giovedì 28 gennaio 2010



Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010
J.D. Salinger Dies at 91: The Hermit Crab of American Letters
By Richard Lacayo

Take the austere little paperbacks down from the shelf and you can hold the collected works of J.D. Salinger — one novel, three volumes of stories — in the palm of one hand. Like some of his favorite writers — like Sappho, whom we know only from ancient fragments, or the Japanese poets who crafted 17-syllable haikus — Salinger was an author whose large reputation pivots on very little. The first of his published stories that he thought were good enough to preserve between covers appeared in the New Yorker in 1948. Sixteen years later he placed one last story there and drew down the shades.

From that day until his death at 91, Salinger was the hermit crab of American letters. When he emerged, it was usually to complain that somebody was poking at his shell. Over time Salinger's exemplary refusal of his own fame may turn out to be as important as his fiction. In the 1960s he retreated to a small house in Cornish, N.H., and rejected the idea of being a public figure. Thomas Pynchon is his obvious successor in that department. But Pynchon figured out how to turn his back on the world with a wink and a Cheshire Cat smile. Salinger did it with a scowl. Then again, he was inventing the idea, and he bent over it with an inventor's sweaty intensity. (See the 100 best novels of all time.)

Salinger's only novel, The Catcher in the Rye, was published in 1951 and gradually achieved a status that made him cringe. For decades the book was a universal rite of passage for adolescents, the manifesto of disenchanted youth. (Sometimes lethally disenchanted: After he killed John Lennon in 1980, Mark David Chapman said he had done it "to promote the reading" of Salinger's book. Roughly a year later, when he headed out to shoot President Ronald Reagan, John Hinckley Jr. left behind a copy of the book in his hotel room.) But what matters is that even for the millions of people who weren't crazy, Holden Caulfield, Salinger's petulant, yearning (and arguably manic-depressive) young hero was the original angry young man. That he was also a sensitive soul in a cynic's armor only made him more irresistible. James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway had invented disaffected young men too. But Salinger created Caulfield at the very moment that American teenage culture was being born. A whole generation of rebellious youths discharged themselves into one particular rebellious youth. (Read TIME's 1951 review of The Catcher in the Rye.)

Salinger drew from Sherwood Anderson, Isak Dinesen, F. Scott Fitzgerald and especially Ring Lardner, whose wise-guy voice you hear chiming in the snappy banalities and sometimes desperate patter spoken by Salinger's characters, a tone that found its way years later into the neurotic chatter of Woody Allen's New Yorkers. But Salinger bent it all into something new, a tone that drew from the secular and the religious, the worldly and the otherworldly, the ecstatic and the inconsolable. It's customary to assume that the seven Glass children — the Glass family, an intricate hybrid of showbiz and spirituality, was Salinger's other enduring creation — make up a kind of group portrait of Salinger, each of them a reflection of his different dimensions: the writer and the actor, the searcher and the researcher, the spiritual adept and the pratfalling schmuck. That may very well be true. He made sure we could never be sure. Holden Caulfield says, "Don't ever tell anybody anything." That's one time you know it's Salinger talking.

Jerome David Salinger was born in New York on Jan. 1, 1919. His mother was a Scots-born Protestant who changed her name from Marie to Miriam to accommodate her Jewish in-laws. His father Solomon was a food importer who was successful enough by the time Salinger turned 13 to move the family to Park Avenue and enroll his underachieving son in a Manhattan private school. Salinger flunked out within two years. He was then packed off to Valley Forge Military Academy, outside Philadelphia. It would later be the model for Pency Prep, the school Caulfield runs away from. (See the top 10 banned books.)

After graduating from Valley Forge, Salinger ran away from several schools. He managed only two semesters at New York University before dropping out. His father decided to take him into the family business and brought his boy along to Austria and Poland to learn all about ham. "They finally dragged me off to Bydgoszcz for a couple of months," Salinger wrote years later. "Where I slaughtered pigs, wagoned through the snow with the big slaughtermaster." Ham was not in his future. Back in the U.S., he made another halfhearted attempt at school, this time at Ursinus College in rural Pennsylvania. He lasted a semester, then drifted back to Manhattan.

By this point Salinger had a general destination in mind: he wanted to be a writer. In the fall of 1939, he signed up for a writing class at Columbia University taught by Whit Burnett, founder and editor of Story, a highly regarded, little magazine that had been the first place to publish William Saroyan, Joseph Heller and Carson McCullers. Burnett quickly took notice of his talented pupil and made sure that his magazine would be the first place to publish Salinger. In its March-April 1940 issue, Story carried "The Young Folks," a brief, acidic vignette of college students at a party, prototypes of all the disaffected young people who would appear in Salinger's fiction.

Over the following months, Salinger broke through to mass-circulation magazines like Collier's and Esquire and had a tantalizing first brush with the New Yorker, the magazine he wanted badly to appear in, the one that could validate him not just as a professional writer but also as an artist. By this time, he had written a story about a boy named Holden Caulfield who runs away from prep school. The New Yorker accepted it, then put it on hold. But Caulfield was a character close to the author's heart, and Salinger wasn't done with him.

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In April 1942, four months after Pearl Harbor, Salinger was drafted. Eventually he was shipped to England as part of the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, which was training American soldiers to do things like interrogate suspected Nazi collaborators. He brought with him a little typewriter that he carried across Europe, writing all the time. On D-Day he was part of an infantry regiment that landed on the beach at Normandy. By August, Salinger's regiment had fought its way to Paris and from there pushed on to Germany. In the autumn and winter he would be involved in some of the most horrific campaigns of the war, including the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, a months-long slugfest in freezing, muddy, mine-infested woods.

We don't know much about what happened to Salinger during those campaigns. But Ian Hamilton, his beleaguered biographer — beleaguered by Salinger, who successfully sued to keep Hamilton from quoting from his letters — believes that not long afterward, Salinger suffered a nervous breakdown. In Hamilton's book In Search of J.D. Salinger he summarizes a letter Salinger wrote in July 1945 to Hemingway, whom Salinger had met the year before in Paris, telling him that he was being treated at a hospital in Nuremberg for a condition that might lead to a psychiatric discharge from the Army. If that's so, then surely it's Salinger himself at the heart of his great, complicated story "For Esme, with Love and Squalor," about an American soldier struggling after a hospitalization of some kind to "keep his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact." In September of that year Salinger did something peculiar, perhaps the act of a man grasping for a stabilizer: He abruptly married a French woman living in Germany. Salinger brought her with him when he returned to the U.S. the following spring, but soon after, for reasons we don't know, she went back to France and dissolved the marriage.

Back in New York, living again with his parents, Salinger returned to writing full-time and finally breached the citadel of the New Yorker. In 1946 the magazine published the Holden Caulfield story it had toyed with earlier. Two years later, Salinger was taken up by the magazine as a regular, publishing three pieces in six months. From then on, he never published anywhere else. And with the exception of two pieces in his 1953 volume Nine Stories, he turned his back on the work he had published elsewhere, never allowing it to be collected or anthologized. (See the top 10 magazine covers of 2009.)

The first of that early trifecta of New Yorker stories was "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," in which we first meet Seymour, the eldest of the Glass children. It's the last day of his life, and he appears in just the final pages, talking with a little girl on a beach in Florida — one of the many radiant children in Salinger's work — and bringing her out into the ocean in a fond but also slightly dangerous way, and then returning to the hotel room where his new bride, who has been on the phone earlier assuring her mother that Seymour is not crazy, lies sleeping. The last line reads: "Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple."

That brutal finale made Salinger a sensation in literary circles. By that time Salinger, too, was becoming a man who could not abide the world. The producer Darryl Zanuck bought the screen rights to another of Salinger's New Yorker stories, "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," about a suburban housewife who dissolves into self-pity during an afternoon of drinking with an old school chum. Zanuck had it rewritten as a throbbing melodrama with Susan Hayward that was released under the title My Foolish Heart. The whole thing made Salinger cringe.

He poured his resentment into a tirade against Hollywood that Holden Caulfield delivers in The Catcher of the Rye. A few critics objected to Caulfield's free use of fairly innocuous curse words, but most of the reviews were exultant. Catcher stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for seven months, then developed its enduring afterlife. But Salinger had long since moved on from concerns with adolescent dissatisfaction to an interest in Eastern religion, especially the Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century Hindu mystic. His beliefs started to find their way into his fiction. In his haunting story "Teddy," a college instructor on a transatlantic cruise ship makes the acquaintance of an otherworldly little boy who calmly believes himself to be a reincarnated soul and meets a fate he predicts for himself. (See more about J.D. Salinger.)

By the time he published that story, in 1953, Salinger had found his own sort of yogi's retreat, the small house in Cornish, N.H. When he first took it on, it had no heat, electricity or running water. But it rested on 90 hillside acres that could insulate him from an outside world he found increasingly trivial, irrelevant and intrusive. For a while he mixed comfortably with his neighbors. But then a couple of teenage girls interviewed him for what he thought would be a story on the high school page of the local paper. When the paper billed it instead as a scoop in its regular pages, Salinger was furious. It was the last interview he ever gave. Not long after, he built a high wall around his house.

It was after his move there that Salinger met his second wife. Claire Douglas was a 19-year-old British-born Radcliffe student. They were married in 1955, but not before Douglas, having already met Salinger, abruptly entered a brief marriage to a graduate of the Harvard Business School, then fled back to Salinger. Salinger poured his feelings about that relationship into a long short story that was published in the New Yorker two weeks before their wedding. "Franny" is about one of the Glass sisters who realizes that she can't abide the jerk she's dating, a smug young Ivy League academic, and flees to the bathroom of a restaurant where they're eating to seek the refuge of an endlessly repeated prayer.

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From now on Salinger would write only about the Glass family. "Zooey" was the story of how a Glass brother, the actor Zooey, tried to illuminate sister Franny about the pros and cons of the material world after she breaks up with her Ivy League boyfriend. In "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," another Glass brother, Buddy, a writer who is one of Salinger's various stand-ins for himself, thinks back on the uproar of Seymour's wedding day. Then in 1959 came the epic-length "Seymour: An Introduction." In a story full of all kinds of narrative wanderings and digressions, Buddy thinks back on his saintly, much-loved older brother, years after his suicide, and tries to account for his odd radiance.

In 1961 Salinger published Franny and Zooey as a single volume. It stayed at the top of the best-seller list for six months. By that time, the cult status of The Catcher in the Rye was fully established. But in some important corners of American letters, there was a backlash forming. In reviews that were on the whole positive, John Updike still found Salinger sentimental, and Alfred Kazin thought he was getting "cute." For years John Cheever told friends that he thought Salinger wouldn't let Hollywood make a movie version of Catcher because Salinger was too old to play Holden. And in a review that is said to have infuriated Salinger, Mary McCarthy accused him of a "terrifying" narcissism and wondered whether Seymour killed himself because he suspected that he, too, was "a fake." (See TIME's 1961 cover on J.D. Salinger.)

For whatever reason, Salinger published just one more book, combining "Carpenters" and "Seymour," in 1963, though in a foreword he promised readers that more Glass stories were under way. Two years later there was that final long story in the New Yorker, called "Hapworth 16, 1924," which purports to be a letter home from summer camp by a wildly precocious 7-year-old Seymour. After that, the signal shuts down. Salinger was occasionally spotted in public but spoke publicly only on rare occasions.

Salinger's marriage to Douglas was also over by 1967, though they continued to live near one another so they could share in the upbringing of their two children, Margaret, who would publish a not entirely flattering memoir about her father in 2000, and Matthew, who became an actor and producer. Salinger would remain a recluse, but he was never inclined to be a hermit. Within a few years of his divorce, he enticed another young woman to join him in exile. In April 1972, the New York Times Magazine published what would be a much-discussed article, "An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life." The author was a high school senior named Joyce Maynard. The piece brought Maynard a lot of fan mail, including an admiring letter from 53-year-old "Jerry" Salinger. A long correspondence followed during Maynard's first year at Yale, with the tone on his end evolving from fatherly to something more romantic. At the end of her freshman year, Maynard dropped out of Yale, which meant losing her scholarship, to move in with Salinger in Cornish. (See the top 10 most reclusive celebrities.)

Twenty-five years later she wrote about their relationship in a memoir, At Home in the World, the only detailed picture we have of Salinger in later life. She was prompted to go public, she said, by the discovery that he had carried on the same kind of intimate correspondence with other young women, whom he then dropped just as he did her. One year after her book was published, Maynard put 15 of Salinger's letters to her up for auction. They were bought for $156,500 by software entrepreneur Peter Norton, who returned them to Salinger.

The picture of Salinger that Maynard draws for us is of a man preoccupied by homeopathic medicine who had a diet regimen built around vegetables and ground lamb cooked at very low temperatures. He loved certain TV programs — The Andy Griffith Show, The Lawrence Welk Show — and had reels of old Hollywood movies that he projected at home. He wrote every day, but the unpublished work was stored away in a large safe that occupied a good part of one bedroom. She tells us that because she found sexual intercourse with Salinger too painful and frightening to complete, she remained a virgin during their months together. All the same, Maynard wanted children, but the man who had summoned her there wasn't interested in starting another family. And he looked on in gathering disgust as Maynard, who was preparing to expand her Times Magazine article into a book, was seduced by the New York publishing and media world he detested. After 10 months together, Salinger abruptly called things off.

Is that surprising? A long time ago Salinger called things off with the entire world. As keepsakes he left us those four little books. And maybe, depending on his last wishes, some of those unpublished manuscripts will find their way into print. Salinger struggled all his long life with the contradiction between his gifts as a writer and his impulse to refuse them. Here's his character Franny Glass outlining the dilemma of someone like Salinger who wants to abandon the ego, the will to "succeed."

"Just because I'm so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else's values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn't make it right. I'm ashamed of it. I'm sick of it. I'm sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I'm sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash."

That's another time you know it's Salinger talking.


E morto Salinger. Aveva 91 anni. Il mondo oggi è più triste

22 gennaio 2010

Cultura -
«Noi haitiani, esperti in sopravvivenza»
Maria Zuppello

Edwidge Danticat, 41 anni, è una delle voci più famose della letteratura haitiana contemporanea. Trasferitasi da bambina con la sua famiglia negli Stati Uniti non ha mai dimenticato le sue radici.
In Italia di Edwidge Danticat sono usciti Fratello sto morendo, Amabelle della canna da zucchero (edizioni Piemme) che le ha valso il premio Flaviano internazionale, Parla con la mia stessa voce, Krik? Krak! (edizioni Baldini Castoldi Dalai).

Per giorni ha cercato notizie dei suoi parenti rimasti ad Haiti durante il terremoto.
È riuscita a sapere qualcosa?

La maggior parte di loro si è salvata. Ma ho perso mio cugino Maxo del quale avevo parlato in Fratello, sto morendo. E ho perso anche altri familiari a Leogane, fuori da Port-au-Prince. Desidero tornare ad Haiti il prima possibile ma per il momento i voli sono concessi solo ai soccorritori. Quello che posso fare allora è urlare al mondo quello che i miei cari mi stanno raccontando dall’isola.

Proprio in quei giorni ad Haiti era in programma una importante conferenza di scrittori (il “Festival des étonnants voyageurs” ndr). Molti di loro sono rimasti come atto di solidarietà. In catastrofi come queste quale può essere il contributo della letteratura?

Enorme. Perché è la prova di quanto lo spirito umano sia forte e capace di generare bellezza dall’agonia e dal caos.

Di che cosa gli haitiani in questo momento hanno urgente bisogno?

Da quello che mi raccontano parenti e amici ciò di cui si ha più bisogno in questo momento è l’acqua. Ma serve anche cibo e cure mediche per i feriti.
Sono in molti ancora adesso a morire per mancanze di cure. E poi tende. Più a lungo termine poi ci sarà bisogno di creare posti di lavoro per ridare una speranza a queste persone. E incentivare l’agricoltura che è una grande risorsa per il paese.

Lei vive a Miami, insieme a suo marito e a sua figlia, lontano da Haiti.
Pensa che gli statunitensi siano in grado di gestire al meglio la situazione adesso nella sua isola?

Siamo, credo un milione, noi haitiani residenti negli Usa e viviamo ogni giorno la nostra condizione ibrida. Questa è la nostra haitianité. Tra Stati Uniti e Haiti il rapporto è complesso. Sono quindi felice dell’aiuto che gli Usa stanno portando alla mia isola. Mi auguro solo che non facciano capolino antichi rancori e che si arrivino a bloccare gli aiuti provenienti da Venezuela e Cuba che per anni hanno dato una mano all’isola.

Uragani, terremoti, povertà, Haiti non è purtroppo nuova alle catastrofi. Come tutto questo ha modellato il modo di pensare e scrivere degli haitiani?
Il mio popolo è stato costretto per anni a dover sviluppare meccanismi di sopravvivenza.

Da sempre siamo stati bombardati da disastri politici e naturali. Questo paradossalmente ci ha aiutato a diventare non dei sopravvissuti ma degli esperti di sopravvivenza. Il che non vuol dire che viviamo solo il presente. Abbiamo sempre in testa ciò che accadrà alla generazione successiva. Quanto alla letteratura non posso generalizzare. La letteratura haitiana ha un po’ di tutto al suo interno. Alcuni scrittori sono più politici di altri ma in generale la mia è un’isola che ha prodotto davvero un buon numero di artisti, ispirati dalla bellezza di Haiti ma anche dalla sua tristezza.

Qualcuno ha parlato di Haiti come “isola maledetta”...

Gli Stati Uniti sono forse maledetti perché hanno avuto l’11 settembre? Il Giappone è maledetto perché soffre di terremoti continuamente? È un nonsense che è stato strumentalizzato perché in realtà Haiti è una nazione nera che ha sfidato il mondo per affermare il proprio diritto ad esistere. E ogni volta che i neri hanno in mano qualcosa si tira sempre fuori questa storia della maledizione. Chi dice questo sembra ignorare la storia della mia isola. Che fin dall’inizio ha dovuto pagare un prezzo pesantissimo alla Francia per ottenere nel 1804 la sua indipendenza, isolata come è stata dal resto del mondo dove la schiavitù ancora esisteva.
Haiti ha anche subito due invasioni statunitensi.
E durante la prima è stata utilizzata principalmente come fabbrica di legname con la conseguenza di una deforestazione senza precedenti. Il che non vuol dire che Haiti non abbia le sue responsabilità ma semplicemente che il mondo ha fatto tutto il possibile perché Haiti come stato fallisse fin dal primo giorno.

La letteratura haitiana ha tante facce.
È famosa per il suo humour e i loydians (racconti umoristici tipicamente haitiani, retaggio della tradizione orale) ma anche per aver affrontato la questione nera e la créolité (mescolanza di francese e lingua locale)...

Abbiamo perso con questo terremoto il grandissimo scrittore George Anglaise, una delle migliori voci della nostra créolité insieme a Charlot Lucine. Entrambi sono tra i più grandi studiosi di loydians che è diventato un modo di scrivere usato da tanti altri scrittori. È intimamente collegato al dono che la mia gente ha di raccontare storie, magari intorno ad un tavolo. È diventato quasi un modo di vivere che ha aiutato tanto la mia gente soprattutto nei momenti più difficili.

Pensa che dopo il terremoto scriverà qualcosa come hanno fatto molti scrittori dopo i fatti dell’11 settembre? Cosa la letteratura può aggiungere?

Al momento sto lavorando ad una raccolta di miei saggi, Create Dangerously, che uscirà in autunno negli Stati Uniti (Princeton University Press). C’è da dire che alcuni importanti scrittori haitiani, come Kettly Mars e Evelyne Trouillot hanno già scritto su cosa voglia dire sopravvivere ad un terremoto. Sono estremamente convinta che la letteratura debba testimoniare ciò che accade per permettere una migliore
comprensione della realtà, diversa da quella giornalistica, più profonda. Per primi arrivano i poeti, poi i musicisti e i pittori. Gli scrittori debbono arrivare per ultimi perché la scrittura richiede tempo per crescere e trovare la sua forma.


Il Guardian da un pò si sta dedicando alla poesia che ha strutturato il modo di scrivere contemporaneo, merita sicuramente un'occhiata attenta.


An introduction to the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Christopher Hitchens explores the man whose work ranged from the nature-loving verses of To a Skylark to poetry and prose often considered too incendiary to be published in his own lifetime

Christopher Hitchens
The Guardian, Thursday 28 January 2010
Our perhaps forgivable tendency to group the Romantic tribe of early 19th-century poets under a single collective title is a disservice both to history and to literature. Byron opened his Don Juan with a sparkling attack on the insipidity of those he termed – for fairly obvious reasons – "the Lakers", and scorned those who haunted Keswick as if it were some daunting wilderness. "There is a narrowness in such a notion," he wrote, "which makes me wish you'd change your lakes for ocean."

Percy Bysshe Shelley, who qualified as a Romantic by the exacting test of expiring a month before his 30th birthday, became oceanic by dying in a tempest on the Mediterranean, had Byron as a mourner at his funeral pyre, and was in any case partly exempted from the latter's contempt by the otherwise extremely stormy career that he pursued. He continues to lead a sort of double-life in our literature, first as the author of such nature-loving verses as To a Skylark and second as a revolutionary whose work in poetry and prose was often considered too incendiary to be published in his own lifetime.

It might be slightly unfair to say, as does Richard Holmes in his magnificent biography, that parts of Shelley's Hymn To Intellectual Beauty and The Revolt of Islam suffer from a "thin, high-pitched egotism". It's true that the terrible bullying he endured in his schooldays, and his later unjust expulsion from University College, Oxford, gave him a keen sense of persecution and imparted a certain quality of the over-wrought to his work. For that matter, it is true that reading him in large doses can cause a slight weariness with the over-use of certain tropes (birds soar, trumpets blast, waves surge and break, storms howl and drive, volcanoes erupt).

But this energy and emotion was most often mobilised not for the self, but in order to enlarge the bounds of poetry and to put the poet himself at the service of the generous cause of humanity. A paragraph from his (again posthumously published) essay In Defence of Poetry culminates in what may be his single best-known phrase:

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Inherent in this, perhaps, is a claim to membership in an elect or an occult nobility, and it does seem that Shelley was fascinated by the so-called Illuminists, a sort of Jacobin freemasonry devoted to the overthrow of religion, family and private property.

The times and circles in which he moved were extremely volatile ones, influenced and composed both by republican and deist pamphleteers like Thomas Paine, his relatives by marriage William Godwin and Mary Wollestonecraft, and also by scientific and rationalist movements that challenged the authority of the moralists and the churches. Shelley was familiar with the apparatus of chemistry sets and microscopes, and made use of the writings of Locke and Hume to compose the pamphlet – The Necessity of Atheism – that got him thrown out of Oxford.

However, in the address of his poetry the appeal is not to an elite but to the idea of the risen people. Here, the classic reference would be to The Mask of Anarchy, the terse and bitter and furious poem that he composed in Italy after hearing of the suppression of the Peterloo demonstrators in Manchester in August 1819. In a series of tightly-controlled stanzas he upended the vials of his disgust over Lord Chancellor Eldon and over his most-detested villain, the foreign secretary Castlereagh who had, with Metternich and others, riveted a reactionary peace on post-Napoleonic Europe. "Bishops, lawyers, peers or spies" make up the grisly procession of the hollow parade of authority, whose coming doom is pronounced by the closing invocation to the men and women of "the Nation":

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many, they are few!

This is blood-pounding, drum-beating stuff (it was the favourite of the late Paul Foot, whose book Red Shelley tried gallantly to conscript the poet to the ranks of another revolution) but if you don't chance to know its context it may be as readily pressed into service by any movement that calls on people to awake. Again, it didn't see print until 1832, long after its author's death, when his friend Leigh Hunt may have judged it useful to assist in the agitation for the Reform Bill: a majestic piece of English compromise.

Those who die young and whose brief lives are fretted with anxiety sometimes appear in retrospect to have invited their fate, and to be too much sunken in introspection and self-pity. The brooding and yearning of Alastor and Queen Mab, however, always strive to synthesise private anguish with the millennial sufferings of a broader humanity, just as Shelley's public life and work identified itself with long-oppressed nations like the Irish and the Greeks. What might he have achieved, once he had learned to discipline his own melodramatic eloquence? We have a clue in the beautiful understatement of Ozymandias, where even the grandiose fantasies of absolute power are granted their tincture of humanity, and of the tragic sense that must accompany the Romantic ideal.

martedì 26 gennaio 2010



An introduction to the poetry of William Wordsworth
Margaret Drabble
The Guardian, Tuesday 26 January 2010

Wordsworth changed forever the way we view the natural world and the inner world of feeling. He also connected the two indivisibly. We are his heirs, and we see and feel through him. His vision illumined our landscape.

His name is inextricably connected with the Lake District, where he was born in Cockermouth in 1770. His mother died when he was only eight, his father five years later. These early losses gave him an acute apprehension of mortality, but did not impair the flow of his affections. His mother had loved him enough, and her love lasted beyond the grave. He had a free and happy country childhood, and joy is one of his themes: through his vocation as a poet he transformed fear of mortality to intimations of immortality. The story of his early life – his schooldays, his education at Cambridge, his wanderings in France, his response to the French revolution, his love of his sister Dorothy and his passionate friendship with Coleridge – are told in his great autobiographical work in blank verse, The Prelude, most of which written when he was in his 30s (only sections of it were published in his lifetime.) It is a work of astonishing originality, both in its subject matter (childhood and the growth of the mind, described with a pre-Freudian insight unprecedented in literature) and in its form. The verse is powerful, supple, subtle, freely flowing. Wordsworth revered both Shakespeare and Milton. His is the third great iambic voice in the English language.

His first volume of poems, Lyrical Ballads, written in collaboration with Coleridge and published in 1798, stakes his territory: the plain, the rustic, the thoughtful, the everyday, the organic: a poetry in which "the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature". It includes The Idiot Boy, a moving ballad treating its challenging subject (a mother's love for her "idiot" son sent out into the night to fetch the doctor for a sick neighbour) with the deepest respect and in the plainest language, and Tintern Abbey which records in higher language the intensity of the solitary poet's youthful response to a sublime landscape (his "aching joys" and "dizzy raptures") and his sense of a more "sober pleasure" associated with maturity, the presence of his beloved sister, and the power of re-creative memory and recollection.

Wordsworth was perhaps the most sober of the great romantics, a water drinker, a walker of the hills, an exemplary family man who had put behind him (though he had not denied) a youthful indiscretion and an illegitimate daughter. He liked to read with his wife and sister of an evening, and to listen to the kettle's "faint undersong". (Wordsworth loved the word under, as a prefix-adjective: it suggests to me his ever-present sense of the subconscious and the imminent, his ear tuned to music we can hardly hear.) He invested his hopes in family life and domesticity, in plain living and high thinking, with a tenderness towards his children inherited from the newly child-conscious theories of the enlightenment.

But children are hostages to fortune, and some of his finest poems pre-emptively record early death and the sorrow of losing a child. The enigmatic Lucy poems (1799), inspired by a winter sojourn in Germany with Dorothy before he had a family of his own, foreshadow loss. Were these poems connected with incestuous feelings for his sister, or with his apprehensions of the tragic risks of love, or with the early loss of his mother? Much has been written on this, little explained. The sources of the imagination are not as clear and simple as Wordsworth often makes them seem. Five years later, in 1804, he wrote The Affliction of Margaret, whose son is missing, perhaps dead:

Beyond participation lie
My troubles, and beyond relief.
If any chance to heave a sigh
They pity me, and not my grief.

The lonely precision of this strange cry of bereavement is heart-rending.

Then, in 1812, the Wordsworths lost a little daughter and a son: his sonnet to Catherine, Surprised By Joy, composed some time after her death, is the most touching of elegies, the movement of the verse mirroring the movement of the body, heart and mind, the simplicity of diction shockingly enriched by the Latinate "vicissitude". He had mastered his medium and wedded it to the strength of his feelings. His sonnets stand with Shakespeare's and Milton's.

As he grew older, he was to lose his powers, and he had premonitions of this, expressed in his Immortality Ode (1802-4) and most famously in his 1802 poem on the leech gatherer, Resolution and Independence:

We poets in our youth begin in gladness
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness

His youthful belief that "our destiny, our being's heart and aim/ Is with infinitude and only there" is deeply entangled with his sense of failure, of check, of sober disillusion in the light of common day. The highest affirmation and loftiest verse in The Prelude immediately follow his feeling of anti-climax as he discovered that he and his travelling companion had crossed the Alps without knowing it. And one poem for which I have a particular fondness is an odd 1804 piece about a small celandine (in contrast to more cheerful poems he addressed to this flower) in which he confesses to an unsentimental, no-nonsense meanness of pleasure as he regards its withering.

This neither is its courage nor its choice
But its necessity in being old.

He tells unwelcome truths as well as providing consolation. He is a poet for old age as well as youth.

domenica 24 gennaio 2010


Las lecturas del poeta
Un catálogo registra 491 títulos en la biblioteca de Federico García Lorca
VALME CORTÉS - Granada - 24/01/2010

Pese a las mudanzas que a lo largo de su vida realizó Federico García Lorca, pese a los registros de militares sublevados que soportaron los domicilios familiares y pese a los numerosos libros que regaló el poeta de Fuente Vaqueros, se conserva gran parte de lo que fue su biblioteca particular. Una catalogación de fondos que sirve para comprender un poco más el desarrollo intelectual, cultural y literario del poeta. Hay 491 títulos de libros principalmente y algunas revistas de la época que sirven, sin duda, para enriquecer su biografía.

La historia de esta investigación la inició hace más de 15 años su sobrino Manuel Fernández-Montesinos y está recogida en el VIII volumen del Catálogo General de Fondos Documentales de la Fundación Federico García Lorca. Lo han editado Christian de Paepe y el propio Manuel Fernández-Montesinos, y en él han colaborado Rosa María Illán y Sonia González. En el catálogo se detallan las incidencias que acompañan a cada libro: firmas, dedicatorias, dibujos, grabados, etc. Marcas "obvias", dicen los autores, de que el objeto "ha sido vivido por su propietario ilustre".

Lorca procedía de una familia con un "sorprendente nivel cultural" para el ambiente rural del que era oriunda, compraba muchos libros pero no tenía "paciencia de coleccionista" y de hecho no se le ocurría hacer fichas bibliográficas, según precisa De Paepe, coordinador del catálogo. Leía mucho y así lo reconoció él mismo en manifestaciones públicas: "Tuve épocas de leerme dos libros diarios". De su poco afán por coleccionarlos también dejó constancia en la inauguración oficial de la biblioteca de su pueblo natal donde afirmó: "Libros, regalo cuantos compro, que son infinitos".

Pero estas afirmaciones corresponden a su época de madurez. Los libros adquiridos cuando era más joven eran señalados como de su propiedad o de la de su hermano Francisco. Su afán posterior por regalarlos perseguía la divulgación y no despreciar el objeto. De los conservados, un tercio fueron regalados a Federico y así lo muestran las dedicatorias, algunas de las cuales corresponden a compañeros de generación. Existen títulos poco corrientes, sobre todo en los adquiridos en librerías de Granada, en la primera etapa, lo que puede dar una idea de la envergadura real de la biblioteca.

Obras no habituales de Eça de Queiroz pueden indicar que otros títulos más populares como El crimen del padre Amaro existieron también aunque no se conserven. Las pérdidas de ejemplares por deterioro en el almacenamiento, incidentes por la Guerra Civil y cambios de lugar para evitar la incautación en los registros propician características "extrañas" en esta colección, donde se conserva una obra poco conocida de Friedrich Hebbel como Herodes y Mariene, pero ninguna obra de teatro de Schiller ni los clásicos de Shakespeare.

El carácter "predominantemente liberal" de la colección es también significativo. Candide de Voltaire, Discurso premilitar de la Enciclopedia de D'Alembert, El origen de las especies de Darwin y otros títulos de Unamuno, Ruskin o Wells son obras que "se considerarían escandalosas" en el ambiente de la Granada de principios de siglo.

Historia accidentada
Las dificultades para reunir los libros acumulados por el autor no son pocas y en esta investigación se enumeran algunas de ellas. La primera parte de la colección se conservó en la casa de Granada, en la Acera del Casino. Además de los libros adquiridos durante el bachillerato y los primeros años de universidad, también recalaron en ella los que adquiría durante su estancia en la Residencia de Estudiantes, a la que llegó en 1919, porque allí tenía que dejar la habitación libre cada vez que se marchaba.

En los años treinte, Federico y su hermano Francisco convivieron en un pequeño piso de la calle Ayala, pero en 1933, los padres se mudan a la capital donde alquilaron un piso en la calle Alcalá. Llega la primera división porque parte de los libros fueron a parar al nuevo domicilio madrileño y otros a la residencia de verano en la Huerta de San Vicente, en Granada. En la primavera de 1936, se marcharon los padres a Granada y en julio Federico, que nunca más regresaría a Madrid.

Terminada la Guerra Civil, la familia volvió a trasladarse a la capital de España y se mudaron de la calle Alcalá a Velázquez. En 1940, cuando se trasladaron a Estados Unidos, todos los enseres fueron a parar a un guardamuebles hasta el año 1951. Las condiciones no fueron buenas para su conservación y ahí se perdió parte de la biblioteca. Los que quedaron en Granada tuvieron que ser cambiados de lugar varias veces por robos y registros.

Algunos datos
- Número de libros con dibujos u otras anotaciones del poeta: 41.

- Libros con firma común de los hermanos García Lorca: 29.

- Libros con sellos de librerías: 64.

- Libros dedicados: 135.

- Libros dedicados a otras personas: 12.

sabato 23 gennaio 2010


An introduction to the poetry of John Keats

Andrew Motion The Guardian,

Saturday 23 January 2010

The first two generations of Romantic poets lived through a time of extraordinary upheaval. The French Revolution and the acceleration of the Industrial Revolution led to unprecedented changes in the cultural and political structures of European society. The majority of poets writing through this period reflect these changes in their work. The young Wordsworth and Coleridge are deeply involved in the life of their times; Blake is a fiery radical – an outsider attacking the status quo. Shelley and Byron, for all the privileges of their birth, become critical exiles. And Keats? Keats is the great exception, according to received wisdom. He collapses onto a sickbed while his contemporaries leap to the barricades. He listens to the song of the nightingale while they catch the chant of the mob. He celebrates the alternative power of the imagination, while they describe the shadows of dark satanic mills.

This view of Keats seriously distorts the reality of his work, but it has been nurtured for almost the whole of his posthumous existence.

When he died at the tragically early age of 25, his admirers praised him for thinking "on his pulses" – for having developed a style which was more heavily loaded with sensualities, more gorgeous in its effects, more voluptuously alive to actualities than any poet who had come before him. They had good reason to do so. The language of all his poems, and in particular the great odes and narrative poems of his final (1820) volume, have a delicious velvety weight: they "load every rift with ore", to use one of his own phrases.

Initially, there was only a very small audience for such things: it has been estimated that at the time of Keats' death, the combined sales of the three books published during his lifetime amounted to 200 copies. By the middle of the 19th century, greatly helped by the example of Tennyson, as well as the advocacy of his friends Arthur Hallam (the subject of In Memoriam) and Richard Monckton Milnes (author of the first biography of Keats, which appeared in 1848), things had changed. Keats was where he had wanted to be – and where, on his deathbed, he had despaired of being: "among the English poets". His canonical position has become increasingly secure with time.

Buttressed by the irresistible pathos of his life story (family tragedies, poverty, doomed love, lingering illness and early death), he has turned into the poet that many readers regard as a kind of epitome: a suffering genius who tells the truth about human experience by removing himself from the ordinary stream of experience.

This picture of Keats contains some important truths. His life does indeed describe a heroic attempt to accommodate and understand hardship, and his poetry is indeed crammed with exceptionally rich evocations and descriptions. But these things, and many other qualities associated with them, are part of a response to the wider world that has only recently begun to receive the attention it deserves. In order to appreciate this, it is helpful to look at the context in which his poems were written.

Keats was born in Moorgate in 1795, towards what was then the eastern edge of London, and spent all his life "on the margins". Following the early death of his parents (he was raised by his grandmother) he attended a school in Enfield that was to all intents and purposes a dissenting academy – somewhere providing a broad liberal education and encouraging liberal thinking.

Once he had left school he trained as a doctor in Guy's hospital, absorbing the radical influences that were then sweeping through the medical establishment. New kinds of intervention and new standards of patient care, were aligned with his larger social sympathies.

Almost exactly as Keats qualified, he gave up medicine. Once again, it was a change of course which allowed him to stay true to himself. Actually, to find himself. He took with him into poetry the fundamental principles that his education as a whole had rooted in him. He became friends with Leigh Hunt, editor of The Examiner, the great free-thinking journal of the day. He consorted with Hunt's circle, which included Shelley. He began writing poems which gave a voice to the convictions that justify his description of himself as a "rebel angel".

In some of Keats' early work, these political allegiances are clear: the opening sections of the four books of his long poem Endymion, for instance, or squibs like the lines written on The Anniversary of the Restoration of Charles II. But by the time Keats reached his maturity – the ascent is astonishingly rapid and steep – he had absorbed the lessons of Shakespeare and found a way of writing that was simultaneously of its own particular time, and universal in its reach and application. It resists explicit mention of local circumstances (the government's suspension of habeas corpus, for instance, or the Peterloo massacre which occurred only days before he wrote the ode To Autumn) only because it seeks to reveal the general truth in a particular situation. This means that when we read his best poems – which with a few exceptions are those in the 1820 volume – we are watching a writer grapple with the largest eternal questions: what is the role of the imagination? What is the value of art? What is the purpose of suffering? How can we create our own selves, and integrate with the lives of others?

At the same time as he was producing these great poems, Keats was also writing letters to friends and loved ones that clarify the theoretical thinking that lay behind them. They cover an extraordinary amount of ground, and show an equally extraordinary amount of wisdom, but they converge on a few central convictions. One of these is the idea that large theoretical concerns will only be comprehensible to people if they are rehearsed in very physical language. "Axioms in philosophy" he says, using an image that refers back to his medical days, "are not axioms unless they are proved upon our pulses". This is where the sensuality of his writing is so important. It is not merely a form of delighted and delightful engagement with things-in-themselves, but a way of thinking. His "life of sensation" is also a "life of thoughts".

It is a notion that every poet writing after Keats has had to negotiate, and that most have shared. From the very small base of his early readership, he has become one of the most influential poets, as well as one of the most beloved.

giovedì 21 gennaio 2010


The Pain of Fame
Why so many artists, from Proust to Warhol, are frequently under the weather Article Comments (7)

Doesn't the hypochondriac—anxious, death- and age-obsessed, hypersensitive and self-absorbed—sound suspiciously familiar? Pumped into lumpy strangeness at the gym, filleted and stitched by the surgeon, embalmed in Botox, our contemporary celebrities look more like survivors than people who are going places.

In the 18th century, hypochondria became almost fashionable, and was thought to be a symptom of excess luxury and ease. Today we appear to have excelled the hypochondriac cultures of the past by elevating the morbidly self-involved to the level of paragon. Hollywood has long been the land of fixed teeth and busts, blurred hairlines and effaced waistlines. But fame increasingly consists in a state of almost constant near-collapse.

Howard Hughes seems to have set the standard for today's hypochondriac celebrities' tics and reclusion. The grim scenography of Hughes's decline—his solitary, twilit self-neglect, combined with elaborate prophylactic rituals against the outside world—is a familiar warning about the potential price of power and fame. His biographers have conjectured that Hughes's hypochondria began in childhood, with his mother's excessive concern for his health. This tempting and no doubt simplistic explanation has been suggested too in the case of Glenn Gould. The pianist's manifold eccentricities on the concert stage—playing in coat and scarf, humming along to his own renditions of Bach—were matched in private by his horror of physical contact and habit of keeping a sedulous record of his (largely imaginary) symptoms.

With Gould and Hughes, hypochondria was mostly a matter of keeping the world at bay. Today's celebrities seem to advertise their fears and symptoms. The most obvious precursor of our present hypochondriac culture was Andy Warhol, who lived most of his life in a state of anxiety regarding the ailments and imperfections of his "bad body." The artist's diaries record an array of obsessions, including acne, baldness, weight loss, weight gain, aging, cancer, AIDS and brain tumors.

Warhol seems to predict the fate of the figure that best exemplifies the hypochondria at the heart of contemporary celebrity. At the time of his death in June 2009, the depredations Michael Jackson had visited on his own body had perhaps been overshadowed by his 2005 trial and, latterly, his worsening finances. In the decades since his surgery and skin-bleaching first made us wonder about his mental state, a fretful attitude about one's body has become an essential requisite for the vocation of modern fame. As the abject circumstances of Jackson's death began to emerge, one was reminded again of the sheer weirdness of the physical refashioning that he seems to have pioneered for the rest of the culture.

Even conservative estimates suggest that Jackson's ruined nose was the result of at least 10 operations. The bleaching of his skin seemed intended not so much to make him look like a white person as to ensure that he vanished altogether, a classic hypochondriac fantasy. Beyond a certain point of success, it seems he lived in a welter of bodily and mental pain. If Jackson's problem was a sort of hypochondria, it was on an ambitious and Gothic scale.

The medical catastrophes suffered by contemporary celebrities are often, of course, the result of (or deliberate covers for) drug dependence. Yet even here a species of hypochondria is at work. It is no accident that prescription painkillers have featured so tragically in recent celebrity deaths, such as those of Heath Ledger and, allegedly, Brittany Murphy. It seems somehow normal to us now that success brings with it agonies that can only be treated with opiates.

Having studied the case histories of various historical hypochondriacs—from Charles Darwin to Marcel Proust—I can only surmise that there is a point of crisis beyond which excessive concern with one's body turns into an actually dangerous or even lethal pathology in itself. It seems that for some sufferers hypochondria is a way of guaranteeing inviolable privacy; consider Proust laboring in his cork-lined room. An inward-tending obsession with one's own body, whether expressed as illness or an excessive urge to improvement, can guarantee certain advantages in the outside world. Unstopped, however, it will tend to the morbid, and few, historically, have had such resources or occasions for self-mutilation as the rich and famous in our century.

We tend to think of hypochondria as a kind of selfishness. The hypochondriac remains a disreputable figure, solipsistic and even immune to the real suffering of others. But psychologists tell us that hypochondria is often also part of a group or family dynamic; the patient acts out the expectations of others who somehow need him or her to be sick. What better description could there be of our attitude—at once awed and repelled, envious and disproving—to the bodies of certain celebrities? What better image of our grisly concern when the heroic patient takes an Icarus fall? The professionally adored may toil to stay youthful and fit. They will be doing it for us, and our morbidly projected fears for our own bodies.

—Brian Dillon is an editor at Cabinet magazine. This essay was adapted from his book "The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives," out next month from Faber & Faber.


Rivoli di carne bloccano il passaggio. Riuscirà il tempo a perforare se stesso raggiungendosi in un abbraccio?

lunedì 18 gennaio 2010



Culture and the Great Depression
The Depression, for all the misery it spread, "also left us with the most buoyant, most effervescent popular culture of the twentieth century".John Gross

Morris Dickstein was born on the same day, in February 1940, that Woody Guthrie wrote his most famous song, “This land is your land”. Dickstein informs us of the fact in the course of Dancing in the Dark, his “cultural history of the Great Depression”, and it is plainly something which gives him a warm glow. Woody Guthrie is one of his heroes.

“This Land is Your Land” was dashed off in what was initially a mood of revulsion. It was conceived of as a populist counterblast to the soaring bourgeois emotionalism of Irving Berlin’s 1938 anthem “God Bless America” – from which it might well seem to follow that Berlin is not one of Dickstein’s heroes. But such an assumption would completely misjudge the breadth of Dancing in the Dark. Berlin is in fact a powerful and admired presence in the book – the Berlin who wrote scores for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in particular. One of his numbers, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, provides Dickstein with a key text, sounding as it does the warning that “there may be trouble ahead”.

Elsewhere, too, Dickstein is heavily preoccupied with entertainment (or with what a cultural historian would once have classified as entertainment, as opposed to art). A good deal of Dancing in the Dark celebrates popular music, and a large portion of it is devoted to Hollywood – emphases which help to justify what might otherwise seem an unduly glamorous title for a book about hard times.

Not that Dickstein is by any means in retreat from his original trade of literary critic. Despite all the allurements of showbusiness, more space is allotted to literature in the book than to any other form of expression, and many different writers are passed under review. There are rewarding accounts of topics as varied as the impact of the Depression on Tender is the Night, and the contrasting visions of the two foremost black novelists of the period, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. There are reappraisals of once-famous figures who have been half-obscured by time, such as James T. Farrell (of the Studs Lonigan trilogy) and Erskine Caldwell (of Tobacco Road). And we are led in some unexpected directions.

Robert Frost, for example, may not seem someone with an obvious claim to a place in a book about the Depression, but Dickstein has some thoughtful and well-justified pages about him. They centre on an analysis of his poem of the mid-1930s, “Two Tramps at Mud Time”. The tramps are looking for work on Frost’s farm. The poet refuses to hire them – it would mean sacrificing some of his independence if he did – and gets on with the job himself. All of which was very much in character. There was no virtue Frost prized more than self-sufficiency. But by implication the poem was also up to the minute, a thrust at the New Deal and the President whom Frost scoffed at in his correspondence as “his Rosiness”.

As a series of separate case studies, the literary sections of Dancing in the Dark are well worth reading. But it cannot be said that they add up to a particularly strong narrative. We zigzag around, without ever feeling that we have arrived at the heart of the story. The nearest thing to a commanding figure is John Steinbeck, singled out as “virtually the only proletarian writer who achieved enduring popular success”. Tracing Steinbeck’s career in the 1930s through its successive phases, Dickstein shows why this should have been so. He pays persuasive tribute to the writer’s reportorial skills, his narrative power and his ability to dramatize “large, inexorable historical movements”, but he seems largely untroubled by the mawkishness and the simplifications.

Meanwhile there is a conspicuous gap or near-gap in his survey of other novelists. Historically, John Dos Passos was as important as Steinbeck (or would have been, if The Grapes of Wrath had not reached a far wider audience than his own books after it was filmed). In literary terms, many would say that Dos Passos was a good deal more important. But although Dickstein doesn’t positively ignore his trilogy, U.S.A., he confines himself to a few passing references, all of which imply that it is irrevocably dated, and to a tepid paragraph about its narrative techniques. There is no attempt to convey the work’s substance or flavour – not even a single quotation.

Dickstein tells us at the outset of his book that he has not tried to be comprehensive, focusing instead “on work that genuinely engages me”. Up to a point, you can only applaud. But you also wonder whether a cultural historian, as opposed to a critic at large, has a right to rely quite so heavily on his own preferences. And as with Dos Passos, so too, to a lesser degree, with the minor political novelists of the period. No one would expect Dickstein to say much, at this hour, about such once well-regarded works as Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited or Robert Cantwell’s Land of Plenty. But a portrait of Depression culture which doesn’t mention them at all is surely a somewhat defective one.

The exclusion of these writers, and others like them, makes one of Dickstein’s positive choices seem all the more curious – not so much the choice itself as the prominence which it is given. The first novel which he considers at length in Dancing in the Dark – he devotes ten pages to it – is Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930), an account of life in a Lower East Side slum which is at once ferocious (in its angry portrayal of squalid living conditions) and rhapsodic (in its invocation of the revolution which is going to cure everything). It is not much of a novel, and Dickstein doesn’t pretend that it is. But he cannot help being taken by its fervour. He sees it as the missing link between “the plebeian Whitman” and “the youthful Allen Ginsberg”.

If Gold eventually achieved a footnote in history, however, it was not as a novelist, but as one of the American Communist Party's most strident apparatchiks, laying down the party line year in, year out in the Daily Worker and elsewhere. Dickstein duly acknowledges and condemns his record in this respect – but only briefly, and with reminders of the early hardships that had helped to shape him. The effect is to make the Gold who wrote Jews Without Money the one who really counts. The remainder of his career, the overwhelming part of it, is seen as an aberration.

The section on Gold foreshadows one of the most marked general aspects of Dancing in the Dark, a tendency to soften the edges of the political commitments and convictions which it records. Dickstein tells us that “when I finally looked into some of the ideological debates of the thirties, whose radical intensity I had admired from afar, I was horrified by the brutality of many sectarian polemics”. But can he really have been as naive as this makes him sound? It doesn’t take long, even from afar, to appreciate the bitterness of the political warfare – above all as it involved attitudes to Communism – which raged among American writers at the time. The details can be found in innumerable studies and memoirs, while a coherent overall account has been available for almost fifty years, in Daniel Aaron’s admirable Writers on the Left. Dickstein naturally knows a great deal about all this. But for the most part he keeps the manifestos and the concrete proposals at arm’s length. He prefers to celebrate a vague radicalism, without asking too many awkward questions about what his writers’ beliefs entailed in practice.

He frequently praises the art of the Popular Front, for instance, most notably in his chapters on Steinbeck and Aaron Copland. He also makes plain – it would have been hard for him to have done otherwise – that it was an art fostered by the Communist Party, as part of a change of strategy designed to win allies on the non-Communist Left. After 1935, the rediscovery of American traditions became, for a time, the order of the day. But what we are not given is anything like an adequate idea of the international context within which this shift took place. (The word “Comintern” doesn’t occur in Dickstein’s index.) And while the phenomenon was a complicated one, which produced some good art as well as propaganda, the first thing we need to know if we are to understand it is that it was part of a worldwide manoeuvre on behalf of Stalin.

Dickstein is equally inclined to tone down the views of the individual artists he discusses, at least when they are figures he admires. His account of the playwright Clifford Odets (“the great poet of Depression fear and Depression longing”) puts too much weight on dreaming and yearning, and not enough on gritty political detail. And writing about Woody Guthrie, he says that “a perverseness drew him even closer to the Communists after the Hitler–Stalin pact of 1939”. In fact, Guthrie supported the pact (and the horrors that went with it) because he was already a Communist, and that is what good Communists did. To talk of “perverseness” creates the wrong impression: it makes it sound as though he was following a personal whim.

When Dickstein turns to films and music, there can be no mistaking the pleasure he takes in his material. Sometimes, it is true, he slips into the routine language of showbiz adulation (“a lovely rendition by the great Gershwin aficionado Michael Feinstein”). But at his best, his enthusiasm is fresh and appealing, and it lends personal force to a paradox which others have felt before him, but few so keenly – the fact that the Depression, for all the misery it spread, “also left us with the most buoyant, most effervescent popular culture of the twentieth century”.

The commonest explanation for this apparent contradiction is that poverty and anxiety intensified the need for escapism. It is not a bad explanation, either, as far as it goes. But Dickstein is determined to dig deeper. He begins with crime or crime-and-punishment films (the gangster classics; I Am a Fugitive from the Chain Gang), and has no trouble in presenting them as social parables, which articulated public fantasies and frustrations. Moving on to the screwball comedies which were one of Hollywood's glories in the 1930s, he argues that they were appropriate romances for a conflict-ridden post-1929 world – tough-talking, hard-boiled and disenchanted (though not, it need hardly be said, to the point of spoiling the fun). His prime exhibit, however, is popular music – and here a positive connection with the Depression might seem harder to prove.

Dickstein offers three different lines of approach. First, he cites a number of songs where references to the Depression were deliberate and unmistakable: the most spectacular example is Busby Berkeley’s lavish number “Remember My Forgotten Man” (an unemployed First World War veteran), from the film Gold Diggers of 1933. Such songs certainly deserve their place in the historical record, but there were not many of them. Second, he detects a new spirit of community and solidarity in the songs of the period. It may be so, but such a generalization needs to be backed up by more evidence than we are given. Finally, he points to the plangency of many 1930s songs, and suggests that it had “a larger cultural resonance”.

One such song is Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s “Dancing in the Dark”, and more particularly the recording of it in 1931 by Bing Crosby. Dickstein writes effectively and affectingly about this (and about Crosby in general – it is good to see him fearlessly praising “Red Sails in the Sunset”). Inevitably, since “Dancing in the Dark” is the song which gives him the title of his book, he asks whether the darkness refers to “the ongoing troubles of the Depression”. But he also raises the possibility that it might refer to something else – to “our own darkest feelings”, for instance, or to “the existential limits of the human condition”. And meanwhile we cannot help reflecting that plangency doesn’t prove anything in itself – that there were lots of plangent songs in the 1920s as well as in the 1930s, and in many a decade before that. The idea that the Depression is taking place somewhere in the background of “Dancing in the Dark” remains suggestive but vague.

That the challenge of the Depression had a beneficial influence on many products of American popular culture seems beyond dispute. Exactly how far that influence stretched is another matter. We are dealing, mostly, with issues of style and taste that cannot be quantified. But it seems reasonable to argue that the qualities Dickstein admires in the popular culture of the Thirties owed more to the past than to the upheavals of the time; that they constituted continuing evidence of American energy, initiative and freedom.

Morris Dickstein
A cultural history of the great depression
598pp. Norton. $29.95.
978 0 393 07225 9


Davanti alle onde dell'oceano le parole si inerpicano con brutale istinto di sopravvivenza. Non vogliono sparire nell'istante in cui l'onda ritornerà all'onda ma godersi epr sempre quell'illusione di amorosa eternità

giovedì 7 gennaio 2010

bellissima intervista de le Figaro littéraire con la figlia di Camus


«Je lui ai dit “tu es triste, papa ?”, il m'a répondu : “Je suis seul.”»

Propos recueillis par Mohammed Aïssaoui

Elle parle lentement, et toujours avec un sourire teinté d'autodérision. Celle qui se décrit comme «l'œuvre mineure d'Albert Camus » a peur d'être mal comprise : il y a eu tant de malentendus - Camus au Panthéon ? Elle ne veut plus en entendre parler. La politique, les polémiques, tout cela l'agace au plus profond. Elle avait 14 ans à la mort de son père, a vécu dans son souvenir et pourtant, celle qui vient de publier un superbe album de photos, Albert Camus, solitaire et solidaire (Michel Lafon), ne voudrait retenir que l'essentiel : «Je n'en reviens pas de cet hommage rendu à mon père.»

LE FIGARO LITTÉRAIRE. - Que pensez-vous de l'hommage fait à votre père, cinquante ans après sa disparition ?

CATHERINE CAMUS. - Je n'en reviens pas. C'est une magnifique reconnaissance, je ne m'y attendais pas du tout. Mais l'agitation provoquée par cet anniversaire chamboule mon quotidien. Quant à cette histoire de « Camus au Panthéon », je ne sais plus quoi répondre, je ne veux plus répondre… Qui suis-je pour dire oui ou non à un tel hommage ? C'est un symbole, le plus grand hommage de la République à un gamin des rues. Tout cela dépasse ma personne. Contrairement à d'autres, je n'ai jamais parlé à la place de mon père ni dit ce qu'il aurait pu penser ou ne pas penser…

Un téléfilm a été diffusé hier sur la vie de votre père qui ne le présente que sous le prisme de ses conquêtes féminines, qu'en avez-vous pensé ?

La seule chose que je souhaite dire, c'est que je n'ai participé en rien à ce film. J'ai même été volontairement tenue à l'écart…

Vous aviez quatorze ans lorsque votre père est mort. Quels souvenirs gardez-vous de lui ?

Le souvenir d'un homme rigoureux, sérieux, mais en même temps plein de vie, drôle, généreux. On oublie qu'il avait beaucoup d'humour, qu'il aimait blaguer. Je me souviens également d'un moment qui m'a marquée - j'avais huit ans, c'était en 1953. Mon père était visiblement triste, je suis allée le voir et je lui ai dit «tu es triste, papa ?», il m'a répondu : «Je suis seul», sans rien ajouter. Vous savez, Camus n'a pas toujours été considéré comme il l'est aujourd'hui. Il a remonté une pente incroyable…

Quand avez-vous découvert ­ l'écrivain qu'il représentait ?

J'ai vu Caligula à l'âge de douze ans, mais j'ai découvert tous ses titres à dix-sept ans, quand il n'était plus là. La Chute et son Discours de Suède m'ont beaucoup marquée, je trouvais cela magnifique. J'adhérais complètement à sa manière de concevoir la mission d'un artiste, celle qui consiste à être libre et à être « l'oxygène du monde ». J'ai également beaucoup aimé son recueil de nouvelles L'Exil et le royaume. Je pense qu'on a tendance à oublier de parler du style de Camus, de sa beauté : il écrit extraordinairement bien et tenait à la précision des mots, à la clarté. Aujourd'hui, encore, je relis toutes les adaptations que l'on me propose - et je veille à ce qu'il n'y ait pas de trahison -, je lis aussi les traductions en anglais, en espagnol et en italien, eh bien, il y a toujours quelque chose à découvrir.

N'en avez-vous pas assez d'être continuellement dans son ombre ?

Ce n'est pas le genre de type qui vous fait de l'ombre. Et la lumière ne m'intéresse pas ! Je fais mon travail du mieux que je peux. C'est vrai, j'aimerais avoir plus de temps pour moi, et je ne suis pas libre du tout… Mais il y a pire comme situation.
E' un articolo delizioso e motlo ebglish-style sulla neve, ovviamente dal punto di vista potrebbe scrivere un romanzo sull'argomento!


The right and wrong types of snowIt can blanket the ground, or melt on impact. A lot can depend on when and where it falls

David Adam, environment correspondent, Wednesday 6 January 2010 17.38
The snowy scenes of a winter wonderland can be harder to create than you may think. There is the type of snow for starters. While rail operators are routinely lampooned for blaming inappropriate varieties of snow for the breakdown of their equipment, the white stuff does come in many shapes and sizes, which do behave differently.

Then there is the heat content and shape of the ground, which can influence the intensity and duration of the snowfall. Moisture in the air plays a role, as does the temperature. Finally, whether it is day or night can influence whether the snow sticks around or melts away. Call it the wrong time of snow. All of which helps to explain why, as the majority of the country today struggled and snowballed its way through a day of blizzards and gritting, workers in central London who looked out of their office windows could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was about. As the Guardian went to press, the snow that did fall on the capital had generally failed to settle.

So what went right?

Ewen McCallum, chief meteorologist at the Met Office in Exeter, said: "The snow in London came down during the day and was not particularly heavy. The temperature of the ground would have been warm enough to melt the snow before it could settle." The snow that blanketed the south-west was similar to the falls in London, McCallum said, but came at 4am. Even the meagre sunlight of a winter's day is enough to lift the temperature of the pavements and roads of a city.

Then there is the urban heat island effect, with all the industry and concrete surfaces acting as giant radiators.

The best time for snow to fall and settle on London is during the night, as happened last February.

The colder air of a nighttime snowfall encourages drier, powdery snow – the type beloved by skiers and snowboarders and dreaded by rail companies.

Wetter snow, easy to spot as the falling individual flakes clump together into bigger chunks, comes when the air temperature is higher. Much higher still, and the wet snow turns to sleet and then rain.

At the other end of the temperature spectrum, can it really, as you will inevitably hear, be too cold to snow?

"I've heard that one before," McCallum sighed. "The answer is no – but there is a but." Extremely cold conditions are often down to a lack of water in the atmosphere, which means fewer clouds, and so less snow.

mercoledì 6 gennaio 2010


Un cenno del destino, mi basterebbe un cenno del destino. A scorgerci in lontananza sembriamo crostacei ricoperti di incrostazioni dei fondali marini, le più antiche. La percezione della mia forma e la forza del mio sentire si annullano dinanzi alla forma vaga del dolore. Senza contorni nè centro, ovunque è dunque la sua forza. Possiamo addomesticare il dolore?


Misurati dall’estremo ogni giorno, ciclicamente, un appunto cui non possiamo sottrarci. Sono dunque diventata più arrendevole. Il mondo che prima amavo controllare mi scivola adesso trattenendo però ancora nei sui rivoli una qualche energia vitale. Siamo vivi e tu non soffri. La morte, se c’è è dall’altra parte della linea. E deve per forza girare, per forza, lo sguardo.


E’ come quando si comincia un romanzo. La pagina è bianca. Tutto può essere detto ma poi alla fine il segreto di ogni letteratura è solo il non detto.
Le mie giornate ormai da molte settimane cominciano così. Intorno una nebbia sottile ma fitta, basta un movimento più intrepido del solito della mano per cacciarla lontano da dove è venuta. E allora il giorno ricomincia per me in quel momento, quando il pulviscolo del dolore si è rarefatto momentaneamente per lasciare spazio al giorno, con il suo dosato carico di azioni, funzioni, pensieri, illusioni. A piccole dosi consumo il mio tempo accanto a te, e in cuor mio spero sempre di non sbagliare le quantità perchè non so allora come reagirei. Vorrei rimanere a letto la mattina, sprofondare nella menzogna di un sonno antico, lasciarmi frastornare dai complessi scenari dei sogni in cui una parte di me è davvero padrona di tutto.
E durante la giornata mi accorgo di quante banalità io dica, scriva ma soprattutto pensi. E scopro che il male rieduca alla banalità, conferendola quel valore portante dell’esistenza di tutti. E’ banale dire e pensare che è bellissimo vivere e frutto di una preziosa quanto oscura alchimia che ogni giorno rinnova un patto ignoto. E banale dire che davanti a me in ospedale sfila ogni mattina un campionario di dolore dove ognuno non riesce a trovare una collocazione e alla vista del quale bisognerebbe ribellarsi andandosene sdegnati. E’ banale dire che per te che mi sei padre provo un bene immenso quanto il dolore che potrebbe generare la tua perdita. E’ banale. Ma sono solo questi pensieri che mi permettono di dare un senso alla mia vita adesso. Scarnificata di tutto è questo ciò che rimane fra le mie mani. E non ha la consistenza della sabbia. Siamo banali nel nostro essere macchine complesse. E lo siamo tutti.


Banale è banale. Per forza che un blog è fatto di parole. Ma questo vuole essere un blog sulle parole. Sul loro scorrere incessante nel tempo e nello spazio riempendo ogni interstizio rimasto in attesa. Ecco, mi piacerebbe che questo fosse il senso di queste pagine e la loro presunzione.