giovedì 22 luglio 2010

Novel approach: reading courses as an alternative to prison


In Texas, offenders are being sent on reading courses instead of prison. Could it work in the UK?

Anna Barker

With one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and the death penalty, the US state of Texas seems the last place to embrace a liberal-minded alternative to prison. But when Mitchell Rouse was convicted of two drug offences in Houston, the former x-ray technician who faced a 60-year prison sentence – reduced to 30 years if he pleaded guilty – was instead put on probation and sentenced to read.

"I was doing it because it was a condition of my probation and it would reduce my community hours," Rouse recalls.

The 42-year-old had turned to drugs as a way of coping with the stress of his job at a hospital where he frequently worked an 80-hour week. But cooking up to a gram of crystal meth a day to feed his habit gradually took its toll on his life at home, which he shared with his wife and three young children. Finally, fearing for his life, Mitchell's wife turned him into the authorities. "If she hadn't, I would be dead or destitute by now," he says.

Five years on, he is free from drugs, holding down a job as a building contractor, and reunited with his family. He describes being sentenced to a reading group as "a miracle" and says the six-week reading course "changed the way I look at life".

"It made me believe in my own potential. In the group you're not wrong, you're not necessarily right either, but your opinion is just as valid as anyone else's," he says.

Rouse is one of thousands of offenders across the US who, as an alternative to prison, are placed on a rehabilitation programme called Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL). Repeat offenders of serious crimes such as armed robbery, assault or drug dealing are made to attend a reading group where they discuss literary classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bell Jar and Of Mice and Men.

Rouse's group was run by part-time lecturer in liberal studies at Rice University in Houston, Larry Jablecki, who uses the texts of Plato, Mill and Socrates to explore themes of fate, love, anger, liberty, tolerance and empathy. "I particularly liked some of the ideas in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty," says Mitchell, who now wants to do a PhD in philosophy.

Groups are single sex and the books chosen resonate with some of the issues the offenders may be facing. A male group, for example, may read books with a theme of male identity. A judge, a probation officer and an academic join a session of 30 offenders to talk about issues as equals.

Of the 597 who have completed the course in Brazoria County, Texas, between 1997 and 2008, only 36 (6%) had their probations revoked and were sent to jail.

A year-long study of the first cohort that went through the programme, which was founded in Massachusetts in 1991, found that only 19% had reoffended compared with 42% in a control group. And those from the programme who did reoffend committed less serious crimes.

CLTL is the brainchild of Robert Waxler, a professor of English at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. As an experiment, he convinced his friend, Judge Kane, to take eight criminals who repeatedly came before him and place them on a reading programme that Waxler had devised instead of sending them to prison. It now runs in eight states including Texas, Arizona and New York.

In the UK, nearly half of prisoners reoffend within a year of being released from jail. Could programmes like CLTL work on this side of the Atlantic where Ken Clarke, in his first major speech as justice secretary, indicated that more offenders could be given community sentences by putting a greater emphasis on what he terms "intelligent sentencing"?

Lady Stern, senior research fellow at the international centre for prison studies at King's College London, is not convinced. "Research does show that the public are largely pro-rehabilitation, but when you take an idea that involves offenders attending a university campus to be part of a reading group, instead of being sentenced to prison, it asks a lot of even the most thoughtful and socially conscious public," she says.

The initiative was initially met with an inevitable flurry of criticism in the US. Waxler and his supporters were described as "bleeding-heart liberals".

"They were shocked at the idea of offenders going on to university campuses to read books for free while the students were paying their way through education," says Waxler. "Some even thought the offenders would steal from them. It only takes one person to prove them right, but it's never happened."

In Texas, the public have been largely won over by the success rates and how cheap the programme is to run. Instead of spending a lifetime in prison at a cost of more than $30,000 (£19,520) a year, Rouse's "rehabilitation" cost the taxpayer just $500 (£325).

But it is the experiences of offenders, some of whom have never read a book before, that Waxler points to.

"In one group we read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway," he recalls. "The story focuses on Santiago, an old fisherman in Cuba, and opens with some heartache: Santiago is not able to catch fish. We talk about him and the endurance he seems to represent, the very fact that he gets up every morning despite the battering he takes.

"The following time the group meet, one of the offenders wants to share something. He'd been walking down Main Street and he said he could hear, metaphorically speaking, the voices of his neighbourhood. He'd been thinking about returning to his old life, to drugs, but as he listened to those voices, he also heard the voice of Santiago. If Santiago could continue to get up each day and make the right choice then he could do too."

Santiago, a character in a novel, had become the offender's role model. For many offenders, some of whom have spent half their lives in jail, it is the first time they've had a worthy model, says Waxler.

Literacy is a problem. Offenders are unlikely to be sentenced to the programme if they cannot read. However, those with poor reading are not excluded. The groups may read short stories, or excerpts from a novel may be read aloud so that low-level readers can participate.

In the UK, a version of the programme called Stories Connect is running in a handful of prisons with some success, and in Exeter it has recently moved out into the community for people with drug and alcohol problems. But it does not yet have the support of the criminal justice system, so cannot be an alternative sentencing option for the courts.

Retired probation officer Louise Ross voluntarily runs the small group in Exeter. Participants are referred from the Exeter and North Devon Addiction Service, and were, until three-year funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation ran out in April, made to attend as part of a community service order. Now all attendance is voluntary, but stories of how the programme changes lives are no less impressive.

After years of opiate abuse, Steve Rowe, 50, who joined the first Exeter group three years ago, says: "Stories Connect didn't just change my life, it saved it." He explains: "We looked at a section of Oliver Twist, the relationship between Bill Sikes and Nancy. One of us pretended we were Bill while everyone else asked questions. The idea was you responded as much as you could from that character's point of view. It makes you think about what others think and feel, and really helps you to reflect on yourself."

Mary Stephenson, a writer, who runs Stories Connect, says more funding is needed. To date, in Exeter, 96 people have been through the programme, but of these only 29 completed the course. This, she says, is largely due to the chaotic lives of the participants, many of whom are battling with drug problems, and the fact that the groups are not an alternative to prison, which removes the main incentive.

There are plans, again subject to funding, for the University of Exeter to run a research project into the effectiveness of the programme in the UK, both inside prisons and out. But until then, there are no quantitative results that prove the programme reduces reoffending.

Next week, Stephenson is attending a roundtable meeting with prisons and probation minister Crispin Blunt, at which she will make the point that the programme could be achieving so much more.

"In terms of tackling reoffending, we need both more funding and the political support to explore it," says Stephenson. "There's no doubt among the people I've worked with that the success in America could be repeated here."

Waxler agrees: "I think that one of the great testaments of this programme is that it demonstrates clearly that literature can make a difference to people's lives," he says. "I already believed that, but I knew it could also be used to rehabilitate offenders."

Rouse says it is hard to judge how much the reading group should take credit for turning his life around as he'd already made the decision to change.

"I didn't want to lose my family," he says. "But the group did give me the guidance and direction I needed in my life, and without it I'd have spent the rest of my life in jail. It gave me a second chance."

giovedì 15 luglio 2010

The Existential Detective, By Alice Thompson

An uncanny mix of art and science

Reviewed by Nicholas Royle

It was the English Surrealist Gordon Onslow Ford who coined the expression Chirico City, thereby creating a single imaginary home for the near-identical streets and squares painted by fellow artist Giorgio de Chirico. The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, a typically mysterious work by De Chirico, appears on the cover of Alice Thompson's new novel.

Thompson has been working her way through the Surrealists. The jacket of her first novel, Justine (1996), featured Max Ernst's The Robing of the Bride. Pandora's Box (1998) was adorned by Paul Delvaux's The Last Carriage; and The Falconer (2008) by Rene Magritte's Deep Waters. The oneiric atmosphere of the Delvaux cover was a perfect match for Pandora's Box, a bewitchingly dreamlike detective story. As for The Falconer, certain details of cover and text correspond so closely that it's possible the Magritte image was less an illustration and more a prompt for the novel: an uncanny, Freudian tale of identity and mythical beasts.

If you can have degrees of uncanniness, The Existential Detective is Thompson's uncanniest – and best – novel yet. Private detective William Blake is hired by an eccentric scientist to find his missing wife, Louise, who may have lost her memory. Just as Freud's theory of the Uncanny insists that a man wandering around lost will repeatedly fetch up in the red-light district, Will's search takes him to a brothel and to a nightclub, where he develops a sexual obsession with a singer.

He experiences visions and encounters a blind man on the beach. There are coincidences, doubles, machines that may be intelligent, and a number of references to the Sandman. Have I already mentioned Will's sense of déjà vu? But at no point do you picture Thompson with Freud's essay in one hand and a pen in the other, ticking off elements of the Uncanny. Her novel is more organic than that, her storytelling natural and fluid, but never predictable.

This superb novel's Portobello setting, on the coast close to Edinburgh, is authentic and convincing. But the action surely takes place simultaneously a long way from the Firth of Forth, among the ominous shadows and vanishing perspectives of Chirico City.

Nicholas Royle's short-story collection, 'Mortality', is published by Serpent's Tail

Myths and legends of Chopin and Tchaikovsky

From The Times Literary Supplement

Passion, reason, logic, cliché - and music - in the lives of these artists J. P. E. Harper-Scott Families are always trouble. An attempt to foreclose our interpretation of Tchaikovsky was made less than a decade after his death in a three-volume biography written by his younger brother, Modest. It has been foundational to later scholarship, but a stated aim of Roland John Wiley’s new life-and-works study for the Master Musicians series (published originally by Dent, now by Oxford University Press) is to show Modest to be an unreliable narrator.

For Wiley, the combination of Modest’s focus on Tchaikovsky’s letters and the Soviet censors’ subsequent expurgation of them has led biographers to an exaggerated focus on the question of Tchaikovsky’s sexuality. He feels that the connection between that sexuality and the works is neither demonstrable nor ultimately revealing, and adds that in any case Tchaikovsky probably largely abstained from sexual expression. Yet Wiley does not stint on evidence, translating much of it into English for the first time.

Very touching are Tchaikovsky’s letters to his brother Modest in 1876, which show him racked by his urge to perform sexual acts that he admits are contrary to his Christian belief. “Buggermania”, he writes, “forms an impassable gulf between me and most people.” Admitting to thoughts of joining a monastery, Piotr implores his brother, whose sexual interests were similar, to exercise control over himself. Some of the letters are more explicit than others. Of Josef Kotek, fifteen years his junior, he writes,

"When he caresses me with his hand, when he lies with his head inclined on my breast, and I run my hand through his hair and secretly kiss it . . . passion rages within me with such unimaginable strength . . . . Yet I am far from the desire for a physical bond. I feel that if this happened, I would cool towards him. It would be unpleasant for me if this marvellous youth debased himself to copulation with an ageing and fat-bellied man."

If these internal conflicts found their way into the music (as other critics have assumed), then we are left to make the connections ourselves. Wiley separates the music from the life chapter by chapter, which can lead to some rather cold and uninvolving observation; but uncoupling musical works from their composers is a vital critical step, as long as they are not removed from all human context (which would be disastrous).

Wiley’s musical commentary lays occasional critical emphasis on prelest’, a concept veering from simple attractiveness to more dangerous seductiveness and corruption; he regards this as “a Russian element deeper than hackneyed determinants of nationality, enhancing it in pieces where no phrase of folk song ever sounds” – although he still makes plentiful reference to folk elements in Tchaikovsky’s songs, symphonies, operas and other works. It is a characteristic quality of Tchaikovsky’s music that captivates audiences, even if it displeases critics who consider an essentially Teutonic mode of musical “logic” – albeit one associated more with (some works of) Beethoven and Brahms than those of Mozart and Schubert – the touchstone of musical quality. Wiley shares this view with Richard Taruskin and others, and makes effective use of it in examining the particular qualities of “lighter” works, such as the orchestral suites.

When it comes to the “major” works, Wiley is sometimes as happy as other critics to read the music through the life. His interpretation of the Fourth Symphony, for instance, draws interestingly on Russian criticism – here usefully introduced to the largely anglophone readership of the Master Musicians series – to make direct links with Tchaikovsky’s ill-fated marriage in the year of its completion, 1877. In other instances, as when he discussed the ballets and operas, he is happier to show through impressionistic commentary how the music creates a new and vital work of art in response to its narrative or literary text. Again echoing Taruskin, he is particularly good on the qualities of Eugene Onegin, too frequently dismissed by Pushkinistas who insist on the greater complexity of the original only because they are deaf to its evidence in Tchaikovsky’s music.

The Sixth Symphony is a special interpretative case. It was quickly associated with its composer’s death, and has recently been read variously as the erotic drama of his love for his teenage nephew “Bob” Davidov or as an affirmation of his belief in Christian redemption. Wiley reads it more objectively (and more in the “Teutonic-logic” manner) in terms of tonal structures derived from several earlier works, concluding that it is “a salute to Beethoven and the grand tradition and a reconciliation of Tchaikovsky’s personal approaches with Western symphonic thought”. He is similarly level-headed about explanations of Tchaikovsky’s own death. The popular views are that he died either of cholera or violently – at his own or another’s hand. Conspiracy theories have rested on claims that the emperor compelled him to commit suicide on account of his sexual proclivities, and Wiley gently dismisses them: “We do not and probably never will know beyond doubt the cause of Tchaikovsky's death”.

The book is serious and valuable, and presents an excellent synthesis of scholarship that would otherwise almost certainly be inaccessible. It is, incidentally, evidence of the increasing professionalization of the series that around two-thirds of the 451 entries in the bibliography are in Russian, and many more are in German and other languages. In a work of such quality, it is disappointing to find unnecessary irritations such as the faulty presentation of some of the music examples (which cut off part of the left side of the text). The social-sciences style of numerically ordered references is both unfamiliar in musicological contexts and unhelpful when the reader wishes to know to whom certain opinions should be attributed. And it was presumably the unseen copy-editorial hand of the markets that led to the bizarre mismatch between the text, which spells the composer’s name “Tchaikovsky”, and the index, where it is “Chaykovskiy”. A book with the latter spelling would surely sell fewer copies, so readers will have to live with the inconsistency.

Adam Zamoyski’s readable Chopin: Prince of the Romantics tells a familiar story. Chopin, a sick Pole living mostly away from his native land, wrote music as delicate and sad as himself, and died young of a lifelong illness. The author writes in his preface that his latest book is a remodelling of his earlier biography of the composer, published in 1979. New to this version of his story, he says, is a focus on Chopin’s health and his intellectual and social position in early nineteenth-century Europe. His sexual life and his Polishness are the other essential themes.

Chopin’s life is a superficially appealing subject for a narrative, but the life of any figure as tightly bound up as Chopin was with the essential spirit of a nation is always in urgent need of demythologizing, and the present book fails to answer that need. Zamoyski’s narrative instead proceeds irresistibly towards Chopin’s death, to which everything else seems to point the way. So it is that Zamoyski explains, early on, that Chopin’s boyhood exposure to “authentic” Polish music in the countryside, which included “peasant girls singing their songs of love and sorrow, . . . old women chanting in the fields, . . . drinking songs issuing from village taverns”, would be woven into his musical idiolect – not in the way that an English schoolboy might drop impressive-sounding Latin tags into conversation, but as autochthonous linguistic utterance, an unmediated expression of the Polish soul. Even so, early Chopin’s idyll is clouded over with “a vague foreboding that he would not be spending many more such carefree holidays in the Polish countryside” – as if he knew even then what would be coming on page 293.

The authentically human disappears as Chopin’s life is forced into a pre-existing frame. Tales of his self-destructive performing are taken uncritically from contemporary testimony: at a Warsaw soirée, when his improvising is said to have “visibly drained him as he played”, a friend “eventually went up to him and pulled his hands away from the keyboard”. Fine as episodes like this might be as images of Chopin’s commitment to his art – which is not in doubt – they present Chopin through the awe-struck lens of his contemporaries, a Chopin-for-others, not Chopin-in-himself. In the same way, when illness prevented him from writing music during a period in Scotland towards the end of his life, we are told that “for someone whose sole existence had been devoted to the creation of music, this was worse than any physical suffering”. Recent musicology has put the body interestingly near the centre of its discourse about the production and meaning of music, but Zamoyski’s drift here, by contrast, is that the body serves only as a conduit of the sempiternal, its shabby humanity burnt off by exposure to the fires of creativity. Chopin’s evidently impressive improvisation, for instance, is nothing less than “communion with the gods, heaven speaking to mere mortals through the inspired agency of the divine interpreter”. At times like these Zamoyski’s voice is impossible to separate from those of his nineteenth-century sources.

If Chopin’s physical nature is sickly and divine, it is also virtually asexual. Zamoyski is impatient with biographers who have attempted to clarify Chopin’s sexual life; for him, an adolescent obsession with Konstancja Gladkowska was unconsummated, and the superficially plausible evidence of Chopin’s homoerotic relationship with Tytus Woyciechowski unpersuasive. Even in adulthood, sex barely comes between Chopin and his piano. If other biographers have dwelt on his relationship with Countess Delfina Potocka, it is only because they are “distressed to find a sexual blank in Chopin’s first six years in Paris”; similarly, his interest in the sixteen-year-old daughter of his father’s former lodger, to whom he subsequently proposed, “hardly [showed] signs of passion”. Zamoyski may be right, but it is typical of his dehumanizing of Chopin that every sexual partner but one, George Sand, is excluded from Chopin’s world, and although Zamoyski is thoughtful about why she carved the date into her bedroom wall a year after her sexual relationship with Chopin probably began, even in their relationship the emphasis on her nursing (and, later, mothering of her “son”) is predominant.

Zamoyski’s position may be summarized as a paraphrase of Sand’s own: although Chopin had had sex at least once before moving to Paris, “when he found himself on the point of consummating his love for a woman, he would recoil at the thought of transposing his emotions onto the physical plane”. For those of us who believe that humans both have, and are, their bodies, no planar transposition is needed; the mind, too, is carnal. The discredited nineteenth-century view of the non-corporeal, spiritual subjectivity of the artist should have no place in biography today. It does neither subject nor biographer credit to repeat it.

Roland John Wiley
546pp. Oxford University Press.

Adam Zamoyski
Prince of the Romantics 356pp. HarperPress.

J. P. E. Harper-Scott is Senior Lecturer in music at Royal Holloway, University of London. His most recent book as author is Elgar: An extraordinary life, 2007.

Edgy Elizabeth Barrett Browning

From The Times Literary Supplement

Energy, restraint and unresolved tensions in the poet's work and lifeJoseph Phelan After reading a “laudatory article on Miss Barrett” in Blackwood’s Magazine the young Arthur Hugh Clough decided to buy a copy of her recently published Poems (1844), but soon came to regret this impulsive decision to “patronize poetical talent”, as he confessed in a letter to his friend and poetic collaborator Thomas Burbidge: “I have read about half of Miss Barrett, and am rather disappointed with one long poem which I expected to find good, viz. the Vision of Poets: it is all in support of the Painfulness and Martyrdom Poet-Theory, the which I don’t agree to”. Clough was no doubt thinking of the section of the poem in which “Miss Barrett” runs through a list of the “poets true” who have worn the “rugged cilix” of self-mortification, and “died for Beauty, as martyrs do / For truth”. The volume as a whole suggests a desire on the poet’s part to find a place for herself on this list; in the preface she calls poetry “as serious a thing to me as life itself”, and laments that her own life has been “a very serious thing”: “I never mistook pleasure for the final cause of poetry; nor leisure, for the hour of the poet”.

The editors of The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning – the first modern scholarly edition of her poetry – are, by contrast, much more upbeat about her verse, describing it as “edgy”, “visionary”, and “groundbreaking”. Even poems which, on first reading, might seem like dreary exercises in sentimentality or piety are found to have hidden depths of irony or subversiveness. “Bertha in the Lane”, for instance, is a narrative of sisterly self-sacrifice, which concludes with one of the memorably bad lines of which Elizabeth was occasionally guilty: “I aspire while I expire”. Contemporary reviewers read it straightforwardly as an exercise in pathos – “the purest picture of a broken heart that ever drew tears from the eyes of woman or of man” – but modern critics (so the headnote to the poem informs us) take it for granted that the poem is in some sense ironic, and are divided merely on the “degree of irony” implied by the speaker’s confession.

This clash of sensibilities, between nineteenth-century readers, who were keen to see in Elizabeth’s poetry stereotypically feminine qualities of sentiment and pathos, and modern critics determined to construct an “iconoclastic” and radical poet, is played out repeatedly in the notes to the poems, and highlights some of the unresolved tensions in Elizabeth’s work. She is, on the one hand, the poet of the politically explosive “Curse for a Nation” and the ambitious and deliberately provocative Aurora Leigh, rushing “into drawing rooms and the like” with an unsettling message of social and sexual inequality for her contemporaries. She is also, though, the poet of “painfulness and martyrdom” who disappointed Clough, a pious, ascetic, and often rather unattractively dogmatic writer, who seems, at various points in her life, to have found a grim satisfaction in abasing herself before a succession of real and imaginary father figures.

“I count it strange, and hard to understand”, says the narrator of Aurora Leigh, herself an aspiring poet, “That nearly all young poets should write old.” She cites in evidence Pope, a “sexagenarian” at sixteen, and Byron, “academical” in his style while still “beardless”. These examples are not chosen at random; Elizabeth’s early poetry, much of which is published here for the first time, bears unmistakable traces not just of her voracious reading in the work of Pope and his successors, but also of her infatuation with Byron. Many of her early compositions are songs in imitation of Byron (and indeed of Thomas Moore), and she adopted Byron’s passionate commitment to the liberation of Italy before ever visiting the country which became her adopted home after her marriage. She even fantasized about dressing as a boy and running away to become Byron’s page, a daydream which would later find poetic expression in her faux-medieval (and proto-Freudian) “Romaunt of the Page”.

The scope and energy of much of this early work are well represented by the fragment of an Essay on Woman written when she was just sixteen, and inspired by her reading of Mary Wollstonecraft:

Imperious Man! Is this alone thy pride
T’enslave the heart that lingers at thy side?
Smother each flash of intellectual fire,
And bid Ambitions noblest throb expire?
Pinion the wing, that yearns for glory’s light,
Then boast the strength of thy superior flight?

It is, however, also possible to detect in these early and incomplete poems signs of the emotional conflict which led this child prodigy, indulged and supported by her father, to rein in her youthful rebelliousness and ambition, and attempt, at severe psychological cost to herself, to become one of the “lovely, abject things” she criticizes in this poem. A poem of 1827 on the development of genius seems to have led to a falling-out with her father, who criticized the subject as “beyond [her] grasp”, and advised her to “be content with what you can reach”. She clearly took the lesson to heart; the fragment of the poem in question printed here, entitled “The Poet’s Enchiridion”, includes a resonant (if slightly disturbing) metaphor of benign imprisonment, which seems to anticipate and almost to invite Elizabeth’s subsequent physical and emotional decline: “as, against their wills / The little valley prisons many rills / In her green bondage, so my narrow song / Shall turn into one course the gushings strong / Of mind and feeling”.

This “bondage” forces her poetry into stranger and more idiosyncratic shapes, distorted by competing and often unacknowledged pressures. There is unquestionably a movement towards more traditionally “feminine” subjects and styles: graceful and slight poems on flowers, and sentimental but black-edged reflections on childhood. Fretful and suffering mothers seem to have been a popular subject for early Victorian poets – Sara Coleridge has a number of poems in this vein – but Elizabeth wins the prize for the most maudlin contribution to the genre with “The Mourning Mother (of the Dead Blind)”. Her poetry also begins to manifest a severely ascetic and rather truculent brand of Christianity. “A Sabbath Morning at Sea” breaks off from describing the beauties of the natural world with a reminder that “sunless graves” and a “sea commixed with fire” await the poet in the life to come, while “The Dead Pan” offers a weirdly triumphalist account of the silencing of the pagan oracles. Even her cousin John Kenyon, a staunch friend and supporter, complained to her that she “would bring in religion upon all possible opportunities”; and a glance at the closing stanzas of many of the poems written during this period is sufficient to register the capitalized pronouns (“HE”, “ONE”) which herald the predictable moment of Christian resignation or consolation.

This reflex of guilt for the mildest sensual indulgence is especially apparent in those poems in which she articulates her desire for some kind of escape from the increasingly severe physical and psychological restrictions of her life. The editors rightly draw attention to the significance of a much- revised poem called variously “The Island” and “An Island”, a bucolic fantasy clearly inspired by Elizabeth’s love of seventeenth-century poetry, and especially of Marvell, as this delicate description of the flowers indicates: “The rays of their unnumbered hues / Being all refracted by the dews”. Elizabeth’s imagination twined round this fantasy of a tropical or at least exotic island, a “lost bower” of innocence and ease from which she had been exiled, and her feelings about it seem to have been both strong and confused. It is, perhaps, a little too easy, given her family’s involvement with the plantations in colonial Jamaica, to connect this fantasy with the role of Jamaica in her imaginative life; but it is striking to see how many of the poems of discontent and longing (such as “Doves”) invoke the idea of a lost landscape of luxuriant beauty. Elizabeth never visited Cinnamon Hill, her family’s grand residence, but she must have heard stories from her father and brothers about Jamaica, the “loveliest Isle”, which was both the source of her family’s wealth, and the reason for their eventual and drastic loss of fortune.

“An Island” was first published in 1837, but excluded from the 1844 Poems; by the time it reappeared, in 1850, “Miss Barrett” had become Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wife of the poet Robert Browning and mother to Pen. The romantic story of the secret courtship and clandestine marriage of the two poets, as chronicled in their correspondence and represented on stage and film, has, the editors suggest, had a distorting effect on the general perception of Elizabeth’s career, elevating the Sonnets from the Portuguese to a position of undue prominence in the history of her work, and pushing other elements, especially the political poetry of her last decade, into the background. There is some truth in this argument, not least because it is clear that many of the characteristic features of her later poetry are already beginning to emerge by 1844. She had already begun to think of much of her earlier poetry as “weak and inferior”, and to manifest a desire to address broader social and political subjects in her verse. One of the clearest signs of this is her “Locksley Hall”-inspired narrative poem “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship”, an attempt to reflect on the topical subjects of social inequality and class division. A great deal has been written in recent years on Elizabeth’s use of the ballad, usually in an attempt to show that she is doing something innovative with a form popular with many early nineteenth-century “poetesses”. There is, however, an inescapable air of pastiche about many of her ballads and “Romaunts”, with their pseudo-medieval vocabulary (“ee”, “countree”) and their tendency towards schematic and simplified representations of social and psychological problems. This is very clear in “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship”, which attempts, on the one hand, to incorporate the real world of railways and industrialization into its narrative, but reduces the complex reality of this world to the contrast between an impecunious poet and an aristocratic lady. Elizabeth’s “social problem” poems never entirely escape this tendency towards abstraction and simplification; it is still present in the Lady Waldemars and Marian Erles of Aurora Leigh.

The readiness to see marriage and, above all, motherhood, as turning points in Elizabeth’s life cannot, however, be blamed entirely on the patriarchal bias of the critical tradition; it was a reading of her own career which Elizabeth promoted and encouraged. For all of their reversals and subversions of the Petrarchan sonnet tradition, the Sonnets from the Portuguese tell a story of ballad-like simplicity, with Robert rescuing Elizabeth and leading her back towards light and life: “I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange / My near sweet view of heaven, for earth with thee!”. Moreover, as critics have often pointed out, her later poetry makes provocative and deliberately controversial use of a range of images drawn from the roles of wife and (especially) mother to articulate her experience; Aurora Leigh, in an image which alarmed some reviewers, urges the poet to capture “\[upon\] the burning lava of a song / The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age”. The prototypical female narrative of engagement, marriage and motherhood becomes the paradigm of the artist’s journey from self-absorption and solipsism to constructive engagement with humanity.

The poetry of her married life is, for this reason, primarily a poetry of intervention, directed not inwards at her own life and experience but outwards to the great causes of social renovation and national renewal. Many recent critics have attempted to present Aurora Leigh – absurdly described by John Ruskin as “the greatest poem the century has produced in any language” – as the summit of her achievement; but it is, in some respects, a symptom of her physical and emotional separation from England. Elizabeth is still fighting the battles of the 1840s a decade later, and doing so in the anachronistically strident language of Thomas Carlyle. Her “real” life after her marriage was not in England, but, for the majority of the time, in Italy; it was the Italian struggle for national liberation that engrossed her attention, and produced her most directly political poetry, during this period. It also permitted her to indulge her tendency towards hero worship, already exercised in earlier periods of her life on Byron, Wordsworth and (more troublingly) her own father; she was, despite all evidence to the contrary, determined to promote Napoleon III to a deeply hostile British public as the heroic and visionary liberator of Italy.

The Brownings were in Paris in 1851 when Louis Napoleon, the nephew of the first Napoleon and pretender to the throne of a non-existent “Empire”, seized power in a coup d’état. Elizabeth’s letters from this period, available in the recently published Volume Seventeen of The Brownings’ Correspondence, highlight the extent of what John Kenyon (again) called her “immoral sympathy with power”:

"The president rode under our windows on the second of December through a shout extending from the Carrousel to the Arc de l’étoile. The troops poured in, as we stood & looked. No sight could be grander, and I would not have missed it . . . not for the Alps, I say!"

The violent repression of resistance to the coup is dismissed by Elizabeth as the clearing away of “a little popular scum”, and she repeats, to several correspondents, her conviction that Louis Napoleon’s actions have “the sympathy of the whole population”, especially the “tradespeople”, who are all too willing to see him as “le vrai neveu de son oncle”. It is this conviction that underlies her almost mystical exaltation of Louis Napoleon, now Emperor of France, in Poems Before Congress (1860). He has been translated “to the sphere of domination / By democratic passion!”, the universal and free choice of the French people; and he has invaded Italy “unselfishly”, in order to “deliver” the country from Austrian oppression. The fact that he stopped well short of this – and accepted the annexation of Nice and Savoy as the price for his withdrawal – did nothing to diminish the force of Elizabeth’s “democratic passion”. She continued to believe in the Emperor’s good intentions up to the moment of her death, risking what she called “domestic émeutes” on the question with the altogether more sceptical Robert.

There is an attempt by the Pickering and Chatto editors, in the headnote to this poem, to suggest that Robert Browning’s critics have mischievously exaggerated the differences between the two poets on this topic, with the aim of making Elizabeth’s views look unbalanced and indefensible. Whatever the rights and wrongs in this case – and the overwhelming majority of the evidence suggests that Robert thought of Louis Napoleon as a fantasist, charlatan and demagogue – many critics of Robert’s work have treated Elizabeth’s poetry with some disdain. The editors’ vigilant scrutiny of these judgements is, for this reason, fully justified, as is their obvious delight in reclaiming for Elizabeth a number of poems wrongly attributed to Robert over the years, including some, such as “Aeschylus’ Monodrama”, on which his critics and editors have heaped praise.

Part of the reason for these misattributions was Robert’s careful transcription of some of Elizabeth’s poems in his capacity as editor of her work following her death in 1861. He was responsible for overseeing the publication of Last Poems (1862); the final opportunity that Elizabeth herself had to sift and present her own work as she wanted it to appear was in 1856, when she issued the fourth edition of her Poems. The decision to use 1856 as copy text for Volumes One and Two of the Works is prompted by the reasonable desire to respect Elizabeth’s wishes concerning the presentation of her work, but it does produce some slightly odd results; Volume Four, which includes both early poems excluded from 1856 and later publications (such as Poems Before Congress), has a distinctly miscellaneous look. Readers wanting to reconstruct Elizabeth’s career chronologically will have to do a lot of switching between these substantial volumes. The layout of the text itself is also a little puzzling, with the poems in smaller type than the headnotes that introduce them; this is particularly unfortunate in the case of the more uninviting specimens (The Seraphim springs to mind). These are, though, relatively minor matters when placed against the editors’ substantial achievement in restoring Elizabeth’s work to view, and in some cases enabling it to be seen for the very first time; Volume Five includes a wealth of recently discovered and previously unpublished material. With the appearance of this edition, the study of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry enters a new phase; her work no longer needs to be rescued or rediscovered, and can be paid the compliment of genuine critical scrutiny.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Edited by Sandra Donaldson et al
Five volumes, 2,976pp. Pickering and Chatto. £450 (US $795).
978 1 85196 900 5

Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Volume Seventeen, February 1851–January 1852, Letters 2,901–3,000
Edited by Philip Kelly et al
432pp. Winfield, KS: Wedgestone Press. $110.
978 0 911459 34 0

Joseph Phelan is a Professor in the Department of English and Creative Writing at De Montfort University and Reader in Nineteenth-Century Literature. He is co- editor with John Woolford and Daniel Karlin of Browning: Selected poems, published earlier this year, and is writing a book on metrical experiment in nineteenth-century poetry.

Beryl Bainbridge on the art of facing death

Mortality was a constant theme and inspiration in the work of the author Beryl Bainbridge. In one of her final pieces of writing, she reflects on the journey from light to darkness


'To give value to existence death must be regarded as an art': the late Beryl Bainbridge pictured at her home

We die of many things, accidents, tumours, infections, old age. There is only one way to be born, but Death has ten thousand doors for men to take their exits.

Whatever the cause, life ends when the heart stops beating. To give value to existence death must be regarded as an art, which is why the great of this world are remembered with pomp and circumstance in surroundings dedicated to the worship of God. Somewhere, we are told, above the bright blue sky there is another land, one full of joy and free from pain. We are wise to believe it, for we need for sanity’s sake to disguise the alternative...a final, obliterating darkness.

For the starving and oppressed life could be regarded as an unfortunate error, for the rest of us as a baffling mixture of needs and necessities that are seldom satisfied. It is odd that both categories fear a cessation of breath and a return to dust, even those who believe in God; but then, surely it is against nature to think that we have endured so much to arrive at nothing.

For a writer the subject of death is the one most likely to engage and enlarge the imagination. Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, seared history in his description of the French Revolution – “If Bedlam Gates had been flung open wide, there would not have been such maniacs as the frenzy of that night made... On the skull of one drunken lad – not twenty by his looks – who lay upon the ground, a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came screaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot, melting his head like wax.”

When young, I learnt about dying in a children’s story entitled “On Angel’s Wings”. It was written by someone called the Hon Mrs Greene, and it told of a child named Violet who was a hunchback. Her mother kept reassuring her that one day, when Jesus came to claim her, silver wings would sprout from her damaged back. They both wept a lot, in spite of the happiness to come. Then I was exposed to the sad demise of poor Spike in Nicholas Nickleby and little Paul in Dombey and Son. Later still, the school I attended herded us in crocodile to the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall for the showing of British troops marching into what was labelled as a “Death Camp”. We watched as bulldozers scooped up bony puppets and tossed them into pits. Nothing was explained. Nobody cried.

It was the showing of this film that made me want to write books. I even started a novel about a girl being sent to Belsen, but abandoned it on the grounds that it was wrong of me to think I could possibly know what such a sentence could mean.

All the same, the novels that followed centred on death. In the very first one a child died, in the second two children committed a murder, in the third an elderly woman put an end to an American soldier, and in the next a clergyman killed his wife. There were several others that revolved around dying, and when I had used up the stories in my head I turned to events in history, in particular the Crimean War, the sinking of the Titanic and Captain Scott’s fatal journey to the South Pole.

This last subject was my favourite, for in researching the facts I stumbled across a friendship that astonished me.

On 10 February 1913, a search party uncovered the tent containing the bodies of Scott and his two companions. Wilson and Bowers were lying in an attitude of sleep, their sleeping bags over their faces. Scott was sitting half upright, his coat unbuttoned. There were three notebooks and some letters tucked under his armpit; they had to break his arm to retrieve them. Along with a note to his wife there was a letter addressed to J M Barrie, urging him to take care of Peter Scott, his grandson.

In my teens I was employed first as an assistant stage manager and later as an actor at the Liverpool Playhouse Theatre. When the company hadn’t a matinée we went to the Empire Theatre to watch whatever was in production. One afternoon it was J M Barrie’s Peter Pan. Which was why, so many years on, that letter under a frozen arm astonished me.

What could the creator of that strange and magnificent play about Never Never Land possibly have in common with a man whose life had been shaped by the discipline of a naval career? If Scott had died at sea or of old age and been buried in the ground, his end would have been no more than expected; but he had been buried beneath the ice and is still there, 90 years on, perfectly preserved as he drifts towards the sea. He is yet another Lost Boy who has never grown old.

It was at the Playhouse too that I was a lady-in-waiting in the court of Richard II. When I wasn’t on stage I was in the prompt corner, ready to whisper a forgotten line. Of all writers Shakespeare was one who dwelt most on death. “Cry woe, destruction, ruin and decay, The worst is death, and death will have his day.”

I still remember by heart the words in Act III when Richard faced the end to come: “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings;/ How some have been deposed; some slain in war; Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed/ Some poisoned by their wives; some sleeping killed;/ All murdered; for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps death his court.....

I used to recite this in my head when running to Exchange station to catch the last train home. Then, I didn’t think such sentiments applied to me, only to those who were unlucky enough to be royal. But then, Shakespeare, in spite of being a genius, was voicing fears common to us all.

In my day, females were not encouraged to go to gravesides to watch coffins being lowered; the church service was considered harrowing enough. Dropping someone into the earth was a ritual only men could stomach without emotion getting the better of them. The first death I really remember was that of my Auntie Margo who worked in a factory, chain-smoked and liked men. She had been married but her husband, returning from the trenches of the First World War, had succumbed to the gas in his lungs. Although it was assumed she had died of a broken heart, my Dad argued that it was the cigarettes that had finished her off. She left me her sofa, her chest of drawers and a photograph of my grandfather, who had been employed coiling metal rings round barrels in a brewery.

My father died in 1971, of cardiac arrest. My mother telephoned me twice – the first call when he was being carried out into the street on a stretcher. She wasn’t with him because she couldn’t find her house keys. The second time, he’d died in the ambulance. My mother expired a good 10 years later, alone in bed, her teeth under the pillow. For the first time, visiting the funeral parlour, I saw a dead body. My mother was encased in the sort of frilly paper I associated with Easter eggs on display. The red paint on the nails of her fingers crossed piously on her chest was chipped, the little finger particularly. I stooped to kiss her and her cheek was like ice; my tear bounced back into my face. I still have her teeth, in a cardboard box beneath a picture of Napoleon.

Next to go was my brother, in his fifties. We were not alike – so I thought – for he went to university, studied law, and sang in the church choir. We hadn’t been close, although in childhood we had huddled together on the stairs listening to the violent interchanges between our parents.

His burial was in Montgomery, a village in Shropshire in which, when little, we had spent our summer holidays. There were people standing, heads bowed, outside the doors of their houses as the funeral cars drove slowly down the country roads. I couldn’t understand how my brother had become so revered. It was only when attending to the words of the vicar that I learnt that he had been both the mayor and the county coroner – that man whose job it is to know how and why someone has died. So we were alike after all, in that we both had an interest in death.

I find it odd that the onset of life, that mingling of sperms followed by that shattering expulsion from the womb, should be regarded as less interesting than its termination. In literature birth is dealt with sentimentally. Maybe it’s because babies are sweet, opening their mouths to emit that first howl, and the dead are frightening because they’re unable to cry.

In our youth, as the philosopher Schopenhauer observed, we contemplate our life like children sitting in a theatre before the curtain has risen, eagerly waiting for the play to begin. Full of high hopes, it is a blessing that we don’t know what is going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times when we might seem like prisoners, condemned, not to death but to life, as yet all unconscious as to what such a sentence might mean.

There are some endings to life that are classified as peaceful, among them that of Dr Samuel Johnson, a man who when alive was terrified of what was to come. He had his reasons. He wrote in his collection of Prayers and Meditations that when he surveyed his past life he discovered nothing but a barren waste of time, with some disorders of the body and disturbances of the mind which he hoped God had made him suffer to excuse many faults and deficiencies. He confessed his fear to his friend, Dr Adams, Master of Pembroke. “As I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted”, he said, “I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.”

Dr Adams asked him what he meant by damned. “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly,” answered Johnson, passionately and loudly. And yet, when his final moment came – he was in his bed in Bolt Court, watched over by his two lodgers, the servant Frances Barber whom he had rescued from slavery, and the bad tempered Mrs Desmoulins – he expired, so we are told, without panic. One assumes he no longer felt that his sins had obliterated his space in Heaven. But then, how could he be sure?

Does the slowing down of existence lead to a blurring of the brain, a loss of memory, a sensation of emptiness that is classified as a feeling of peace? Was Johnson so close to that final sleep that he was no longer conscious of the world he had once known? Had all the sins he had committed, the destructive accusations, the damning criticisms, faded into the darkness?

We can but ask, if so great a man as Johnson could be lost, which of us can be saved? Perhaps with death all his fear vanished, and the angels said to his soul, as they said to that of Gerontius, “It is because then thou didst fear, that now thou doest not fear./ Thou hast forestalled the agony, and so/ For thee the bitterness of death is past.”

I think of death a lot, indeed always have, although when young I had a belief that it was a long way off. Now, it isn’t, and I continually think of how I would prefer to pass from light to darkness. I don’t want to be run down by traffic, be shot by a madman, or suffer a sudden shock to the heart. I would like, if possible, to be so conscious of what was coming that I had time to write down a few thoughts on paper. I would remember my parents, the love I once felt for them, and for my husband who left so many years ago, and try to put into words the joy my dear children have brought me.

Animals are more content with existence than humans, and fly from death instinctively, without knowing what it is. Accordingly, their lives carry less sorrow, but also less pleasure. We, on the other hand, cherish a belief that there is another life to come. And yet, if we look at life in its small details, how ridiculous it all seems once death approaches. We should remind ourselves to the last breath that what mattered was tolerance, patience, regard and a love of a neighbour. And if we managed that, maybe we’ll find that other land.

Beryl Bainbridge (1934-2010). This essay was originally written for BBC Radio 3, and first broadcast in March 2009. Her funeral is today, at St Silas the Martyr, London NW5

Louis MacNeice and friends

Anthony Blunt at school, Eliot when drunk, absent Auden and present love affairs in the letters of Louis MacNeice

David Wheatley

The Greeks thought of the past as stretching out before them while the future waited behind their backs. As a sometime lecturer in Classics and translator of Aeschylus, Louis MacNeice would have needed no reminding of this, but the experience, in April 1939, of sitting down in New York on board the departing Queen Mary to write Eleanor Clark the longest letter of his life might nevertheless have seemed uncomfortably Greek in its symbolism. He had met Clark a few weeks before and fallen badly in love with her, but was returning to Britain amid much uncertainty. He had lectured at Birmingham University and Bedford College through the 1930s, but correctly sensed his future did not lie in the academy. Behind him lay an unsuccessful first marriage, and waiting for him in London a complex relationship with Nancy Coldstream, the “married friend” of his letters to Clark. His friends W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood had crossed the Atlantic in the other direction in January 1939, but MacNeice sensed the coming conflict would be “his” war, and was reluctant to miss out on history.

It was not the first time MacNeice had envisioned the United States as an escape route. In a letter to his sister written in 1911 but not reproduced in Jonathan Allison’s splendid and masterfully edited Letters of Louis MacNeice, he outlined a plan to “run away on a raft” and disguise himself “in my Indian suit” among the natives of North America. For all his desire to escape, it was someone else’s disappearance that most strongly coloured MacNeice’s early years. In 1913, when he was six, his mother Lily had a hysterectomy and was moved to a Dublin nursing home: MacNeice never saw her again, and she died the following December. She features in only two letters here, each written during a painful wrangle in 1929 with his prospective mother-in-law, who had demanded medical evidence that Down’s syndrome (from which MacNeice’s older brother suffered) was not hereditary. Explaining the situation to John Hilton, he comments “I have worked out that I am really a mistake (i.e. my birth ought to have been forbidden)”. This morbid identification was summarized by his sister Elizabeth in 1974: “I believe that [Louis] had an irrational idea, perhaps only partly conscious, that his birth had caused his mother’s illness and death”. “Come back early or never come”, MacNeice would write of his childhood in “Autobiography”, though as the poem reminds us, creatively it remained very much there, albeit in dark and unsettling form.

The rectory at Carrickfergus, where MacNeice’s father was the incumbent, lent itself all too well to the mood of inspissated gloom in which, to quote “Autobiography” again, “The dark was talking to the dead”. But away from home too MacNeice did not lack for damply over-sized, unwelcoming spaces. Between 1917 and 1926 he boarded first at Sherborne and then at Marlborough, where he roomed with Anthony Blunt. Reading his early letters conjures not just MacNeice’s account of these years in his unfinished memoir, The Strings Are False, but Stephen Dedalus’s Clongowes days in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the picture each book paints of forbidding authority and its challenge to an unformed young mind. Riddles are a recurrent theme. He participates in a debate on “whether Keats deserves to be called a poet” (no was the answer, by a margin of sixteen to two), decides the music of the spheres is caused by saints’ halos “turning round like gramophone records”, and sends his sister “much love and contempt”. The intimate connection between these childhood years, with their absent mother and chilly school dorms, and the death-haunted poems of his last years, has long been apparent, but to have the young MacNeice’s testimony, and in such detail, cuts unmistakably to the heart of the trauma.

Boarding school sees the question of nationality begin to obtrude. In a much-cited passage from The Strings Are False, MacNeice parades his disdain for Orangemen and their Twelfth of July marches to a teacher at Sherborne, only for a second, Irish teacher to enter the room and ask what he was saying. He is left feeling “guilty and cheap”. Loss of face also features in a letter of 1918, which describes another teacher’s verdict on England forever sending “silly people to take care of Ireland”: “He said it was just the same as if a new headmaster came to the Prep., and somebody flung a pellet at him and it hit his eye and he rubbed his eye and didn’t say ‘who flung that pellet?’ then”. Anglo–Irish tensions were more than familiar from home, where MacNeice’s father had risked Unionist ostracism by refusing to sign the Ulster covenant of 1912 and would later refuse permission for the Union Jack to fly over Edward Carson’s grave. In 1922 his stepmother omits to write “England” on the envelope and her letter goes to Marlborough Street College in Dublin instead, reminding us of the long, difficult history of finding MacNeice’s correct address in the larger poetic scheme of things. The Irish mote in MacNeice’s eye at public school in England was as nothing to the beam that blocked, for many years, his acceptance as anything other than a satellite of W. H. Auden, but even as he shuttled between Carrickfergus and boarding school in the 1920s the story of MacNeice’s critical naturalization as an Irishman was still a long way down the road.

Engrossing though these early letters are with their constant grumbles about fountain-pen nibs and fondness for kittens, Egyptology and the word “anent”, the sheer proportion of this volume they occupy is worth remarking. The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin and The Letters of Ted Hughes assign, respectively, thirty and ten pages to the first twenty years of their subjects’ lives, while the almost 1,800 pages of T. S. Eliot’s published letters to date also allow a mere ten pages for his youth and teens. However memorably rendered, the headmasters, prefects and rugby captains of MacNeice’s school years cannot help merging into a composite entity, as one chafes for the more engrossing dramatis personae awaiting us in Oxford. Yet when Oxford finally arrives, it is not without surprises. The great friendship of this period, the reader might decide, was not with Auden but Blunt. Though later judged “irredeemably heterosexual” by Blunt, MacNeice shows a rare camp side to Blunt, which reappears in the in-jokes of “Hetty to Nancy” in Letters to Iceland. Any fantasies Blunt might have entertained of MacNeice’s amenability to his advances (as conjectured in an editorial footnote) will have suffered a reverse with MacNeice’s marriage in 1930, but here too we confront a blank: the courtship was hasty enough, but the first letter between the couple to feature here postdates their break-up in 1935. Is MacNeice the letter-writer the full MacNeice, and, if not, where is he hiding?

The absence of key correspondents who might have been expected to feature more strongly, Auden for one, gives the 1930s years a breathless, jittery feel, as MacNeice abruptly goes from the prentice rhymer of his debut collection Blind Fireworks to publishing fifteen books between 1935 and 1941. For all his busyness in the literary marketplace, MacNeice cannot be described as much of a hustler, in the sense of cultivating critics and contemporaries. In 1939 he turns down a chance to feature in a television programme on America because of the “petty generalisations” he sensed the producers required, and, as he reports to Clark, recommends Stephen Spender instead. The touch of archness here is amusing (a note alerts us to the rivalry between MacNeice and Spender at the time, and in May 1941 MacNeice condemns Spender as “deplorably soft”), but it is hardly less amusing to find Allison quoting John Sutherland on Spender, as recently as 2004, as “England’s leading young poet” of the time. Some period orthodoxies die hard.

And then, in 1939, comes Eleanor Clark. The letters to Clark form the emotional core of this volume, and dominate the thirty-nine months between the love-struck missive from the Queen Mary and the short note, in July 1942, informing Clark of his impending marriage to Hedli Anderson. His quarrels with Clark are a peculiar mix of passion and something like editorializing, in the vein of the more discursive passages in Autumn Journal. As a member of the Partisan Review set, Clark loathed Stalinists with sufficient vehemence for MacNeice (a most unlikely Marxist apologist) to spring to their defence. He badgers her about her physical reserve, even as, back in London, he is conducting several overlapping liaisons. Will he return to the States? Will she come to London? “Tossed by circumstances” as he is (Clark’s accusing words), nothing is certain; in May 1939 he even proposes they go to the South of France. The path not taken beckons most tantalizingly in a letter of May 14, 1940, which ambles its way to the most oblique and not entirely grammatical of marriage proposals (note the missing “for us”): “I might get to a position where it would be not only practically more convenient but psychologically more satisfactory to get married to each other”. A week later the prospect has receded (“Your letter wasn’t quite what I expected & I am really angry with you”), if not definitively, then far enough for the urgency of MacNeice’s wish to remain in the US to begin to fizzle out. MacNeice had many occasions to rebuke Clark for political obtuseness, but the accusation she has levelled at him in the offending letter (partially reproduced in a note) is nevertheless shocking: “You have, darling, an awful lack of curiosity about the world”. If only, once, he could have turned back in the street to “read something at a newsstand”, “I would fall really in love with you”. MacNeice has been accused of many things, but a lack of attention to the newspapers has rarely if ever been among them.

The simultaneity of his involvement with Clark and the build-up to and outbreak of war is a powerful factor in the strength of MacNeice’s feelings – and the strength of his arguments with her. Philip Larkin’s non-committal attitude in his letters to the Second World War has done nothing to deter those who would make a collaborator-in-waiting of him, but MacNeice’s initial response to the war too was less than clear-cut. While deploring Auden and Isherwood’s pacifism, he presents his preference for Chamberlain over Hitler as a “choice of evils” rather than an identification with the state of Britain. For all MacNeice’s resolve not to miss out on the war in Britain, his reaction to the spectacle of the London Blitz in a poem such as “Brother Fire” is deeply ambivalent (“Did we not on those mornings after the All Clear, / . . . Echo your thoughts in ours? ‘Destroy! Destroy!’)”. The ambivalence takes comic form too, as when in 1941 he gives a lecture to a group, as he believes, of Central European refugees, referring repeatedly to “our country” and “In this country”, only to discover “they were all British”.

But mostly it is the possibility of casual death that occupies his thoughts: writing to Frederick Dupee in 1941, he recounts with fascinated detachment walking home to breakfast “through blazing streets (tinkling with falling glass) to find all the windows in my own street blown in & my own house full of soot & broken glass & plaster”. Talk persists of him helping Clark to set up as a writer in London, and of a month-long trip to the US in 1941, but what began as a maddening ocean of separation all too perceptibly settles into first a pretext and ultimately a convenience, and after his marriage to Hedli the correspondence stops. MacNeice’s steeliness about moving on can be seen in a chatty long letter to his first wife Mary Beazley, after their separation, in which he brushes aside her concerns for his state of mind (“you must really quit worrying about me or thinking I am sad because I AIN’T”). What he calls his “functioning vitality” is always ready to hand to sweep him along to the next relationship, and if there was inner turmoil about his break-up with Clark (or other, future relationships), it does not find an outlet here.

MacNeice is one of the great poets of instantaneity, of the present moment “And then the minute after”, as he puts it in “River in Spate”, but it is wrong to see in him a celebrant of sensuous immediacy alone, sheltering his humane scepticism and emotional self-reliance from the encroaching ideologies of the 1930s and after. If the poetry of his middle years represents a fatal sag at the centre of the Collected Poems, the tussles with abstraction that get the better of the stale poems of the 1940s and 50s had never been wholly alien to his work. He may have been the least tempted of 30s poets to exchange the honest confusions of liberalism for the certainties of the Party line, but few poets delighted as much as MacNeice in the rough and tumble of New Verse questionnaires on the engaged poet, soul-searching on the individual and society, and all the other period furniture of debate which he does so well to come through with his readability intact. Out of the crucible of this conflict comes Autumn Journal, but out of it too, with hardly less intensity, come the letters to Clark. MacNeice typically finds an antipathetic stimulus – bad politics, impatience with the short lyric poem, journalese – and sparks himself into life against it. A letter to T. S. Eliot of April 7, 1944, in which he declares the unlikelihood of his writing any short poems in the near future reads like a wilful tryst with the muse of abstraction that would preside over the next decade of his work, but in 1932 he writes in almost exactly the same terms to John Hinton (“I don’t think I shall write many more short poems – one has to be rather childish for that”). It failed to stop him in 1932, and the dry middle years failed to stop the breakthrough to his late lyrical triumphs. Seeing these statements of disillusion in context, as the dramatic feints they are, is an important corrective to the distorting patterns and false teleologies we might otherwise impose.

The outraged response that greeted Larkin’s letters showed the danger of partial and tendentious readings, but the vagaries of what does or does not survive of a correspondence can also colour the view of posterity. Auden rarely kept letters, and his correspondence with MacNeice is represented here by a solitary letter (and one, later letter from Auden to MacNeice). Nor are there any letters to Spender, Day-Lewis (so much for MacSpaunday) or Isherwood. His letters to Eliot are businesslike throughout – the one surprise, though not in a letter to Eliot himself, coming when he reports (to Clark) encountering Eliot “blind drunk” in a Tube station, “rocking on his heels & staring at me vacantly”. The absence of group gossip among the four points of the MacSpaunday compass hampers our sense of MacNeice’s dealings with his Oxford peers, but his dealings with other literary contemporaries too appear to have involved him more in time at the pub counter than at his writing desk. The death of Dylan Thomas affected MacNeice greatly, but Thomas does not feature among his correspondents here; nor does William Empson (“a filthy fellow”, in a 1934 letter to John Hilton), despite their years as colleagues at the BBC. Larkin puts in an appearance in 1958, as a fellow editor (with Bonamy Dobrée) of a PEN anthology: Larkin took a poor view of MacNeice’s work ethic, and complained to Kingsley Amis that he became “lazier and duller witted” as time went on (“and me more acutely critical and increasing in integrity”). Equally unrevealing, at the death, are the affectionate but terse letters to his third wife Mary Wimbush (“You are to be happy”).

MacNeice’s early death is not the only source of might-have-beens in this volume. Like Coleridge, that lifelong genius of the prospectus, MacNeice was a seasoned hatcher of schemes as transient as the mayfly of his celebrated early poem. In 1961 he talks John Freeman of the New Statesman into sponsoring a jaunt to Ireland to cover an Ireland–England rugby game: the commission foundered, Allison reports in a footnote, when “his driver in Ireland ran out of petrol” (MacNeice did eventually file an article on the following year’s Ireland–England game, in February 1962). A longer-lived but equally doomed project was The Character of Ireland, which MacNeice planned to edit with W. R. Rodgers, and whose principle raison d’être, the longer it dragged on with no obvious end (or beginning) in sight, was to facilitate boozy editorial get-togethers in Oxford, or benders in Ireland with Dominic Behan.

Sometimes the project does get completed but fails to match the chat surrounding it in the letters. MacNeice travelled to India in 1947, attending the midnight session of the Constituent Assembly at which independence was declared, but the unengaged “Letter to India” that resulted (in Holes in the Sky) falls far short of the vivid and marvellous letters he sends his wife, as when he interviews an eccentric industrialist who is also head of the Indian Cow Protection League (“the cow is like your mother, only more so; she goes on giving you milk”). Several long-haul trips followed in the next decade, to Ceylon, Ghana and South Africa and back to the US, but we quickly reach a point where “the hotels are all the same”, as he put it in the late poem “Solitary Travel”, and not just the hotels but the rugger-talking cronies and cultural attachés.

The pace of both MacNeice’s drinking and romantic entanglements picked up considerably in his last years, coinciding with domestic unhappiness and upheaval (Hedli asked him to move out in 1957), but also his luminous last two books. Solstices (1961) and The Burning Perch (1963) may seem death-shadowed collections, for all their vitality (“all our games” are “funeral games”, he writes in “Sports Page”), but this is to risk another false teleology: these are not the poems of a man who felt his end was nigh. Had MacNeice died in the late 1950s, the arc of his creative life would have been seen to peak a decade and a half before – then fall away; but as it is, in yet another blank, the comet-blaze of his last books is not accompanied, in his letters, by anything like the revelations of these to Clark. The poet had recovered, but the letter-writer had not. His final months find him enjoying Francis Bacon and Beyond the Fringe, before the BBC field trip to a Yorkshire cave in August 1963 which brought on his fatal bout of pneumonia. The very last letter, written from his deathbed, expresses a “great desire to be in on the oyster festival at Clarinbridge” in Galway. Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley were twenty-four at the time and Derek Mahon, who was to elegize MacNeice unforgettably in “In Carrowdore Churchyard”, just twenty-two. It is a wrench to think of the letters MacNeice might have lived to exchange with this brilliant later generation of Northern Irish poets.

As editor, Jonathan Allison has in general struck a happy balance between the skimpy apparatus of, say, Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art and the creeping ivy of over-annotation that sometimes threatened to choke the first volume of Beckett’s letters. If Eleanor Clark’s first husband, Jan Frankel, is incorrectly shorn of the e in his surname at one point, elsewhere Achill Island, where MacNeice honeymooned with his first wife, is compensatingly rendered as “Achille”. A description of Walter Starkie that decks him out in no fewer than nine honorifics (“CMG, CBE, MA . . .”) is either a piquant dig at this largely forgotten figure, or excess of scholarly zeal. If the text of the letters speaks from the “drunkenness of things being various”, the editorial small print stays conscientiously sober throughout, but without spoiling the party.

There is hardly a great writer in his or her letters who does not have a repertoire of styles and registers from which to choose, depending on the correspondent and the occasion. MacNeice was no exception, but the question of where the real MacNeice lurks in all this persists. A recurrent complaint among MacNeice critics is that his delight in cliché, pub talk and transience is a mask for aloofness, the “essential absence in his make-up” that Ian Hamilton diagnosed, reviewing Jon Stallworthy’s biography in 1995. In 1955 he concedes to Hedli, the person to whom he gave most, “I don’t suppose I ‘give’ much”. Another moment of painful recognition occurs in a letter to Clark of 1941 in which he jibs at a description of him in Time magazine as possessing a “flaccid” heart. MacNeice comments: “It ain’t true but I know what they mean. If I survive this mess, it (heart) will be what it wouldn’t have been otherwise – but, all the same, what it was to have been from the start”. As self-analysis, this is more than a little opaque. Emotional flaccidity is the price to be paid for his uncertainty over Clark, and something he could have avoided, either by acting more decisively or by not getting involved in the first place; and yet it is also his predestined condition, Clark or no Clark. The brief note in which he breaks the news of his marriage conjures an Olympian height: “What I said before about you & me perhaps is what really applies: we met on top of a mountain & should leave it at that”. For all his newspaper-reading, pub-going, and hymning of the ordinary life, a significant part of MacNeice remained in residence on that mountain top, and it was on its difficult heights that he was able to reveal himself more fully and humanly than ever before or afterwards.

Jonathan Allison, editor
768pp. Faber. £35.
978 0 571 22441 8

David Wheatley’s collections of poems include Mocker, 2006, and Lament for Ali Farka Touré, 2008. His work features in Identity Parade: New British and Irish poets, published earlier this year.

In Sickness


Collection CNRI/MedNet — Corbis

Cancer is a dark and bleak journey. And the best writing about it, like the best travel writing, brings back rumors and news to us — vivid and unsparing — from a far land that most of us do not ever expect to visit.

A Memoir of Mothers, Daughters, and the BRCA Gene
By Sarah Gabriel
259 pp. Scribner. $25

My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me
By Bruce Feiler
240 pp. William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers. $22.99

A Mother, a Daughter, a Reporter’s Notebook
By Katherine Rosman
307 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $25.99

Such books about serious illness and grief — with cancer, grief always follows, nipping at our hearts — inevitably bring to mind the best of the genre, memoirs like “The Year of Magical Thinking,” by Joan Didion, and “Intoxicated by My Illness,” by Anatole Broyard. Both of those books make the personal universal, are as keen and direct as a boning knife. They understand, as Broyard writes, that “stories are antibodies against illness and pain.”

The authors of these three new cancer memoirs, knowingly or not, employ narrative strategies that distract us from the potentially important stories they have to tell. They use literary flourishes and the tools of journalism as a kind of placebo to avoid delivering the strong medicine the reader craves. When it comes to cancer books, we need the thing itself, not the window dressing.

Sarah Gabriel’s “Eating Pomegranates” is the best of the lot. Gabriel rails at and tries to understand the mutation on the BRCA1 gene that caused her mother’s breast cancer and, in turn, her own — a disease that might leave her young daughters, Michaela and Kitty, motherless, just as she was.

But the book comes swaddled in a very British, sometimes tedious literary voice. Using the myth of Demeter and Per­sephone as a writerly device in telling a story of breast cancer doesn’t help the reader. It’s almost as if Gabriel believed that purplish prose could somehow inoculate her and her family after the fact from the physical and spiritual pain the disease causes.

When Gabriel, a journalist, lets herself get beyond the notion that she’s ­writing a cancer memoir, her book shines. She knows profoundly, for example, the ­outside-of-life life of being in the hospital: “I’m in intensive care, with two ­nurses to look after me. . . . I am in love with them both.” And: “The clock on the wall says 1 p.m. When I open my eyes again, it says 3 p.m. Where has this gap of time gone? If Time can fall down a crack and vanish from consciousness in amounts of two hours or more, can it be said to exist at all?”

And she writes well about the physical indignities of treatment, about the friends and acquaintances who don’t quite understand: “Everyone’s mother has a friend. They all got breast cancer and they all survived. It was always down to their amazing fighting spirit. And if you don’t exhibit enough of it, and publicly enough, you’re in serious trouble.”

The Council of Dads in Bruce Feiler’s book is made up of the six men he reached out to when he learned that he had a ­seven-inch cancerous tumor in his left femur that might kill him. Afraid that his 3-year-old twin daughters, Tybee and Eden, would be left fatherless, he asked these men to serve as his voice, his soul, once removed.

In real life, the idea of the council seems to have been a touching and shrewd sentiment. But constructing a memoir around it presents problems. Each of the men sounds like a good guy, but their stories, as told by Feiler, aren’t all that interesting. And given that Feiler is still alive and writing, their presence is a distraction from the heart of the matter: how Feiler copes with his aggressive cancer.

One crucial question to demand of any memoir of illness and grief is, What did the writer learn? And “The Council of Dads” works well when Feiler, the author of the best seller “Walking the Bible,” addresses that question. In those intimate passages, he tells us what it’s like to “walk” Cancer Land.

Much of the book is flat, but the seven sections called “Chronicles of the Lost Year” have more life to them, feel less mediated. Those chronicles grant us the insights of the seriously ill, bear news from a shadowy realm:

“I was forced to lay fallow. I took off the trappings of contemporary life — vanity, ambition, pretense — and entered into a sort of parallel time where I was compelled to do things the Bible envisions. Be needy. Be a stranger. Be uplifted by those around me. Be reunited with the ones I love.”

“If You Knew Suzy,” by Katherine Rosman, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, reads like a magazine article that got out of hand. It feels self-absorbed (like a dreary episode of “Sex and the City”), centering on Rosman; her sister, Lizzie; and their mother, Suzy Rosin, who was killed by lung cancer at age 60.

Rosman doesn’t offer many insights in this memoir of grief. Didion, in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” lets us peer into the Möbius strip of the obsessed and grieving mind, admits to us that “grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves.”

Rosman, however, chirpily tells us that on the day their mother died, she and her sister “dug into Mom’s wallet, harvested her credit cards and went shopping” — an argument, I suppose, for keeping all cash and credit cards squirreled away under the mattress when not in use.

Hiding behind her reportorial persona, rather than grappling with her grief, Rosman decides to understand her mother better by tracking down those who knew her. The problem is that Mom often comes across as vain, materialistic and manipulative: “ ‘It’d be very healing for me if you had a baby,’ my dying mother said not once but several times. (Can you believe she went there? Nor could I.)”

Writers are drawn to cancer the way crows and flies are called by a dead woodchuck on the turnpike. It’s up to the author not to turn his or her head away, to look hard at cancer, its treatment and after­effects, to share with the reader the “hard sweet wisdom” that Didion writes of.

In the end, no matter how well you write, the best narrative strategy is this: Tell the white-boned truth, and try to stay alive.

Dana Jennings, an editor at The Times, writes regularly about dealing with cancer and life after it for the paper’s “Well” blog. His book “What a Difference a Dog Makes” will be published in November.

sabato 10 luglio 2010

Ten of the best caves in literature

John Mullan
The Guardian

The Odyssey by Homer

In the land of the troglodyte Cyclops, Oysseus and 12 of his men visit the cave of the giant Polyphemus to ask him for food. But he makes them prisoners in his lair, which is sealed by a giant rock. Each day he eats a couple of them. How will they escape?

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

Mammon invites Sir Guyon back to his home, "an huge cave, hewne out of rocky clift, / From whose rough vaut the ragged breaches hong, / Embost with massy gold of glorious gift". The cave is stacked with coffers, the dark and dirty abode of one dedicated to amassing wealth. Guyon virtuously rejects all that he is offered and escapes.

"Endymion" by John Keats

Keats loved any grot in the "deep-delvèd earth". Tormented by amorous emotions, Endymion finds brief respite in the Cave of Quietude. "Happy Gloom! Dark Paradise!" We all need some time in a cave. "There anguish does not sting; nor pleasure pall."

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Tom goes with Becky Thatcher on a picnic to McDougal's Cave, but they get lost underground. They happen on local rogue Injun Joe, who is using the cave as a hideout. Injun Joe perishes in the bowels of the earth, while Tom and Huckleberry Finn find a hoard of gold.

A Passage to India by EM Forster

No one has ever been inside the celebrated Marabar Caves near Chandrapore, until Dr Aziz takes old Mrs Moore and young Miss Quested on a tour. Miss Quested is discombobulated by the caves' distinctive echo, and something bad happens to her. She accuses Aziz of assaulting her, but something weirder has happened down in the darkness – we never know quite what.

Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie

The beautiful Arlena is murdered on the island where Poirot is on holiday. Near the body is the Pixy's Cave, where investigators find heroin. The drugs are a red herring, but the cave is the key to the killing. The victim has been persuaded by the murderer to hide in the cave until the time is right to kill her.

Moonfleet by J Meade Faulkner

In the village of Moonfleet, John Trenchard joins up with friends who are smugglers. Wounded and on the run from the excisemen, he hides in a sea cave invisible from the land, where "when the wind blows fresh, each roller smites the cliff like a thunder-clap, till even the living rock trembles again".

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

In the Egyptian desert, Almásy and his fellow explorers find a cave decorated with ancient paintings of swimmers. Almásy's affair with Katharine Clifton is discovered by her husband, Geoffrey, who tries to kill them by crashing his plane. Almásy carries his badly injured lover into the cave, where she will die when he is unable to get help in time.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner

In Garner's children's classic, Susan discovers that a family heirloom is the Weirdstone, whose magical powers attract all manner of evil beings. With her brother Colin she is guided by the wizard Cadellin Silverbrow into the caves of Fundindelve, beneath Alderley Edge in Cheshire. In the Cave of the Sleepers they see King Arthur and 140 knights, snoozing until they must awake to fight the powers of darkness.

Quarantine by Jim Crace

Crace's novel re-imagines Jesus's 40 days and nights in the wilderness. In the Judean desert, ascetics and religious zealots live in caves and commune with their gods. The strangest is the Galilean, who finds the most inaccessible cave, where we experience his religious ecstasy. "He called on god to join him in the cave with all the noises that his lips could make."

martedì 6 luglio 2010

Sai HQ "Cachalote", com textos de Daniel Galera e desenhos de Rafa Coutinho;

colaboração para a Livraria da Folha
A esperada HQ brasileira "Cachalote" (Companhia das Letras, 2010) finalmente chega ao mercado. Com argumento do escritor Daniel Galera e desenho de Rafael Coutinho, ela é composta por um grande e rico mosaico de personagens.

Formada por uma trama entrecortada por seis histórias, a publicação mostra um ator chinês decadente, um escultor endurecido pela vida, um filhinho de papai perdido em sua vazies existencial, um vendedor com taras por cordas e sua frágil namorada, um escritor divorciado e uma idosa que dá a luz a um bebê.

A obra desvenda pouco a pouco cada um dos personagens e, entre momentos que ultrapassam a realidade e às vezes se misturam com os sonhos, mostra os valores que cada um dá aos acontecimentos da vida.

Em um mercado onde a maioria das publicações ficam reduzidas aos fanzines e à internet, "Cachalote" tem forma e conteúdo comparáveis a qualquer grande publicação dos quadrinhos mundiais.

Os traços detalhistas de Coutinho chamam a atenção. O artista, filho do cartunista Laerte, demostra segurança e personalidade própria. O desenhista também participou de "Bang Bang", projeto de histórias de faroeste escritas por brasileiros e americanos, editada pela Devir, entre 2004 e 2005.

Daniel Galera representa uma das novas gerações de escritores nacionais e é autor de "Cordilheira" (terceiro lugar no Prêmio Jabuti 2009), "Até o Dia em que o Cão Morreu" e "Mãos de Cavalo".

Frida Kahlo's birthday presence

A Google doodle tribute
The rare power and intensity of Frida Kahlo's work makes Google's decision to honour her on its homepage richly deserved

Today is the birthday of Frida Kahlo, born in Mexico on 6 July 1907, and Google USA has decorated its homepage in honour of this socialist feminist icon. Quite right too. Kahlo was one of the most fascinating portraitists of the 20th century. Her subject was herself, but her character, adventures, sufferings and talent made her more than worthy of her own scrutiny.

Kahlo's paintings hang in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and have been exhibited at Tate Modern in London, yet critics love to take her down a peg. The surrealist movement, with which she was broadly affiliated, liberated many female artists to explore identity and sexuality, but Kahlo was the most forceful of all. Her vision overtly draws on the violence of ancient Mesoamerican art, with the blocky strength of an Aztec carving, the intensity of a Mayan myth. So why is she so often dismissed by art snobs?

Her fame grew dramatically in the 1980s and 90s, as she was collected by Madonna and celebrated as an iconic female artist. It is always tempting, when an artist is celebrated as an inspiring, accessible hero, for superior types to sneer that the emperor has no clothes. In Kahlo's case the insidious suggestion, muttered by mostly male critics, is that the painter had no talent. A gift for self-publicity, a passionate charisma, sure – but her art, it is claimed, does not live up to the legend.

And yet it does. Self-portraiture is an exercise at once traditional, going back to Dürer and Rembrandt, and modern, speaking directly to the paradoxes and uncertainties of identity in a changing world. Kahlo's intense examination of her own face, her own life, her own dreams anticipated the comparable art of Tracey Emin or Sophie Calle in this century. Kahlo is a painter whose rainforest palette, bold lines, and unblinking gaze exert a formidable, rare power. Her anniversary is well worth celebrating; her art endures like a stone face in the forest.

FERNANDO SAVATER, El nombre de las cosas

Creo que fue Goethe quien dijo cínicamente que el lenguaje fue dado a los hombres para que ocultasen su pensamiento. En las actuales disputas sobre el Estatut y la sentencia del TC abundan las confirmaciones de su aserto. Por ejemplo, el término "nación". Más allá de los usos técnicos en teoría política, el común de los mortales (y sobre todo de los políticos, que son los más mortales de todos) entiende "nación" bien como una comunidad cultural y afectiva o bien como una entidad política que necesita realizarse en un Estado. Según la primera acepción, las naciones pueden convivir dentro de un mismo organismo estatal (y a veces dentro de una misma ciudad, como en Nueva York) pero según la segunda exigen hegemonía institucional inequívoca en su territorio. Lo malo de ese término aplicado a Cataluña es que unas veces se toma en el primer sentido y otras en el segundo, según conviene. Me temo que la sentencia del TC no despeja la duda confinando la nación en el preámbulo del Estatut, donde no será jurídicamente efectiva pero sí significativamente problemática.

Mienten los que manejan las palabras mayores: Cataluña frente a España. No hay tal gigantomaquia
Porque se lea la Constitución a lo ancho o a lo estrecho, España puede ser plurinacional pero no pluriestatal. Como dijo el Guerra (el torero, claro), hay cosas que son imposibles y además no pueden ser. La controvertida sentencia del TC no cierra el paso a lo primero, como dicen hipócritamente algunos, sino a lo segundo, que es lo que ellos precisamente desean. Desdichadamente, este veto necesario -mero instinto político de supervivencia- está formulado con desigual claridad: sin equívocos en el terreno de la justicia, por ejemplo, pero con contradicciones en lo referente a la lengua común, sobre todo en materia de educación. Habrá problemas, ya que no faltan partidos interesados en agudizar lo ambiguo hasta hacerlo insoportable y excluyente. Lo que sin duda no es cierto es que se imposibilite el autogobierno de los catalanes, que lo tienen garantizado como el resto y con el resto de los ciudadanos españoles. Lo vedado -y solo relativamente- es autogobernarse como si fuesen ciudadanos de otro Estado.

También otros usos nominales enmascaran la verdad... reveladoramente. Por ejemplo, decir que el TC es legal pero está "deslegitimado" por la composición politizada que bloquea su renovación. No me parece factible encontrar jueces sobrenaturalmente despolitizados para sentenciar sobre algo tan fundamentalmente político como la Constitución. Ahora bien, puestos a señalar cosas legales pero de legitimidad cuestionable... ¿qué diremos del referéndum del Estatuto, en el que tomó parte solo un tercio del electorado y que sin embargo se considera la voz del "pueblo" catalán? Otro juego de palabras es la afirmación visionaria de Zapatero suponiendo que este Estatuto (o cualquier otro, tanto da) culminará la "descentralización" de España. Como bien le ha recordado Artur Mas, persistirá la descentralización y hasta el descuartizamiento a plazos del Estado mientras los nacionalistas que gestionan y se benefician del proceso sigan siendo imprescindibles, gracias a nuestra ley electoral, para formar mayorías parlamentarias.

También mienten los que manejan las palabras mayores, los nombres sagrados: Cataluña frente a España. No hay tal gigantomaquia. Quienes andan a la greña son los catalanes nacionalistas, que se nutren de antiespañolismo militante y sacan combustible tanto de lo que obtienen como de lo que se les niega, y el resto de sus conciudadanos, que también tienen su corazoncito pero saben que están como nunca y que hay cosas más serias en que pensar. Ahora toca sobreactuar porque se acercan elecciones: de modo que se invierte la fábula, el lobo feroz ocupa la frágil choza y los tres cerditos rugen: "¡Soplaremos, soplaremos y la Constitución derribaremos!". Pero ya verán cómo al final los intereses racionales prevalecen y no es para tanto. Afortunadamente, desde que Berenguer de Entenza y sus almogávares ajustaron las cuentas a los verdugos de Roger de Flor, las "venganzas catalanas" suelen ser ya incruentas...

Surreal Friends at the Pallant House gallery, Chichester, review

Horna's Leonora Carrington in her studio

A new exhibition shows Mexico was a fruitful refuge for women artists fleeing conventionality and conflict.

By Richard Dorment

Miracles, magic, witchcraft, and alchemy vanished from Western Europe centuries ago, but in Mexico the miraculous is part of everyday life. It is the perfect country for a Surrealist.

Surreal Friends at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester until September 12, looks at three European surrealists who fled the madness of war-torn Europe to find safety, friendship, and mutual support in Mexico. The two painters, English-born Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo from Spain, used enigmatic symbolism and irrational narrative to construct personal mythologies so intensely private that at times their art feels like a form of protection against a hostile world. The Hungarian Kati Horna’s photographs convey both the joy and terror of a world set free from the restraints of rationality.

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Leonora Carrington: last of the great Surrealists By grouping all three together, the show makes us aware of how isolated the three women were from their European contemporaries, and of how profoundly each was affected by living in a place of exile André Breton called the “surreal country par excellence”.

The story of Carrington’s life could have been lifted from a best-selling novel. Now 93 years old, she was born in Lancashire into a wealthy upper middle class family. At the age of 20, she rejected a life of stifling conventionality by running off with the handsome German Surrealist Max Ernst who, at 46, already had a wife and child. Estranged from her family, for the next few years Leonora rattled round France and Spain, a bit player in Surrealist circles where her lover was a star.

When Germany invaded France and Ernst was interred, she fled to Spain. A nervous breakdown followed by confinement to a psychiatric hospital so traumatised her that, although she refers to these events in her paintings, she was never able to speak of them again. In 1939 she made her way to the US (without Ernst, who had moved on to Peggy Guggenheim) before settling in Mexico City in 1942.

From the mid-1940s, Carrington painted faux-naïf surrealistic confabulations. Heavily indebted to the fantastical landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch and to domestic interiors you find on 15th-century Florentine cassone and predella panels, her imagery is overlaid with references to Babylonian, Egyptian or Hindu mythology. To someone who knew nothing of her life story, the esoteric imagery of her pictures would be virtually incomprehensible. Themes of flight and confinement are enacted by a cast of humanoid figures abetted by owls, unicorns, horses, dogs and lizards (often decked out in medievalised fancy dress), while pictorial space is irrational, and changes in scale feel arbitrary.

But to those who know what to look for, these early pictures are full of oblique references to specific places and events in Carrington’s unhappy childhood.

In picture after picture, she makes it clear that for a free spirit like hers, life in England had been a living death. In the The House Opposite, for example, she re-imagines her childhood home as a kind of doll’s house where creatures both human and android pass through walls or slip through the floorboards. In a rabbit warren of rooms connected by winding staircases and rickety ladders, a trio of female alchemists brews a bubbling potion in the kitchen, while a well-behaved little girl lies tucked up in bed in the attic. Adult figures busy themselves downstairs, but the child dreams only of escape and of feeling abandoned.

Having seen Carrington’s work on its own, I’ve always found its fey side – the giantesses and witches, bird-women and goblins — easy to resist. But the Mexican context in which they are shown here helped me to see how she uses Surrealist distortion and fantasy not as ends in themselves, but to evoke the disorder and sorrow of a blighted childhood. Then too, her painting technique is always refined, especially when she is working in oil or tempera on panel, or illuminating the picture’s surface with gold leaf like a medieval manuscript.

Varo is technically even more proficient than her close friend Carrington, having studied in Salvatore Dalí’s alma mater, the San Fernando Academy of Art in Madrid. But in her paintings, autobiographical references are largely replaced by mystical, philosophical, cabalistic claptrap. Though her imagery is more intelligible than Carrington’s, she uses whimsy in a way that all too often reminded me of children’s book illustration. This show makes it clear that she followed where Carrington led.

The real re-discovery of the exhibition is Horna, who, as a Left-wing Jewish intellectual living in Berlin in the 1930s had every incentive to flee to Mexico in 1939.

Horna began as a more or less conventional flâneur, bringing a formal clarity to her photos of Berlin street scenes that reminds you of the work of her fellow countryman Brassai. By the time she covered the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Surrealism had become an important influence on her work. In powerful photos of a model prison in Barcelona, she uses double exposure to superimpose the crazed faces of the prisoners over their cells. But none of this prepares you for the power and beauty she found in Mexico. In her greatest work, a series about the mental hospital at Castaneda, her close-up studies of the faces of patients suffering from dementia and delusion have the compassion of Géricault’s portraits of the insane.