an Animal which had some little Portion of Reason”. Plainly, anyone whose thoughts have taken such a megalomaniac turn is insane; and insane he remains. He has told himself that his wife and children are Yahoos, and he feels only horror and disgust on being reunited with them; he cannot endure their smell.

Yet this was once a very decent and ordinary, if fallible and perhaps not over-bright, specimen of (fallen) human nature. He has gone mad with misanthropy. The book is precisely a defence of the human, not an interdict on it, an impassioned warning against misanthropy, in a sense of that word utterly different from the one it suited Swift to apply to himself. Gulliver’s Travels is a book strangely much misread.

P. N. Furbank is Emeritus Professor of the Open University. His books include Diderot, 1992, A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe, 1998, with W. R. Owens, and Behalf, 1999, a reflection on the nature of social and political thought.

sabato 6 novembre 2010

The Irish short story


Ireland has produced some of the world's most celebrated short story writers – and continues to do so. Why are the Irish so good at the form, and why do they love it so much, asks Anne Enright
The short story is, for me, a natural form, as difficult and as easy to talk about as, say, walking. Do we need a theory about going for a walk? About one foot, in front of the other? Probably, yes. "I made the story just as I'd make a poem," writes Raymond Carver, "one line and then the next, and the next. Pretty soon I could see a story – and I knew it was my story, the one I had been wanting to write."

"Do you know if what you are writing is going to be a short story or a novel?" This is one of the questions writers get asked all the time. The answer is "Yes," because the writer also thinks in shapes. But it is foolish asking a writer how much they know, when they spend so much time trying not to know it.

This is what the American writer Flannery O'Connor did not know about her iconic story "Good Country People": "When I started writing that story, I didn't know there was going to be a PhD with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realised it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. I brought in the bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn't know he was going to steal that wooden leg until 10 or 12 lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realised it was inevitable."

She does not say when she knew she was writing a short story, as opposed to the first chapter of a novel – or a radio play, or the rough draft of an epic poem – at a guess, it was quite early on. The writer's ignorance may be deliberate, but it plays itself out in an established space. The sentence is one such space; the story is another. In both cases, form and surprise are the same thing, and the pleasures of inevitability are also the pleasures of shape.

This is not an argument for a lyrical as opposed to a social theory of the short story: characters are part of it too; the way people do unexpected things, even if you have invented them yourself. The short story delivers what O'Connor calls "the experience of meaning"; the surprise that comes when things make sense.

Much of what is said about the short story as a form is actually anxiety about the novel – so it is worth saying that we do not know how the novel delivers meaning, but we have some idea of how the short story might. There is something irreducible about it: "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way," says O'Connor, "and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is." The novel, on the other hand, is not finished by its own meaning, which is why it must grow a structure or impose one; making the move from story to plot.

Short stories seldom creak, the way novels sometimes creak; they are allowed to be easy and deft. Some writers say that the short story is too "easy" to matter much, some say it is the most difficult form of all. But if the argument is about ease as opposed to difficulty, then surely we should not under value ease. And though it may be easy to write something that looks like a short story (for being not long), it is very hard to write a good one – or to be blessed by a good one – so many of the ones we read are fakes.

The great Irish short story writer Frank O'Connor thought it a pure form, "motivated by its own necessities rather than by our convenience". I am not sure whether the novel is written for our convenience, but it is probably written for our satisfaction. That is what readers complain about with short stories, that they are not "satisfying". They are the cats of literary form; beautiful, but a little too self-contained for some readers' taste. Short stories are, however, satisfying to write, because they are such achieved things. They become themselves even as you write them: they end once they have attained their natural state.

Or some of them do. Others keep going. Others discard the first available meaning for a later, more interesting conclusion. In the interests of truth, some writers resist, backpedal, downplay, switch tacks, come back around a different way. Poe's famous unity of impulse is all very well, but if you know what the impulse is already, then it will surely die when you sit down at the desk.

There are stories in The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story that I have chosen because they are beautifully made, like Seán O'Faoláin's "The Trout", and there are some that are slightly untidy, but good anyway. This is what O'Faoláin himself called "personality", saying that what he liked in a short story was "punch and poetry". The tension is always between the beauty of the poem and the felt life of the novel form.

Frank O'Connor bridged the gap between the aesthetic and the cultural in a more romantic way. "There is in the short story at its most characteristic," he writes, "something we don't often find in the novel, an intense awareness of human loneliness." His book, The Lonely Voice, which was published in 1963, is still a touchstone in any discussion of the short story form. The question he asked – as this collection also asks – was why Irish writers excel at the short story. The answer, for him, lay in the loneliness to be found among "submerged population groups". These are people on the margins of society; the outlawed, the dreaming and the defeated. "The short story has never had a hero," says O'Connor, offering instead a slightly infantilising idea of "the Little Man" (as though all novels were about big ones). Americans can be "submerged", because America is made up of immigrant communities, but the proper subjects of the short story are: "Gogol's officials, Turgenev's serfs, Maupassant's prostitutes, Chekhov's doctors and teachers," and, we might note, not a single English person of any kind. The novel requires "the concept of a normal society", and though this, O'Connor seems to say, is available to the English, there is in Irish society a kind of hopelessness that pushes the artist away. The resulting form, the short story, "remains by its nature remote from the community – romantic, individualistic and intransigent".

In his useful essay on the subject, "Inside Out: A Working Theory of the Short Story", John Kenny says that the short story has flourished "in those cultures where older, usually oral forms, are met head on with the challenge of new literary forms equipped with the idealogy of modernisation". O'Connor's theories place the short story as the genre of the cusp between tradition and modernity. The story is born from the fragmentation of old certainties and the absence of any new ones, and this produces in the writer a lyric response, "a retreat into the self in the face of an increasingly complex . . . reality". The first thing to say about O'Connor's ideas is that they rang true at the time. Whether or not the short story is, in essence, an assertion of the self – small, but powerfully individual – to the writer it certainly felt that way.

It is interesting to test that sense of "the Little Man" against a new, more confident, Irish reality; one in which good writing continues to thrive. Is "submerged" just another word for "poor"? Is the word "peasant" hovering somewhere around? There is so much nostalgia about Ireland – especially rural Ireland – it is important to say that this is not the fault of its writers. They may be closer to the oral arts of folktale, fable, gossip and anecdote, but speech is also a modern occupation. Irish novels may often reach into the past, but the stories gathered here show that the form is light and quick enough to be contemporary.

If you want to see life as it is lived "now" (whenever the "now" of the story might be), just look at the work of Neil Jordan, Roddy Doyle or, indeed, Frank O'Connor. Meanwhile, whoever thinks the short story harmless for being closer to a "folk" tradition has not read John McGahern, whose stories are the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor.

Seán O'Faoláin, that other pillar of 20th-century Irish short story, was wary of the lyrical view. In his book The Short Story, published in 1948, he writes: "Irish literature in our time came to its great period of efflorescence in a romantic mood whose concept of a writer was almost like the concept of a priest: you did not just write, you lived writing; it was a vocation; it was part of the national resurgence to be a writer."

Indeed, the number of stories about priests and the sadness of priests that have not made it into this volume are legion – parish priests, curates, bishops, all lonely, all sad as they survey the folly of their congregations, and 99% of them celibate. I left most of them out for seeming untrue, and offered instead a couple of stories, by Maeve Brennan and Colm Tóibín, about the more interesting loneliness of the priest's mother.

In the same way that it might be said that much of what is written about the short story form is actually anxiety about the unknowability of the novel (which we think we know so well), perhaps much of what is written about Irish writing is, in fact, anxiety about England. Sometimes, indeed, the terms "England" and "the novel" seem almost interchangeable.

Perhaps it is all a yearning for what O'Connor called "the concept of a society". In its absence, we must do what we can. And if we can't be as good as them, we'll just have to be better, which is to say, more interesting. O'Faoláin says it pretty much straight out: what he likes in a short story is personality, and the problem with the English is that they don't have any. "The fact is that the English do not admire the artistic temperament: they certainly do not demonstrate it." Dullness is their national ambition and preoccupation. "In short, the English way of life is much more social and much less personal and individual than the French."

O'Faoláin can't quite fit America into this scheme: "Why America should produce interesting personalities in the short story I simply do not understand unless it be that American society is still unconventionalised." Even Frank O'Connor's "submerged" Americans surface with some rapidity. I don't want to dishonour O'Connor or O'Faoláin, who are heroes to me now as they were to me in my youth, and I am certainly not saying that the English are interesting, in any way – God forbid. I am just saying it is there, that's all: that national prejudice is still prejudice, even if you come from a plucky little country such as Ireland, where it's only endearing really, apart from when it's not.

What interests me is the way O'Connor and O'Faoláin talk, not about how wonderful the Irish are as artists, but how vile they are as critics. O'Faoláin describes the conditions for the Irish artist as "particularly difficult . . . complicated by religion, politics, peasant unsophistication, lack of stimulus, lack of variety, pervasive poverty, censorship, social compression and so on". An ambitious Irishman, O'Connor writes, "can still expect nothing but incomprehension, ridicule and injustice".

Of course, things are different in the 21st century, now that poverty has been banished (or was, for a whole decade) and the success of our writers is officially a matter of national pride. But it is perhaps still true that if Ireland loves you, then you must be doing something wrong. There is a lingering unease about how Irish writers negotiate ideas about "Ireland" (the country we talk about, as opposed to the place where we live), for readers both at home and abroad. We move, in decreasing circles, around the problem O'Faoláin voiced in 1948. "There was hardly an Irish writer who was not on the side of the movement for Irish political independence; immediately it was achieved they became critical of the nation. This is what makes all politicians say that writers are an unreliable tribe. They are. It is their metier."

I first read O'Connor when I was maybe 10, maybe 12 years of age. I chose his story "The Mad Lomasneys" for the way it stayed with me, quietly, ever since. If you wonder whether this is the selection of a 12-year-old, I admit she is certainly here too, that the reason the short story remains an important form for Irish writers of my generation is because the work of O'Connor and O'Faoláin and Mary Lavin were commonly found on Irish bookshelves, alongside, in my own house, "The Irish Republic" by the nationalist historian Dorothy Macardle, and Three to Get Married by the Rev Fulton J Sheen (the third in question, I was disappointed to discover, being God).

Our sensibilities were shaped by the fine choices of Professor Augustine Martin, who set the stories for the school curriculum, among them "The Road to the Shore", a story that revealed as much to me about aesthetic possibilities and satisfactions as it did about nuns. We were taught French by reading Maupassant and German through the stories of Siegfried Lenz, though if the short story is a national form it did not seem to flourish in the national language of Irish, where all the excitement – for me at least – was in poetry. The fact remains that I grew up with the idea that short stories were lovely and interesting and useful things, in the way the work of Macardle and Sheen was not.

This may all be very "submerged" of me, but that is to patronise my younger self. I still find the modesty of the form attractive and right. How important is it to be "important" as a writer? The desire to claim a larger authority can provoke work, or it can ruin it. In fact, writers claim different kinds of authority: these days a concentration on the short story form is taken as a sign of writerly purity rather than novelistic incompetence, though it still does not pay the bills. (This was not always the case. O'Faoláin lamented the popularity of the form which "is being vulgarised by commercialisation". Readers and editors," he writes, "must often feel discouraged.")

"The Mad Lomasneys" is a story by O'Connor that is not much anthologised. This may be, in part, because it does not present a recognisable idea of "Ireland". It does not deal with the birth of the Irish Free State, like "Guests of the Nation", or with childhood innocence like "My Oedipus Complex" or "My First Confession". I did not reject these stories for being too "Irish": so many of O'Connor's stories are good, I just wanted to see what happens when you give the bag a shake. I realised, when I did this, there are even more stories about choice and infidelity in the Irish tradition than there are about priests. I don't know what this means; why both O'Faoláin and William Trevor, for example, write endlessly about love and betrayal or, to take the problem further, why "either/or" is a question asked by the work of contemporary writers such as Keith Ridgway and Hugo Hamilton, who then answer "both".

Is choice a particularly Irish problem? What about shame – a streak of which runs through the work collected here? Humiliation, perhaps? Maybe we should call that "the problem of power". There is also the problem of the family, which is the fundamental (perhaps the only) unit of Irish culture, and one which functions beyond our choosing. Until very recently, you could only marry once in Ireland – though this does not answer the question of how many times you can love, or what love is. Catholicism may give Irish writers an edge when it comes to talking about the larger questions, but you could say the adulteries in Trevor owe as much to Shakespearean comedy as to the problem of the Catholic church. In fact, I think Trevor owes much to the English short story tradition (as does the work of Clare Boylan), but let us not confuse things here. Let us keep everyone in the one box, and then talk about the box, its meaning and dimensions, and then let us paint the box green.

So, perhaps we should move beyond the box to ask the question: are all short stories – Russian, French, American and Irish – in fact about loneliness? I am not sure. This may be part of writers' nonsense about themselves, or O'Connor's nonsense about being Irish, or it may be just be the general nonsense of being alive. Connection and the lack of it is one of the great themes of the short story, but social factors change, ideas of the romantic change, and the more you think about literary forms the smaller your ideas become. Life itself may be a lonely business (or not): the most I have ever managed to say about the short story is that it is about a change. Something has changed. Something is known at the end of a story – or nearly known – that was not known before. "We are on our own" may be one such insight, but others are surely possible.

I put the selection together as an Irish writer – which is to say, as one of O'Faoláin's "unreliable tribe". Some of the stories made me close the book with a slam. "Music at Annahullion" by Eugene McCabe, for example, defied me to read anything else that day, or that week, to match it. I found it difficult to finish Maeve Brennan's "An Attack of Hunger", because it came so close to the pain it described (is this a good way to whet the reader's appetite, I wonder.) The world in Claire Keegan's "Men and Women" stayed with me from the day I first encountered it. I looked for stories that had made me pause when I read them the first time around: stories such as Colum McCann's "Everything in this Country Must" that I finished in the knowledge that I could not, in any conceivable universe, have written such a thing myself.

Perhaps Irish writers, like Irish actors, rely more than is usual on personality in that balance of technique and the self that is the secret of style. The trick might be in its suppression, indeed, an effort that must fail, over time. John Banville, Edna O'Brien, McGahern, Tóibín – these writers become more distinctive as people, even as their sentences become more distinctively their own. It is a jealous kind of delight to find on the page some inimicable thing, a particular passion, and if the writer is dead, it is delightful and sad to meet a sensibility that will not pass this way again. The shock of recognition runs through this anthology. As much as possible I have tried to choose those stories in which a writer is most himself.

A writer has many selves, of course, and an editor has many and mixed criteria – some of them urgent, as I have described, and some more easy. The selection is from writers who were born in the 20th century (cheating a little for Elizabeth Bowen, who was born in 1899); I wanted to put together a book that was varied and good to read, with a strong eye to the contemporary.

If this selection has anything to say about Irish writing, then it does so by accident. I chose the stories because I liked them, and then stood back a little to see what my choice said – about me, perhaps, but also about how tastes change over time. There is a deal of what O'Faoláin called "personality" at play in the stories chosen here, but, at a guess, not much that he would recognise as "charm", or even (God save the mark) as "Irish charm". It is too easy to move from "personality" to a mannered version of the self, and this can seem a little hokum to us as the years pass. It is possible that, as truths emerged about Ireland, or refused to emerge, Irish prose writers became more blunt or more lyrical, or both at the same time.

Folktale and short story pulled apart over the years – a split made radical in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne's "Midwife to the Fairies" – only to rejoin in the recent work of Claire Keegan. Fashions are darker now. New work is sometimes tainted by misogyny, and this seems to me as lazy a reach as sentimentality was to the writers of the 50s and – who knows? – as likely to look a bit stupid, in years to come (perhaps this is what makes Patrick Boyle's "Meles Vulgaris" so amazing, for being out of joint with his time.) But these are all trends rather than truths, and only to be noted in passing. Time makes some stories more distant, while others come near, for a while. What I wanted to do was to select work that would bring a number of Irish writers close to the reader, today.

Some great Irish writers – Sebastian Barry, Patrick McCabe, Dermot Healy – love the stretch of the novel or they love misrule. Some, such as Deirdre Madden or Claire Kilroy, need space to think or to plot. But this book celebrates a fact which I have so far failed to explain: that so many Irish writers also love the short story. They defy current wisdom about the books business and, in their continuing attention to the form, refuse to do what they are told. This may be partly because of the small but crucial distance Irish writers keep from the international publishing industry. The stories in this collection were written for their own sake. They were written in rooms in Monaghan or Dublin, in New York, Dún Laoghaire, Devon, Wexford, Belfast, Bucharest. It seems to me remarkable that the members of this scattered tribe, each in their solitude, has managed such a conversation. The stories in this anthology talk to each other in many and unexpected ways. Is this another aspect of the short story that we find unsettling: its promiscuity, its insistence on being partial, glancing, and various?

My romantic idea of Ireland did not survive the killings in the north, and the realisation, in the 80s, that Irish women were considered far too lovely for contraception: it foundered, you might say, between Dorothy Macardle, and Canon Sheen. Perhaps as a result, I found it difficult to lose myself in the dream that was the recent economic boom. My romantic idea of the writer, meanwhile, did not survive the shift into motherhood – I might have felt lonely and wonderful, but with small children, I just never got the time. But though I am not a romantic, I am quite passionate about the whole business of being an Irish writer. O'Faoláin was right: we are great contrarians. When there is much rubbish talked about a country, when the air is full of large ideas about what we are, or what we are not, then the writer offers truths that are delightful and small. We write against our own foolishness, not anyone else's. In which case the short story is as good a place as any other to keep things real.