venerdì 30 aprile 2010

The bitter history of sugar

From The Times Literary Supplement April 28, 2010

The bitter history of sugar
A new study outlines the unbearable conditions of the slaves who worked to satisfy the world's sweet tooth
Bee Wilson
It is hardly news that the story of cane sugar is not all sweet. In 1788, in “The Negro’s Complaint”, William Cowper lamented the link between sugar and slavery:

Why did all-creating Nature
Make the plant for which we toil? . . .
Think how many Backs have smarted
For the sweets your Cane affords.

Of all the plantation crops of the Atlantic slave trade – tobacco, cotton, coffee – the most pernicious was sugar. Seventy per cent of slaves on New World plantations were involved in sugar production.

The problem lay partly in the nature of sugar cane itself, as Sidney Mintz wrote in his seminal work of anthropology, Sweetness and Power (1985). This giant thirsty grass, filled with sweet pulpy sap, has always been unusually labour-intensive to grow, harvest and process, requiring lots of water and sun as it grows and clamorous attention to turn the sap into crystalline sugar. As Mintz wrote, sugar cane is “inherently perishable”: it “must be cut when it is ripe, and ground as soon as it is cut. These simple facts give a special character to any enterprise dedicated to the production of sugar”. After the cane was cut, the sap on slave plantations was immediately boiled numerous times and eventually crystallized in inferno-like boiling houses. In 1700 Thomas Tryon, a colonist in Barbados, described the conditions in such houses, places of “perpetual noise and hurry” where slaves were forced to work throughout the six-month growing season:

"The Climate is so hot, and the labor so constant, that the Servants \[or slaves\] night and day stand in great Boyling Houses, where there are six or seven large Coppers or Furnaces kept perpetually Boyling; and from which heavy Ladles and Scummers they Skim off the excrementious parts of the Canes, till it comes to its perfection and cleanness, while others as Stoakers, Broil as it were, alive, in managing the Fires."

The life of a sugar slave in Barbados in the eighteenth century – Age of Enlightenment – does not bear contemplating: the cuts and abrasions from the spiky cane itself in the fields; the risk of losing fingers in the mills; the inadequate rations (despite being surrounded – taunted – by so many sticky calories); the floggings and lashings and other ill-treatment from plantation owners, including the sexual abuse of women; and surpassing all, the lack of freedom: so much misery, as Mintz described, to feed the rising appetite of the British working classes for sugary tea, a substance which mitigated the misery of their own working lives. British per capita sugar consumption was 4lbs in 1700–09; 8lb in 1720–29; 12lbs in 1780–89; and 18lbs in 1800–09.

In 1807, the slave trade in the British Empire was finally abolished. But the British appetite for sweetness continued to grow. And the world of the new “free” sugar workers in the British West Indies was not much superior to that of the slaves. One of the great strengths of Elizabeth Abbott’s readable overview of the history of sugar across the globe is the way it brings to life the continuing and varied iniquities of sugar production in a post-slavery era. In the British West Indies, a system of slavery was replaced by one of indentureship – a technical emancipation which probably did not feel much like liberty to the indentured workers.

The first influx of “coolies” from India and Madeira “died in such numbers”, writes Abbott, “that the indenture system was briefly halted and slightly modified before it was relaunched”. Desperately poor workers were recruited in India and bundled on to a twenty-six-week passage to the West Indies, where they were given flimsy living quarters still known as “nigger yards” and set to work for as much as twenty-two hours a day.

Under the system, if they did not complete their tasks, they received no money. Coolies were often cheated out of their wages, with one planter stopping a whole work gang’s wages for three months to pay for a single missing fork. Working conditions were vile: “Water was scarce and putrid, and few planters provided iron water tanks. Pigs and cattle roamed freely, and their effluvia added to the general filth”. Things were no better for the Chinese indentured workers put to work in nineteenth-century Cuba and Peru. Here, they were often kidnapped or hoodwinked and signed up for an eight-year indentureship – as against five years in the British West Indies. Visiting Chinese officials found a workforce in which “almost every Chinese met by us was or had been undergoing suffering. The fractured and maimed limbs, blindness, the heads full of sores, the skin and flesh lacerated – proofs of cruelty patent to the eyes of all”. As many as 50 per cent of Chinese indentured sugar workers – who were forced to answer to new Spanish names – died during their first year of indentureship. There is a horrible loneliness to cane-cutting, for the high grass obscures your fellow workers; the suicide rate was high among these homesick Chinese “coolies”, whether by hanging or jumping into hot sugar cauldrons.

So much for freedom. Even now, Abbott shows, the lives of cane cutters in many parts of the world are unimaginably grim. Starting in 1791, Toussaint L’Ouverture led a successful slave revolt against French rule in Saint-Domingue, the French colony which at that time produced 40 per cent of the world’s sugar; the result was the independent state of Haiti, which seemed to promise a new life for its inhabitants. Today, hundreds of thousands of black Haitians work the cane fields of the Dominican Republic in conditions not unlike those suffered by their ancestors before Toussaint’s revolt. Abbott travels to the Dominican Republic, where she finds that Haitian workers – some of them adolescents, most illegal immigrants – are not supplied with arm or shin guards “and their flesh bears the scars and gouges of their dangerous profession”. Their pay is US$1.20 per ton of sugar and they live “in shared shanties without water, toilets, or cooking facilities”. She hints at similar injustice in sugar production in El Salvador and Brazil and writes too of how sugar cane has trashed the environment, causing, according to the World Wildlife Fund, “a greater loss of biodiversity on the planet than any other single crop, due to its destruction of habitat to make way for plantations, its intensive use of water for irrigation, its heavy use of agricultural chemicals and the polluted waste-water that is routinely discharged during the sugar production process”.

Yet after listing this litany of horrors, all set in motion to satisfy the world’s sweet tooth, Abbott moves from the realm of “is” to that of “ought”, suggesting all of a sudden that biofuel in the form of sugar ethanol might enable cane sugar completely to remodel its filthy past. Instead of making us toothless and fat, sugar could be used to reduce our oil reliance. And all at once, sugar production would become a utopia. “Equitably paid workers committed to organic, environment-friendly farming will support the sustainable development [of sugar for ethanol]”, she optimistically announces: “fairly traded, environmentally sound and renewable sugarcane and beet should lead the ethanol revolution”.

After the misery of what has come before, this Pollyannaish prediction seems jarring (setting aside the question of whether biofuels are actually a good use for edible crops). Abbott lacks Sidney Mintz’s ability to link up the production of sugar with its consumption. Her chapters on the culinary uses of sugar are much weaker than those on the plantations and are marred by factual inaccuracies: for example, she states that before sugar cane was known in Europe, “people sweetened their food with the more expensive honey”, when in fact honey was far cheaper than sugar in Britain until around 1800, which was a large part (albeit only a part) of why people chose honey in preference to sugar; when sugar prices fell, honey consumption fell and sugar consumption rocketed. Another example: in a cliché of food history, Abbott contrasts British water during the Industrial Revolution (“often tainted”) with beer (“safe to drink and nutritious”). Yet beer itself during this period was often diluted with the said unsafe water and then padded with a range of nasty adulterants, including coculus indicus, a convulsive, which hardly made it “nutritious”.

A more fundamental flaw is Abbott’s inability to ask the really interesting questions about her subject. Could the world sugar trade have grown in the spectacular way it did from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries without plantation slavery? If so, how? And what would it actually take to remodel sugar production into the fair and equitable form she suggests? Scholarly opinion differs as to whether the Arab sugar trade of medieval times was free of slavery, but it certainly didn’t create the same monstrous factory-fields as British-ruled Barbados; but then, the Mediterranean view of sugar was more that of a condiment, to be used sparingly, than the working-class staple it would later become. India – where delicious jaggery is melted into rich rice puddings – provides an alternative model of sugar production, since it has never been plantation-based. In India, writes Abbott, most cane “comes from small peasant holdings and is processed in mills owned either by private capitalists or . . . peasant cooperatives”. And now there is fair-trade certified sugar, much of it produced in Africa, though Abbott, oddly, does not discuss any details of production on fair-trade sugar farms.

The sweet-toothed among us would like to hear whether a life spent in those high lonely grasses of the cane fields has ever been bearable; whether our cravings for muscovado and demerara can ever be justified; or whether we should all switch to maple syrup, tapped by happy Canadians.

Elizabeth Abbott
A bittersweet history
453pp. Duckworth. £20.
978 0 7156 3878 1

Bee Wilson is the author of The Hive: The story of the honeybee and us, published in paperback in 2005. Swindled: From poison sweets to counterfeit coffee – the dark history of the food cheats, appeared in paperback earlier last year.

Irène Némirovsky's fine-weather friends

From The Times Literary Supplement April 28, 2010

Irène Némirovsky's fine-weather friends
As the anatomist of smart pre-war French society, she saw men on the make, women on the prowl – and the fear that would lead to her murder
Frederic Raphael

Nathalie Sarraute’s novel Les Fruits d’or (1963) was a satire, largely in dialogue, about the reception of a novel, greeted as a masterpiece and then shredded to mereness by the literary judiciary. Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française was written in 1941 and 1942; but the manuscript was not discovered, and published, until 2006. Since then, it has gone through a belittling mill similar to that of Sarraute’s fictional fiction. Hailed at first as a posthumous chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, it was talked down into a sort of documentary which did not – as prim critics so often say – “work” as a novel. It works fine, however, as a reminder of how, in May 1940, sauve qui peut became the French order of the day.

Recollected in nothing like tranquillity in the early years of the Occupation, Suite française was composed by an author in increasing danger of deportation to – as her smart erstwhile friends pretended to believe – “work in the East”; in fact, to Auschwitz. While living in suspended animation in rural Issy-l’Évêque, in Saône-et-Loire, Némirovsky had time to recall, with implacable objectivity, the disintegration of Parisian society in flight from the advancing “Boches”. Fearful for her family, she drew with a steady hand a warty profile of the France which had become – in a phrase which Picasso applied to modern art – “a sum of destructions”.

After her arrest in 1942, the sole manuscript copy of Suite française lay, for more than sixty years, in a suitcase in the keeping of her daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, to whom it was given by their father, Michel Epstein, as he too was led away to prison before being dispatched to the gas chambers. His and Némirovsky’s capital crime was that, despite persistent efforts to become naturalized, they were still classed as stateless Jews. If that was the last thing he or she wanted (or considered themselves) to be, it was certainly the last thing they were, despite the family’s recent conversion to Catholicism. Almost all of their social and literary connections were reeds that proved pliant in the increasingly virulent anti-Semitic wind.

In October 1942, Némirovsky’s daughters were able to escape only because a German officer “took from his wallet a photograph of his little girl, who was as blonde as the thirteen-year-old Denise, and said to them: ‘I give you forty-eight hours to get away’”. Némirovsky had managed to send back brave words about her treatment, and the food, in the holding camp at Pithiviers. Michel’s hope was that Irène would return one day to finish (and, no doubt, revise) the contents of the suitcase which carried the initials of his wife’s dead father, Léon. The girls were hidden, until the Liberation, under the care of Julie Dumot, who had been Léon’s secretary. The publisher André Sabatier – the only one of Némirovsky’s fine-weather friends who remained loyal – contrived to keep Julie in (meagre) funds.

During the whole of the war, Némirovsky’s mother, Fanny, was lapped in discreet comfort, thanks to the remnants of her despised husband’s fortune. When the girls sought her help afterwards, she replied that she “had no grandchildren”. She saw them as nothing but evidence of old age, a blight of which motherhood itself had been the first symptom. Fanny died in 1972, at the age of ninety-seven. Denise would recall that she only ever called her grandmother “Madame” and never received so much as a kiss on the forehead from her. Fanny lives on, and on, as Gloria, clamped in the pillory of her only child Irène’s breakthrough novel David Golder.

Its author (self-portrayed, in the same pages, as the amoral playgirl Joyce) was born in the Ukraine, but her first language was French. Both she and Nathalie Sarraute were of Jewish origin, emigrated to France and became important French writers. Sarraute lived out the war in prudent clandestinity and, as old as the century, did not die until 1999. Némirovsky was thirty-nine when she was taken away and murdered. In an interview in 1934, she had quoted an old Ukrainian (Yiddish?) saying, “One ounce of good luck in a man’s life is enough; but without that ounce, he is nothing”. Since she was, at that time, a precocious, bestselling and critically acclaimed novelist, she had reason to observe “I’ve had my ounce” and to believe that it would carry her to secure eminence in her stepmother country.

The applause lavished on the incomplete Suite française (we have only two sections of a planned five) has led to a resurrection of interest in its author. As Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt’s biography proves, Némirovsky was a prolific prodigy in her own lifetime. When La Proie was published in 1938, Jean-Pierre Maxence, in Gringoire (later a savagely pro-Nazi publication in occupied Paris), “rated it a hundred times superior to the ‘overelaborate, artificial, heavy, even lumbering style of La Nausée’”, which the authors describe as “the first philosophical novel by a certain Jean-Paul Sartre”. The archness of the gloss is typical of the obiter dicta with which the authors spruce their diligence.

Anyone who reads La Proie today is likely to second Maxence’s judgement. Its account of political and social mutability between the wars has lost none of its edge. The rise and fall of Jean-Luc Daguergne is that of Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le Noir, transposed to the Third Republic; but less schematic and more trenchantly observed. Némirovsky displays an ability to inhabit male and female sexuality with equal conviction; she illustrates how close desire is to heartlessness, how gratitude spawns treachery and ambition self-destruction. There is often a leaven of comedy. She greatly admired Chekhov (and wrote a biography of him); she also admired Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and Noël Coward’s Cavalcade. “Deep down”, she noted, “acceptance of life is a sense of humour.” The last words were noted in English.

Némirovsky’s father Léon (Leonid) had Khazar origins and the toughness to endure life on his own from the age of ten. He too would be portrayed, with bestselling cruelty (and some sympathy), in David Golder, the novel which enabled twenty-seven-year-old Irène to wake up and find herself famous in 1930. The young Léon wheeled and dealt “from Moscow to the Pacific” (with alcohol the only medicine for his ailing lungs), until he had enough money to marry and head for France, where he prospered until he was brought down, somewhat, in the crash precipitated by Ivar Kreuger in 1932. Le Vin de solitude (1935) contains a dispassionate account of Léon’s financial humiliation and imminent death.

While Irène lampooned her mother’s vanity and social climbing in Le Bal (a novella first published, pseudonymously, in 1929), she never accused her father, however mercenary he could be, of the “resigned mediocrity” which she ascribed, in other places, to the “sagging ghetto Jew”. The world of the shtetl held no charm for the Némirovskys. Yiddishkeit represented everything they wanted to leave behind. Money alone could procure a way out of Russia and into the society about which, even as a girl, Irène had read so much in Stendhal, Maupassant and Balzac.

As The Courilov Affair (1933) shows, Irène’s tense childhood left her with a cruel sense of the glittering fragility of the tsarist regime in which “the Jews” were repeatedly the scapegoats of choice. The name Némirovsky means “one who knows no peace”; it derives from the city of Nemirov, in Galicia, where in 1648, the Cossacks slit the throats of 6,000 Jews. In the pogroms of 1905, the Tsar was an honorary member of the Black Hundreds, whose slogan was “Lynch the Jews, save Russia”. As thousands of Jews were slaughtered yet again, the baby Irène is said to have been hidden behind a bed by the Némirovskys’ cook, Macha, with an Orthodox cross around her neck, “praying that fate would spare her”.

A few years later she starred in a schoolgirl troupe reciting Rostand in Kiev. Congratulated on her French by the governor-general, General Sukhomlinov, she “was excited to find myself face to face with the symbol of terror, tyranny and cruelty. I saw a charming man . . . who had the gentlest eyes imaginable”. After she told him that she went to France every year, he said, “Ah my child, how I envy you . . . ! I wish I could go back and live my whole life quietly there”. When Irène told her nanny that she longed to be French, “Zézelle” said, “You’re right. It’s the most beautiful country in the world”. Why is France the one country that never loses its looks?

In 1917, as revolutionary convulsions shook St Petersburg, Zézelle would drown herself in the icy waters of the Moika, thus supplying a donnée for Les Mouches d’automne and a clutch of other stories. The bad mother and the good servant feature regularly in Némirovsky’s work, and life. Her abiding, and fertile, hatred was directed against the narcissistic Fanny, who milked and betrayed her husband and left her to be raised (as it happened, kindly) by hired hands.

David Golder – in which an ageing financier is portrayed lurching towards a lonely death, on the ship which is taking him from Bolshevik Russia towards Constantinople – has been read as the work of a “self-hating Jew” who “did no favours to her own people”. It also shows how keenly Irène had read Balzac’s Le Père Goriot whose daughters – like King Lear’s Goneril and Regan – are no nicer than the wanton and grasping Joyce Golder.

Did Némirovsky satirize Jews simply in order to ingratiate herself with an alien audience? Anti-Semitism was a stylish conceit in the Parisian circles to which she so diligently sought entry, but the émigrés’ world of conspicuous insecurity was also the one she knew best; it was her life-class. Memory kept it vivid, as it did the scene, from the early days of the Bolshevik revolution, of a mock execution which, in Irène’s view, presaged the horrors to come.

Like Proust, only more so, she at once acknowledged and derided the Jewishness she could never shuck (although females are never quite “Jews”, even to themselves, to the degree to which the anti-Semite takes males to be). Literary “self-hatred” can combine self-advertisement with a play for exemption. Karl Marx’s early polemic against the “huckster race” is an example; Harold Pinter’s bully boy Goldstein, in The Birthday Party, just might be another. Self-criticism is, however, fundamental to Judaism: it metastasized into both Communist and psychoanalytic confessional modes.

Némirovsky said later that she would never have written David Golder (and other stories) in so scathing a tone, if she had known that Hitler was imminent. In fact, the dormant bacilli of the Dreyfus affair, and its vocabulary, were always, like shingles, ripe for resuscitation in the Right as it itched for revenge. Meanwhile, the young Robert Brasillach, although already an acolyte of Charles Maurras’s right-wing Action française, stepped out of the ranks of Tuscany to cheer Irène’s early work: “this young woman of both Russian and Jewish origin . . . [grasps] the secrets of our race better than French writers”.

Only with the rise of Fascism, and then of Nazism, was Brasillach engorged by the prospect of power and happily perverted by the genocidal malice which, some say, has to be excused in Céline’s lethal frivolity. In the same spirit, after the defeat of 1940, Henri Béraud – a “friend” of Némirovsky who had won the Prix Goncourt in 1922 – chose to associate Jews with the English and with Freemasons and conclude, “In all conscience, yes, one should be anti-Semitic”. Anti-Semitism is often less a recondite sentiment than a social contagion; opportunism in its Sunday best. Under the Occupation, it could be worn, with profit, all week. Brasillach then advocated giving “serious thought to the deportation of little Jewish children”.

For all their industry, Philipponnat and Lienhardt lack the critical acuity to deal worthily with Némirovsky’s life and times. The publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the early 1920s is said, straight-facedly it seems, to “give a meaning to the absurdity of the war years”. Later, we read of “the Jewish dread of death, and the panic it instils in its victims”, quite as if Gentiles were immune to any such dread. Then again, the moral of Snow in Autumn and The Courilov Affair is alleged to be that “all effort is pointless and that the individual may not even exist”. After this vacuous philosophizing, the death of Léon Némirovsky in Nice in the autumn of 1932 is ticketed with a sentence that reads “Poor old dad”.

Similarly, when the Epsteins ignored advice to leave for the US, the authors comment, with glib irony, “Where is one safer than in the bosom of one’s family? And Irène Némirovsky’s family, more than ever, was France”. After Némirovsky remarks, in La Proie, “Youth is a precious wine that is usually drunk in a dirty glass”, the authors seek to cap it with “Daguergne wanted crystal, the wine had gone off”. They specialize in caps that don’t fit. When Pétain institutes measures to “squeeze Jews out of society”, they remark, “One cannot really pretend that Vichy encouraged philanthropy”. We are told, further down, that when Denise wore her yellow star to the village school in Issy, no child made any comment. “Yet”, we are then asked, “who at Issy would have criticised her for not wearing it?” As if there were no corbeaux in douce France! A few pages later, the authors explain that Laval, “to satisfy the quotas” (which he had proposed, of candidates for extermination) “would merely suggest that children, even naturalised ones, should not be separated from their parents during this distressing odyssey”.

Suite française occupies a place in Némirovsky’s oeuvre not unlike that of the last section of À la Recherche du temps perdu, in which Proust’s narrator perceives that the gratin to which he has deferred so sedulously, and so long, is a decadent crust. Redemption is recovered personality. Némirovsky’s last work mentions the word Jew only twice. All the vices which had seemed specific to Jews she now realized to be pandemic: her fastidious Parisian aesthete, Langelet, in his flight, cares more for his porcelain collection than for France itself. He scorns the Jewish fugitives hoping to reach Portugal or South America, but all his refinement cannot save him from being run over in the common panic. In the margin of her manuscript, describing his end, Némirovsky scribbled “the end of the liberal bourgeoisie”. Similarly, Hugo Grayer, in the short story “Le Spectateur”, presumes himself too fine for the doomed Europe which he abandons, only to find that he has taken flight on a literally sinking ship.

The Némirovskys’ failure to get further away from danger than Issy-l’Évêque remains puzzling. Their nanny, Cécile, was sure that they could all have crossed into the adjacent “Free Zone” and thence to Switzerland. Irène chose to depend for salvation on the two-faced Paul Morand (whose 1934 satire France la doulce had denounced Jewish movie people as “Parasites”) and his wife Hélène (a salonnière for collabos). Fame was the snare that disposed her to put her faith in men such as Jacques Benoist-Mechin (a priggish Vichy minister and a historian, like the late Alan Clark, half in love with the Wehrmacht) and the schizoid Bernard Grasset, who had made a fortune from publishing David Golder (as well as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) and was soon the dear friend of Otto Abetz, the German “ambassador” in Paris.

Until 1940, Irène’s knowledge of France had been limited to Paris, Biarritz (where her mother went for her annual intake of lovers) and the Riviera. In Issy-l’Évêque she discovered “the marvellously effective malice” of peasant life. In an appended passage of Suite française, aware at last that she was on her own, she wrote: “Hatred+contempt=March 1942 . . . . What is this country doing to me? . . . let us consider it dispassionately, let us watch it lose its honour and its life blood . . . . Everything that is done in France within a certain social class has only one motive: fear. Pierre Laval and the stench of carrion”. Sewing the yellow star on Denise’s school clothes (two months after the child’s First Communion) was Némirovsky’s first experience of needlework.

In those months of rural dread, Irène had time to discover that the Vichy myth of “la France profonde” was as fatuous as her trust in Parisian decency: “Everyone lives in his own house, on his own land, distrusts his neighbours, harvests his wheat, counts his money and doesn’t give a thought to the rest of the world”. Having spent twenty years anatomizing men on the make (and women on the prowl) in the smart world, Némirovsky came abruptly to realize that there were selfish, callous operators everywhere.

One of the sour criticisms of Suite française has been that the main German character is depicted as a piano-playing charmer. He must be based on Lieutenant Franz Hohmann, commander of the “correct” soldiers who bounced dear little “Elissabeth” Epstein on their grey-green knees. Michel Epstein, a fluent linguist, acted as interpreter and received an amiable reference from Hohmann when the latter left for Russia in 1941. Soon afterwards, the bad Germans flew in and licensed René Bousquet (President Mitterrand’s backdoor friend) and his police to do their worst with the “Youpins”.

This is a biography which flows level to its sources. Its thoroughness and its shallowness derive, I suspect, from dual authorship. It lacks any incisive analysis of Némirovsky’s work or of her character. The family’s conversion to Catholicism is treated, altogether too tactfully, as if possibly inspired by some kind of spiritual revelation, of which there is no hint in Irène’s temperament nor trace in her last work. Heine, Mahler, Karl Kraus and Schoenberg (who later reverted to Judaism) all embraced Christianity under social duress. Understandable as Irène’s baptism may have been, it supplied no salvation this side of the grave. The French Catholic Church largely shared Charles Maurras’s view that the defeat of the Third Republic was a “divine surprise”. The Church retrieved its honour, if it did, only in October 1942, when Archbishop Jules Salièges of Toulouse, alone of all his episcopal colleagues, denounced the rafles of Jews from the pulpit.

As for Némirovsky’s “self-hatred”, a single intelligence might have guessed that the mercilessness directed at “her own people” concealed a much wider scorn. Her underlying topic was the interplay of emotion and callousness, the alternations of vanity and despair, in all the players of the world’s game. Imaginative impersonation is the mark of the natural novelist; fiction is where the truth can be found; documentary is too often where it is confected. Némirovsky could play male or female, be villain or dupe, candid or duplicitous. She moved the black and the white pieces with equal versatility. The insolence of her impostures was a function of an isolation from which neither success nor marriage dispensed her.

Melodrama became realism in stories such as The Courilov Affair, set with precisely recalled decor in the top echelon of tsarist Russia. Stored in the writer’s memory, the saccharine Sukhomlinov became the all- too-human Courilov. The conceit – a revolutionary assassin infatuated with the man he has been deputed to kill – was used, more schematically, by Jean-Paul Sartre in Les Mains sales, where Hugo and Hoederer double for Léon M. and Courilov. Léon, the professional terrorist, tells us, early on, that his mother never loved him. The double agent disowns his father and his mother: the mission is paramount, as writing was to Irène Némirovsky.

Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt
Translated by Euan Cameron
466pp. Chatto and Windus. £25.
978 0 701 18288 5

Frederic Raphael’s most recent novel, Final Demands, the concluding volume of the Glittering Prizes trilogy, was reviewed in the TLS on April 23.

Philip K Dick's visionary journals to be published

Philip K Dick's visionary journals to be published

Exegesis, Dick's 'personal laboratory for philosophical inquiry' to be issued in two volumes in 2011

Alison Flood,

A vast set of mostly unseen personal journals in which SF author Philip K Dick "took on the universe mano a mano" has been acquired by a US publisher.

The author of novels including the Hugo award-winning The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Minority Report, Dick died aged 53 in 1982. In 1974, recuperating from having had his wisdom teeth extracted and under the influence of sodium pentothal, the author had a series of visions in which a "pink light" beam of information transmitted directly into his consciousness; these "2-3-74" experiences would inform his writing for the rest of his life, and he would attempt to unravel them in the "Exegesis".

Although a selection from the mostly handwritten journal was published in 1991 as In the Pursuit of VALIS: Selections from the Exegesis, thousands of pages of Dick's journal, including autobiographical material, philosophical speculation and analysis of his fiction, have not been published. The author's daughters, Laura Leslie and Lisa Dick Hackett, said the publication of The Exegesis of Philip K Dick "has been a goal of ours for years", and they were "thrilled" that US publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) shared the goal, acquiring North American rights in the previously unpublished two-volume Exegesis with plans to bring out the first book next autumn.

The journals, which HMH's Bruce Nichols said served "as the foundation for ideas and themes that would appear throughout the work of this visionary author", will be edited by critically-acclaimed author and Dick expert Jonathan Lethem, along with Pamela Jackson, author of a PhD on 2-3-74 and Dick's Exegesis.

"The title he gave it, 'Exegesis,' alludes to the fact that what it really was was a personal laboratory for philosophical inquiry. It's not even a single manuscript, in a sense. It's an amassing or a compilation of late-night all-night sessions of him taking on the universe, mano a mano, with the tools of the English language and his own paranoiac investigations," Lethem told the New York Times . "It's absolutely stultifying, it's brilliant, it's repetitive, it's contradictory. It just might contain the secret of the universe."

HMH also snapped up rights in 39 titles from Dick's backlist, which it will publish in autumn 2011. Nichols said the author's books were "as provocative and cutting-edge today as ever" and that "each generation wants to claim him as its own".

Shakespeare: The Question of Authorship

Shakespeare: The Question of Authorship

Shakespeare is not only peculiar in himself, but the cause of peculiarity in others. The surviving traces of his life, which the Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt describes as “abundant but thin,” depict a man whose parts aren’t entirely in sync: a provincial who grew wealthy but sued for paltry sums, a literary genius who seems never to have written a letter — or owned a book. But the alternate histories offered by people who reject Shakespeare’s authorship are far stranger, abounding in secret ciphers, baroque conspiracies and readings of the plays as fantastical as what’s in them. Barring the discovery of a ­doorstop-size autobiography or the invention of a time machine, we’ll never get a really satisfying explanation of how “Hamlet” and “Henry V” and all the rest were written, only varying degrees of ­improbability.

Five years ago, James Shapiro wrote “A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599,” a meticulous study that rendered a slice of the standard history less implausible. Now, in “Contested Will,” he addresses the authorship question itself. His refreshing method is to zoom all the way out, taking an interest “not in what people think — which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms — so much as why they think it.” Working its way back to the earliest doubters, Shapiro’s book offers both history and historiography, a mix that yields insights even for those who don’t know their “Othello” from their “Pericles.”

Shapiro, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, uses the fight over Shakespeare’s identity to show how our views of the past are shaped by the contingencies of the evidence that reaches us, and how we’re swayed by the changing spiritual weather of our own time. Though dozens of alternate authors have been proposed over the years — four more while he worked on the book, he writes — he concentrates here on what he calls the two “best-­documented and most consequential” candidacies: those of the philosopher and courtier Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The shifts in their reputations over the last 150 years have been sufficiently extreme to think of them as the reverse of Ben Jonson’s famous praise of Shakespeare: they were not for all time, but of an age.

In Shapiro’s account, the mischief of the authorship controversy began with a kind of scholarly original sin. For a new edition of Shakespeare’s writing in 1790, Edmond Malone tried to put the plays in chronological order. He ransacked the texts for any fleeting corollary to Shakespeare’s life and times, an approach that Shapiro equates with having “carelessly left open a fire door.” Once you assume that Shakespeare could write only about things he experienced firsthand, the absence of certain pursuits from his spotty biographical record — falconry and seamanship, for instance — seems to disqualify him as the author.

Two changes in the 19th century brought a mob swarming through that door. New scholarship dared to challenge the sacrosanct authenticity of Homer and the Gospels. Soon afterward, a spate of popular biographies conveyed to a wide audience the scant facts of Shakespeare’s life — largely derived from surviving financial records and legal proceedings — without making clear that it would be strange to see much else survive from the 16th century. Among those bothered by the gap between the extraordinary plays and the rather ordinary life was a brilliant, troubled American, Delia Bacon. She refused to accept that a “stupid, illiterate, third-rate play-actor” could have written works of such “superhuman genius.” Her innovation was to seek the author’s identity in the plays themselves, sketching the “Wanted” poster that skeptics use to this day: a set of qualities that Shapiro distills to “pure motives, good breeding, foreign travel, the best of educations and the scent of the court.” For her, this described the polymorphous genius of the English Ren­aissance: Francis Bacon (no apparent relation to her), who she claimed led a group of politicians-turned-writers who worked jointly on the plays.

To figure out why people bought into this dubious theory, Shapiro uses a technique that could, in the hands of someone less committed to treating all sides fairly, be an instrument of vicious satire: he turns the skeptics’ arguments against them. When he applies to Delia Bacon’s work the kind of close reading that led her to conclude that frustration and lack of prospects forced Francis Bacon to take up his quill, he finds her own frustration and lack of prospects talking. (She had been thwarted in a playwriting career and shamed by a love affair gone wrong; she would spend her final years in an asylum.) Shapiro finds a similar form of self-­revelation in the Baconian advocacy of Mark Twain, who was, after all, a writer with a taste for pseudonymous autobiographical fiction.

By the end of the 19th century, Shapiro writes, the Baconian case had begun to fade, partly because its claims weren’t holding up, but also because of the changing zeitgeist: “Philosophy and politics were out, Oedipal desires and mourning for dead fathers in.” No more cerebral, distant Prospero; the 20th century wanted a conflicted, disenfranchised Hamlet. In 1920, J. T. Looney, a schoolmaster from England, gave it one: Edward de Vere. Born in 1550 (14 years before Shakespeare), the Earl of Oxford spent his life around the court, wrote poems of his own, supported other artists and traveled extensively in Italy, where many of the plays were set. In fact, on a return trip from the Continent, his ship was attacked by pirates, prefiguring the oddest incident in “Hamlet.”

In its most aggressive form, the Oxford theory doesn’t just reassign custody of the plays, Shapiro says; it attempts “to rewrite . . . both the political and literary histories of England.” Charles Beauclerk’s new book, “Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom,” takes the theory to its extreme. It maintains that Oxford wasn’t just the author of the plays, he was the secret son of Elizabeth I, the product of an incestuous encounter between the 14-year-old future queen and her uncle. Furthermore, when Oxford grew up, he slept with his mother, who bore him a son/grandson, Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton — Shakespeare’s patron and the possible “Fair Youth” of the sonnets. (A curious little frisson: Beauclerk, who has also written a biography of Nell Gwyn, cites Oxford as a direct ancestor. Claiming descent from the Tudors, as they are depicted here, is like asking to be adopted into the House of Atreus.)

To those who aren’t related to him, the appeal of Oxford is that he offers what people think they should be looking for when they go looking for Shakespeare. According to Shapiro, Looney was a Positivist who despised modernity and saw in Oxford an aristocratic champion of feudal virtues. Looney’s most famous supporter, Sigmund Freud, thought that the early death of Oxford’s father and the dismaying re­marriage of his mother (assuming she wasn’t the queen, of course) offered the Oedipal basis he needed for “Hamlet.” The hitch in these interpretations is that Edward de Vere didn’t write “Hamlet”; a glover’s son from Stratford did.

Shapiro makes a strong case for William Shakespeare, but he’s more interesting when he argues that we should move beyond this controversy altogether. “Perhaps it’s time to shift our attention from debating who wrote Shakespeare’s works to whether it’s possible to discover the author’s emotional, sexual and religious life through them,” he writes. Blame doesn’t fall only on the skeptics: Shapiro makes the provocative charge that mainstream historians are also guilty of conflating what the characters say and do and what their creator said and did. He cops to doing it himself, and says Greenblatt did it in “Will in the World.” This foraging for autobiography may be popular, but it does violence to Shakespeare. It diminishes what Shapiro calls “the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination.”

I put down Shapiro’s book thinking he sounded awfully quixotic; it’s hard to believe that any study of Shakespeare written in a memoir-crazy era like ours could be as scrupulously modest as he desires and still be worth reading. Then I noticed that such a book had just arrived.

“Prefaces to Shakespeare” is a collection of the essays that the Cambridge professor Tony Tanner wrote to accompany the plays for the Everyman’s Library series. Tanner, who died in 1998, maintains an easy, book-club tone, at once gentle and generous. Though some essays probe more deeply than others (he’s sharpest on the comedies), he’s always sensitive to how the themes of change and regeneration recur. And at almost every juncture, he resists the temptation to speculate out of hand. The origins of Falstaff? “Unknowable.” Shakespeare’s feelings on female sexuality? “Manifestly imponderable.” His motivation for writing “Henry VIII”? “Simply beyond the reach of informed conjecture.” This approach leads him astray now and then — he decides to treat “Pericles” as entirely Shakespeare’s, though we now know the play was a collaboration — but it pays a sweet dividend.

Consider “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” For a stalwart Oxfordian like Beauclerk, this play, like many others, is an elaborate allegory about de Vere’s frustrations and Elizabeth’s schemes. Bottom’s vision after his enchanted night with Titania “is nothing as banal as the dreamlike memory of an ass’s head,” Beauclerk writes; “it is the specter of the crown which the fairy queen’s love for him seemed to portend.” Tanner, by contrast, says that what happens between Titania and Bottom when they leave the stage is “a vital blank which we never can fill in.” Such mysteries are one reason that he felt no “more magical play has ever been written,” and that so many of us go on feeling the same. Sometimes an ass’s head is just an ass’s head.

Jeremy McCarter writes for Newsweek and is the editor of “Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations,” by Henry Fairlie.

Listening to (and Saving) the World’s Languages

Listening to (and Saving) the World’s Languages


The chances of overhearing a conversation in Vlashki, a variant of Istro-Romanian, are greater in Queens than in the remote mountain villages in Croatia that immigrants now living in New York left years ago.
Husni Husain, 67, says he doesn’t know of any other person in New York who speaks Mamuju, an Austronesian language.
At a Roman Catholic Church in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, Mass is said once a month in Garifuna, an Arawakan language that originated with descendants of African slaves shipwrecked near St. Vincent in the Caribbean and later exiled to Central America. Today, Garifuna is virtually as common in the Bronx and in Brooklyn as in Honduras and Belize.
And Rego Park, Queens, is home to Husni Husain, who, as far he knows, is the only person in New York who speaks Mamuju, the Austronesian language he learned growing up in the Indonesian province of West Sulawesi. Mr. Husain, 67, has nobody to talk to, not even his wife or children.
“My wife is from Java, and my children were born in Jakarta — they don’t associate with the Mamuju,” he said. “I don’t read books in Mamuju. They don’t publish any. I only speak Mamuju when I go back or when I talk to my brother on the telephone.”
These are not just some of the languages that make New York the most linguistically diverse city in the world. They are part of a remarkable trove of endangered tongues that have taken root in New York — languages born in every corner of the globe and now more commonly heard in various corners of New York than anywhere else.
While there is no precise count, some experts believe New York is home to as many as 800 languages — far more than the 176 spoken by students in the city’s public schools or the 138 that residents of Queens, New York’s most diverse borough, listed on their 2000 census forms.
“It is the capital of language density in the world,” said Daniel Kaufman, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “We’re sitting in an endangerment hot spot where we are surrounded by languages that are not going to be around even in 20 or 30 years.”
In an effort to keep those voices alive, Professor Kaufman has helped start a project, the Endangered Language Alliance, to identify and record dying languages, many of which have no written alphabet, and encourage native speakers to teach them to compatriots.
“It’s hard to use a word like preserve with a language,” said Robert Holman, who teaches at Columbia and New York Universities and is working with Professor Kaufman on the alliance. “It’s not like putting jelly in a jar. A language is used. Language is consciousness. Everybody wants to speak English, but those lullabies that allow you to go to sleep at night and dream — that’s what we’re talking about.”
With national languages and English encroaching on the linguistic isolation of remote islands and villages, New York has become a Babel in reverse — a magnet for immigrants and their languages.
New York is such a rich laboratory for languages on the decline that the City University Graduate Center is organizing an endangered-languages program. “The quickening pace of language endangerment and extinction is viewed by many linguists as a direct consequence of globalization,” said Juliette Blevins, a distinguished linguist hired by City University to start the program.
In addition to dozens of Native American languages, vulnerable foreign languages that researchers say are spoken in New York include Aramaic, Chaldic and Mandaic from the Semitic family; Bukhari (a Bukharian Jewish language, which has more speakers in Queens than in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan); Chamorro (from the Mariana Islands); Irish Gaelic; Kashubian (from Poland); indigenous Mexican languages; Pennsylvania Dutch; Rhaeto-Romanic (spoken in Switzerland); Romany (from the Balkans); and Yiddish.
Researchers plan to canvass a tiny Afghan neighborhood in Flushing, Queens, for Ormuri, which is believed to be spoken by a small number of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Endangered Language Alliance will apply field techniques usually employed in exotic and remote foreign locales as it starts its research in the city’s vibrant ethnic enclaves.
“Nobody had gone from area to area looking for endangered languages in New York City spoken by immigrant populations,” Professor Kaufman said.
The United Nations keeps an atlas of languages facing extinction, and U.N. experts as well as linguists generally agree that a language will probably disappear in a generation or two when the population of native speakers is both too small and in decline. Language attrition has also been hastened by war, ethnic cleansing and compulsory schooling in a national tongue.
Over the decades in the secluded northeastern Istrian Peninsula along the Adriatic Sea, Croatian began to replace Vlashki, spoken by the Istrians, what is described as Europe’s smallest surviving ethnic group. But after Istrians began immigrating to Queens, many to escape grinding poverty, they largely abandoned Croatian and returned to speaking Vlashki.
“Whole villages were emptied,” said Valnea Smilovic, 59, who came to the United States in the 1960s with her parents and her brother and sister. “Most of us are here now in this country.”
Mrs. Smilovic still speaks in Vlashki with her mother, 92, who knows little English, as well as her siblings. “Not too much, though,” Mrs. Smilovic said, because her husband speaks only Croatian and her son, who was born in the United States, speaks English and a smattering of Croatian.
“Do I worry that our culture is getting lost?” Mrs. Smilovic asked. “As I get older, I’m thinking more about stuff like that. Most of the older people die away and the language dies with them.”
Several years ago, one of her cousins, Zvjezdana Vrzic, an Istrian-born adjunct professor of linguistics at New York University, organized a meeting in Queens about preserving Vlashki. She was stunned by the turnout of about 100 people.
“A language reflects a singular nature of a people speaking it,” said Professor Vrzic, who recently published an audio Vlashki phrasebook and is working on an online Vlashki-Croatian-English dictionary.
Istro-Romanian is classified by Unesco as severely endangered, and Professor Vrzic said she believed that the several hundred native speakers who live in Queens outnumbered those in Istria. “Nobody tried to teach it to me,” she said. “It was not thought of as something valuable, something you wanted to carry on to another generation.”
A few fading foreign languages have also found niches in New York and the country. In northern New Jersey, Neo-Aramaic, rooted in the language of Jesus and the Talmud, is still spoken by Syrian immigrants and is taught at Syriac Orthodox churches in Paramus and Teaneck.
The Rev. Eli Shabo speaks Neo-Aramaic at home, and his children do, too, but only “because I’m their teacher,” he said.
Will their children carry on the language? “If they marry another person of Syriac background, they may,” Father Shabo said. “If they marry an American, I’d say no.”
And on Long Island, researchers have found several people fluent in Mandaic, a Persian variation of Aramaic spoken by a few hundred people around the world. One of them, Dakhil Shooshtary, 76, a retired jeweler who settled on Long Island from Iran 45 years ago, is compiling a Mandaic dictionary.
For Professor Kaufman, the quest for speakers of disappearing languages has sometimes involved serendipity. After making a fruitless trip in 2006 to Indonesia to find speakers of Mamuju, he attended a family wedding two years ago in Queens. Mr. Husain happened to be sitting next to him. Wasting no time, he has videotaped Mr. Husain speaking in his native tongue.
“This is maybe the first time that anyone has recorded a video of the language being spoken,” said Professor Kaufman, who founded a Manhattan research center, the Urban Field Station for Linguistic Research, two years ago.
He has also recruited Daowd I. Salih, 45, a refugee from Darfur who lives in New Jersey and is a personal care assistant at a home for the elderly, to teach Massalit, a tribal language, to a linguistic class at New York University. They are meticulously creating a Massalit lexicography to codify grammar, definitions and pronunciations.
“Language is identity,” said Mr. Salih, who has been in the United States for a decade. “So many African tribes in Darfur lost their languages. This is the land of opportunity, so these students can help us write this language instead of losing it.”
Speakers of Garifuna, which is being displaced in Central America by Spanish and English, are striving to keep it alive in their New York neighborhoods. Regular classes have sprouted at the Yurumein House Cultural Center in the Bronx, and also in Brooklyn, where James Lovell, a public school music teacher, leads a small Garifuna class at the Biko Transformation Center in East Bushwick.
Mr. Lovell, who came to New York from Belize in 1990, said his oldest children, 21-year-old twin boys, do not speak Garifuna. “They can get along speaking Spanish or English, so there’s no need to as far as they’re concerned,” he said, adding that many compatriots feel “they will get nowhere with their Garifuna culture, so they decide to assimilate.”
But as he witnessed his language fading among his friends and his family, Mr. Lovell decided to expose his younger children to their native culture. Mostly through simple bilingual songs that he accompanies with gusto on his guitar, he is teaching his two younger daughters, Jamie, 11, and Jazelle, 7, and their friends.
“Whenever they leave the house or go to school, they’re speaking English,” Mr. Lovell said. “Here, I teach them their history, Garifuna history. I teach them the songs, and through the songs, I explain to them what it’s saying. It’s going to give them a sense of self, to know themselves. The fact that they’re speaking the language is empowerment in itself.”

Was Robert Frost a Modernist?


Was Robert Frost a Modernist?
By Robert Pinsky

Is Robert Frost (1874-1963) a modern poet? Or, in an academic refinement of the term, is he a Modernist?

On the "no" side of that question, it's true that works like "The Road Not Taken" do not unsettle or revise any 19th-century notions of form or idea. Compared with such poems, work by Frost's elder (and, to some degree, his model) Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) may be more disruptive and skeptical.

On the other hand, Frost's greatest poems, such as "Directive" and "The Most of It," do radically challenge and reimagine old conceptions of memory, culture, and ways of beholding nature. Like the distinctly Modernist poets T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams—a half-generation younger—Frost was formed to some extent, when very young, by the late-Romantic taste of anthologies like Palgrave's Golden Treasury. (Williams says he more or less memorized the entire book.) In his own, quiet way, Frost too questions and challenges his pre-modern ancestors, represented by the 19th-century taste of Palgrave's.

This question of categories is interesting not in itself but because Frost himself thought about it. Even in A Boy's Will, his first book (first published in England, when the poet was 40 years old) Frost questions or discards (or laments?), the terms and manners of the generations that preceded him. In "Mowing," for example, the dream of work presents a more urgent and attractive mystery than "easy gold at the hand of fay or elf":


There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

The scythe, explicitly presented as a practical tool rather than a symbol, retains some of its traditional association with mortality. Similarly, the bright green snake is a bright green snake rather than a token of original sin—yet the creature is nevertheless "scared" by the scythe. The literal meaning of "orchises" is "testicles." Observing the snake's behavior, knowing the word's history: These are matters of information, as well as imagination—in a certain sense, factual. The poem takes pleasure in showing how fact is more evocative, more profoundly rich in associations, than the "easy gold" of allusion or myth. The uncertainty of hearing the scythe whisper "[s]omething, perhaps, about the lack of sound" is a more commanding mystery than "the gift of idle hours."

Another poem in A Boy's Willl, "Pan With Us," acknowledges a changed, modern world with a little more nostalgia for the old mythological creatures of poetry. The pathos of grayness in the second line—almost a cinematic dissolve of the old pipe-playing, sexual, half-animal creature—justifies and animates the grammatical inversion of the following line: "The gray of the moss of walls were they," which, like the poem, is partly a lament for old ways and partly a parody of them:

"Pan With Us"

Pan came out of the woods one day,—
His skin and his hair and his eyes were gray,
The gray of the moss of walls were they,—
…And stood in the sun and looked his fill
…At wooded valley and wooded hill.

He stood in the zephyr, pipes in hand,
On a height of naked pasture land;
In all the country he did command
…He saw no smoke and he saw no roof.
…That was well! and he stamped a hoof.

His heart knew peace, for none came here
To this lean feeding save once a year
Someone to salt the half-wild steer,
…Or homespun children with clicking pails
…Who see so little they tell no tales.

He tossed his pipes, too hard to teach
A new-world song, far out of reach,
For a sylvan sign that the blue jay's screech
…And the whimper of hawks beside the sun
…Were music enough for him, for one.

Times were changed from what they were:
Such pipes kept less of power to stir
The fruited bough of the juniper
…And the fragile bluets clustered there
…Than the merest aimless breath of air.

They were pipes of pagan mirth,
And the world had found new terms of worth.
He laid him down on the sun-burned earth
…And ravelled a flower and looked away—
…Play? Play?—What should he play?

The last line echoes a nursery rhyme ("Sing, sing, what shall I sing?/ The cat's run away with the pudding-string …"). That closing, along with moments like "He tossed his pipes, too hard to teach/ A new-world song, far out of reach," leads me to hear the poem as wondering how to make poems for the modern world (or the American world?)—with an implicit vow to try.

Mario Vargas Llosa y Arturo Pérez-Reverte

ENTREVISTA: La nueva cara de dos estrellas literarias
Como dos niños con libro nuevo
Mario Vargas Llosa y Arturo Pérez-Reverte, que se estrenan como autores de literatura infantil, dialogan para EL PAÍS en torno a los retos del género

"Si existiera una máquina del tiempo para ir a las Termópilas, para ir a arponear ballenas o a defenderlas, para ir a China, ¿querrías usarla? Pues ahí la tienes. Esa máquina es el libro". Apenas ha terminado Arturo Pérez-Reverte de dar su receta para animar a los niños a leer cuando Mario Vargas Llosa le dice entre risas: "¡Eso lo traías preparado!"

Vargas Llosa: "Son lectores puros. O los seduces o los aburres"

Vargas Llosa: "Toda la literatura del pasado es incorrecta políticamente"

Pérez-Reverte: "A los niños no los engañas. Si no les gusta, no les gusta"

Pérez-Reverte: "No hay que alejar al lector de la vida, que es una lucha"

Pérez-Reverte: "Una buena adaptación de un clásico te lleva al texto entero"

Vargas Llosa: "El cine no puede reemplazar el efecto de la lectura"
Los dos escritores están en el Círculo de Bellas Artes de Madrid para presentar su primera incursión en la literatura infantil. El novelista peruano se estrena con Fonchito y la luna, ilustrado por Marta Chicote , mientras que el español lo hace con El pequeño hoplita, ilustrado por Fernando Vicente. Con esos títulos arranca en la editorial Alfaguara una colección impulsada por el propio Pérez-Reverte a la que se irán sumando Javier Marías, Antonio Muñoz Molina y Eduardo Mendoza. Antes de la presentación, los dos autores conversaron para este diario delante de un café.

Mario Vargas Llosa. ¿Primero fue la idea de la colección y luego el Hoplita?

Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Estaba leyendo algo sobre la guerra del Peloponeso y me dije: los críos están perdiendo la memoria de las cosas. Antes leíamos la Biblia, la Ilíada... ahora no se lee nada de eso. Pensé en un niño en las Termópilas y escribí el cuento. En media hora. Y al momento pensé que estaría bien que autores que no son de literatura infantil escribieran para niños.

Pregunta. ¿Usted, señor Vargas Llosa, tenía ya escrito Fonchito y la luna?

M. V. LL. No, no. Además, es el primer cuento infantil que escribo. Una vez, hace años, lo intenté pero fracasé. Conocí en México a una chica que tenía una colección de literatura infantil y me lo propuso. Era de un entusiasmo tal que me comprometí a hacer el esfuerzo. Y no pude. Escribí, reescribí... Me di cuenta de que era dificilísimo. Es el género más difícil porque no es escribir para niños, es escribir como lo haría un niño. Hay que entrar dentro de esa visión no enteramente racional.

A. P.-R. Hay un tipo de literatura infantil que habla a los niños como si fueran torpes o bobos. Y los niños tienen una lucidez y una lógica que ya quisiéramos los mayores. La idea de la colección era hacer cuentos para niños con la visión del mundo de un novelista adulto.

P. En la primera línea de su cuento ya se anuncia que los personajes van a morir.

A. P.-R. Los dos son cuentos muy políticamente incorrectos. El de Mario es una historia en la que un niño quiere besar a una niña. ¡Por algo así en Estados Unidos lo meterían en la cárcel por acoso sexual! En el mío un niño habla de morir, de luchar, de guerra, de buenos y malos...

M. V. LL. De la libertad.

A. P-R. Son materias serias. No es el pirata garrapata y la gallina turulata sino cosas que pueden dar que pensar.

M. V. LL. ¿Hiciste la prueba de leer el texto a algún niño?

A. P.-R. La hizo Fernando Vicente, el ilustrador. Se lo leyó a sus dos hijos.

M. V. LL. Yo hice la prueba con una de mis nietas, Aitana, que tiene nueve años. Se lo leí muy despacio y le dije: "Ahora, por favor, cuéntamelo tú". Me lo contó con toda precisión, sin olvidar un solo detalle. No sabes qué alivio.

A. P.-R. Es que los niños son mucho más lúcidos que los adultos. Tú a un niño no te lo llevas al huerto con cualquier cosa. Son tan honrados que no lo puedes engañar. Si no les gusta, no les gusta y te dicen: "No te empeñes papá, no juego".

P. Y no saben si ustedes tienen mucho prestigio o poco.

A. P.-R. Eso es lo bonito.

M. V. LL. Son lectores puros. O los seduces o los aburres.

P. ¿Se debe renunciar al estilo cuando escribe para niños?

M. V. LL. No creo, tu estilo se adapta, se metamorfosea, pero eres tú mismo, ahí está tu manera de ser, tu sensibilidad.

A. P.-R. Yo reconozco a Mario en el texto de Fonchito perfectamente. Un cuento no es un compendio de literatura, pero sí una ventana a una parte del territorio de cada cual.

M. V. LL. Lo importante es que la literatura infantil ayude a salvar la lectura para que no desaparezca. Porque ésa es una posibilidad que no hay que descartar. Hay una lectura utilitaria, para formarse, que no va a desaparecer, pero a la literaria podría pasarle. Se trata de enganchar a las nuevas generaciones.

A. P.-R. Pero con temas graves, serios: el amor, la imposibilidad del amor, los sueños, la libertad, la lucha, la valentía, la lealtad. Son valores necesarios. Que no todo sea blandito: el globito de colores y el monstruito simpático. Lo importante es que la vida real se le acerque a los niños de una manera tamizada y calculada.

P. ¿Qué opinan de la revisión de los clásicos infantiles desde la óptica de la corrección política?

A. P.-R. ¿Estás al corriente de esa polémica, Mario?

M. V. LL. No

A. P.-R. En ciertos ministerios -vamos, en el de Igualdad- se ha dicho que cuentos como La cenicienta o Blancanieves son machistas y hay que apartarlos de los colegios.

M. V. LL. Vamos por mal camino, porque con ese criterio puedes eliminar la literatura universal entera. Si buscan un tipo de corrección política a la manera contemporánea, la literatura del pasado, toda, es incorrecta.

A. P.-R. Y la Historia. Bernal Díaz del Castillo... Imagínate, matando indios de esa manera.

P. Si los niños no pueden andar solos, adiós a Pinocho y a Caperucita ¿no?

A. P.-R. Así los estás apartado de la vida. Y la vida es lucha, soledad, fracaso, frustración, desigualdad. Es moverse por territorios hostiles.

M. V. LL. Y es violencia. La violencia es un ingrediente fundamental. Si eliminas eso entras en una irrealidad tal que la literatura va a perder todo interés para las nuevas generaciones. Es un criterio peligrosísimo.

P. ¿Hay que adaptar los clásicos a los niños o formar niños capaces de leer a los clásicos?

A. P.-R. Las dos cosas. Yo nací en el 51 y por entonces había una colección de historias juveniles con clásicos adaptados. Gracias a ellos muchos llegamos a los grandes autores. Una buena adaptación te lleva al clásico completo, pero tiene que ser una adaptación bien hecha y no marcada por lo políticamente correcto ni por los condicionamientos de moda.

M. V. LL. Un niño no tiene la formación suficiente para leer un clásico. Se aburre. La primera vez que intenté leer el Quijote, en el colegio, me aburrí espantosamente. No entendía las palabras, me extraviaba en aquellas frases tan largas. Las adaptaciones son una manera de ir preparando la sensibilidad. Además, no puedes leer un clásico con la misma mentalidad que se leyó en su tiempo. Hay otra sensibilidad, otra visión del mundo, otro conocimiento. Justamente los clásicos sobreviven a todos los cambios porque hay en ellos algo que tiene que ver con una experiencia fundamental de la condición humana.

P. ¿Cuál fue el libro que les hizo lectores?

A. P.-R. Los tres mosqueteros.

M. V. LL. Yo lo leí cuando tenía ya 13 años. Lo primero que leí eran cosas de aventuras: Ivanhore, Guillermo Tell... Más tarde, sí, Los tres mosqueteros.

A. P.-R. Hay libros que te formatean el disco duro para siempre. Dumas te llevaba a la historia, a las pasiones, a la amistad, había de todo. Sin excluir la traición, la deslealtad... Leí Los tres mosqueteros con siete años.

M. V. LL. Nunca he querido releerlo. Mi recuerdo es tan absolutamente extraordinario que me aterra la idea de que se vaya a desmoronar, que le vea las costuras.

P. ¿Esas lecturas les formaron también como escritores?

M. V. LL. Mi madre recordaba que yo le cambiaba el final a los libros o continuaba las historias.

A. P.-R. Mario nació escritor. Yo lo que quería era vivirlo. Por eso me hice reportero. Quería ser el personaje.

M. V. LL. Los niños no saben distinguir entre la literatura y la vida. Es lo más bonito de las lecturas infantiles.

P. ¿No ha suplantado ese papel el cine?

A. P-R. Hombre, sí, pero hay que asumir que el mundo es así. Ya no es la biblioteca la que marca a un niño.

M. V. LL. Ahora son las imágenes, pero es importante que la lectura no desaparezca, que la visión que llega con la lectura se mantenga viva. El cine, que me encanta, no reemplaza el efecto que tiene la lectura en la imaginación, la sensibilidad y la actitud frente a la realidad.

A. P.-R. El niño es el ser más imaginativo que existe, y el libro le permite proyectar la imaginación, interactuar con el texto. Una película, sin embargo, es un producto más acabado. Ves la imagen, ves al héroe. En el libro tienes que completar tú, tienes que hacer un esfuerzo complementario. La lectura imprime al niño lector un impulso creativo que no tiene el niño espectador.

giovedì 29 aprile 2010

Le malentendu avec les lettres françaises


Par Paul-François Paoli

Sigmund Freud, accueilli par William C. Bullitt (qui lui donne le bras), ambassadeur des États-Unis, arrive à Paris en provenance de Vienne, le 5 Juin 1938. Crédits photo : Credit ©Rue des Archives/AGIP
L'historien de la psychanalyse Alain de Mijolla retrace les relations complexes qu'entretint le «sorcier viennois» avec les écrivains français de son temps.

Freud et la France 1885-1945. D'Alain de Mijolla; PUF, 948 p., 49 euros

Révolutionnaire dans le domaine de la maladie mentale, Sigmund Freud ne l'était guère dans celui de la création littéraire et il est parfois passé à côté de ce qui s'écrivait de plus novateur en France, pays dont il se méfiait parce qu'il n'avait pas accueilli ses théories avec enthousiasme. Il faut lire la somme que l'historien de la psychanalyse Alain de Mijolla consacre à l'aventure de Freud en France pour en avoir la confirmation détaillée. Dans ce livre touffu, parfois trop, Mijolla retrace en filigrane l'histoire des relations du «sorcier viennois» avec les écrivains français de son temps, depuis ses premiers séjours à Paris avant la Première Guerre mondiale jusqu'à son départ pour l'Angleterre, à la veille de la Seconde.

Venu pour la première fois à Paris à vingt-neuf ans en 1885, le jeune élève de Charcot à la Salpêtrière est angoissé par cette ville qui l'inquiète pour la violence potentielle qu'il croit sentir chez ses habitants. «Je crois qu'ils ignorent la pudeur et la peur. (…) C'est le peuple des épidémies psychiques, des convulsions historiques de masse et il n'a pas changé depuis le temps de Notre-Dame de Paris d'Hugo.» Une œuvre qu'il découvre après avoir été bouleversé par ce lieu. «Jamais je n'avais éprouvé une impression semblable à celle que j'ai ressentie en y entrant, ça c'est une église !»

D'une insatiable curiosité, Freud lit beaucoup : ­Voltaire, Balzac, Dumas, Maupassant, et il aime particulièrement La Tentation de saint Antoine de Flaubert. Il lit aussi La Dame aux camélias, mais la déconseille à sa sœur Anna. Trop morbide sans doute. Parmi les contemporains, il admire surtout Anatole France le voltairien, Zola le dreyfusard ; Jules Romains; et Romain Rolland, l'auteur de Jean-Christophe, qu'il vénère pour son pacifisme. Au fond, le théoricien de l'hystérie est un classique qui se méfie des passions et des excès en tout genre. Ainsi, après-guerre, passe-t-il complètement à côté de Céline, qui a si bien illustré la démence de l'instinct quand il se déchaîne.

« Moi qui suis si éloigné de l'art »

«J'ai entrepris de lire Le Voyage au bout de la nuit. (…) Je n'ai pas de goût pour cette peinture de la misère, pour la description de l'absurdité et du vide de notre vie actuelle… Je demande autre chose à l'art que du réalisme. Je le lis parce que vous désirez que je le fasse», écrit-il à Marie Bonaparte, qui va être la grande ambassadrice du freudisme en France. Céline «réaliste», quelle erreur de jugement ! Rien d'ailleurs n'est plus significatif de sa méfiance pour le romantisme que la distance qu'il garde à l'endroit des surréalistes, qui lui vouent un véritable culte.

Depuis André Breton en passant par René Crevel et Georges Bataille, on peut dire que ceux-ci ont popularisé son œuvre, en faisant du rêve une arme subversive et en montrant à quel point le rationalisme pouvait déprimer la vie. Mais Freud reste froid à leur endroit, comme en témoigne sa correspondance avec Breton. «Et maintenant un aveu que vous devez accueillir avec tolérance ! Bien que je reçoive tant de témoignages de l'intérêt que vous et vos amis portez à mes recherches, moi-même je ne suis pas en état de me rendre clair ce qu'est et ce que veut le surréalisme. Peut-être ne suis-je en rien fait pour le comprendre, moi qui suis si éloigné de l'art», lui écrit-il en 1932.

Tout se passe comme s'il craignait de vérifier chez les poètes contemporains ce qu'il pressentait de plus inquiétant en l'homme : la puissance d'Éros enchaînée à Thanatos. En 1923, il écrit à Romain Rolland : «Je conserverai jusqu'à la fin de mes jours le souvenir réjouissant d'avoir pu échanger un salut avec vous. Car votre nom est associé pour nous à la plus précieuse de toutes les belles illusions : celle de l'expansion de l'amour à toute l'humanité.» Quinze ans plus tard, fuyant l'Autriche en voie de nazification, il retrouve Paris pour quelques jours, avant de poursuivre son chemin en Angleterre où il mourra. Un pays qui avait mieux accueilli son travail qu'une France «cartésienne» qui s'est parfois méfiée de celui qu'elle a pris, à tort, pour un ennemi de la raison

Le procès fait à Freud


Le procès fait à Freud

Par Paul-François Paoli

Michel Onfray passe en revue la vie et l'œuvre de Sigmund Freud. Le philosophe plaide avec brio, mais son livre souffre des excès du polémiste.

Cinq ans après la polémique qui avait éclaté au moment de la parution du Livre noir de la psychanalyse, signé par un collectif de psychiatres, de philosophes et de spécialistes des thérapies comportementalistes cognitives (TCC), qui accusaient Freud d'être un imposteur ayant créé une mythologie ascientifique incapable du moindre résultat clinique, le philosophe Michel Onfray passe à son tour à l'attaque. Il publie une charge tonitruante qui se veut tout à la fois une sorte de psychanalyse de Freud, un bilan de sa discipline et un jugement sur les supposées implications politiques de sa pensée.

Onfray a à peu près tout lu des 6 000 pages de l'œuvre de Sigmund Freud, notamment sa correspondance avec son ami et confident, le médecin allemand Wilhelm Fliess, parue dans son intégralité depuis peu. Dans Le Crépuscule d'une idole, il dresse un portrait au vitriol du théoricien de la psychanalyse. Celui-ci en ressort méconnaissable. L'homme, nous dit Onfray, était cupide et cynique, il ne songeait qudevenir célèbre et, après avoir testé diverses techniques pour soigner les maladies nerveuses, dont celle de l'hypnose, il créa la psychanalyse. Celle-ci n'obtint guère de résultat, ce qui n'empêcha pas Freud de «réussir son coup», grâce à son génie de la propagande et de l'intimidation, puisque, selon Onfray, cette théorie est devenue une religion vénérée comme telle. La charge est lourde et le trait épais. Mais le livre fourmille de faits et d'assertions précises. Il pose des questions comme celle-ci :

- Onfray affirme que les hagiographes freudiens ont dissimulé certains aspects de sa vie, notamment le fait que Freud avait prétendu avoir soigné un ami de jeunesse dépendant à la morphine, Fleischl-Marxow, en lui conseillant des injections à la cocaïne, lesquelles auraient achevé de le tuer. Or le livre de Freud Sur la cocaïne, qui évoque cet épisode, aurait disparu de la bibliographie du penseur. Pourquoi ?

- La correspondance avec Fliess, théoricien de la bisexualité qui accusa Freud de plagiat, révélerait le caractère utilitariste de celui qui, à Vienne, prenait 25 dollars de l'heure la séance, soit 450 euros aujourd'hui, et éprouvait du mépris pour des patients qu'il aurait qualifiés un jour de «racaille» juste bonne à faire progresser la connaissance des névroses en faisant, au passage, vivre les psychanalystes. Qu'est-ce à dire ?

- Les premiers patients de Freud, notamment le fameux «homme aux loups», Serge Pankejeff, sont restés inguérissables. Pourquoi Freud a-t-il prétendu le contraire ?

Arrivé à ce stade, le lecteur peut à bon droit se demander pourquoi une gloire mondiale a été dévolue à un tel personnage ? Pourquoi des esprits tels que Thomas Mann ou Stefan Zweig, qui prononça son éloge funèbre, l'admiraient tant ? C'est ici qu'Onfray développe sa théorie et que son propos s'affaiblit. Selon lui, Freud, qui aurait eu une passion incestueuse pour sa mère, une aversion pour son père ainsi qu'une prédilection pour sa dernière fille, Anna, aurait habilement généralisé sa névrose pour en faire un paradigme universel à travers le fameux «complexe d'Œdipe».

Un «idéologue» de la contre-révolution

Le problème du livre d'Onfray, c'est qu'il démontre moins qu'il n'assène. Son argument est plus rebattu qu'il n'en a l'air. Freud en pervers qui verrait de l'inceste partout est une assez vieille antienne. Onfray a certes raison d'insister sur le fait que la théorie de l'Œdipe, comme d'ailleurs l'idée d'inconscient, relèvent de l'intuition, non de la science. Ces notions sont-elles pour autant inutiles ou inopérantes ?

Enfin, dans la dernière partie de son livre, Onfray montre le bout du nez et trahit ce qui le dérange, au fond, chez Freud. Avec sa vision noire d'un genre humain travaillé par la haine et la rivalité, Freud n'était pas un progressiste mais un conservateur. De là à en faire un homophobe, un misogyne ou un raciste, il n'y a qu'un pas

Onfray l'accuse même d'être un «idéologue» de la contre-révolution, avec le chancelier autrichien Dolfuss et Benito Mussolini en héros présumés ! Idéologue, Freud ? Peut-être, à ses heures, comme tout un chacun.

Pourquoi Le Crépuscule d'une idole, passionnant sur le plan de l'enquête biographique, se révèle-t-il frappé du sceau du parti pris et de la véhémence quand il s'agit d'analyser l'héritage du freudisme ?