domenica 31 ottobre 2010

In just 30 days, you too can write a masterpiece


Or maybe not. As writers prepare for National Novel Writing Month, Andrew Johnson looks at classics that were knocked out in a few weeks

Hundreds of thousands of aspiring novelists around the world will put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – tomorrow with the intention of turning out a 50,000-word book in only 30 days.

They will be taking part in National Novel Writing Month, the first of which was held 11 years ago when 21 friends in America decided they had to take drastic action if they were ever to achieve their literary ambitions. Now up to 200,000 books are expected to be uploaded on the writing month website (NaNoWriMo) by the end of November.

And although there are plenty of tales of great novelists spending years crafting their masterpieces – Joseph Heller took eight years to write Catch-22 – many of the literary world's most popular works were knocked out in a few weeks, such as Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

Lindsey Grant, who helps run NaNoWriMo, said that 55 novels written under the scheme have gone on to publication. These include Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, which spent 12 weeks in The New York Times best-sellers list in 2006. "The idea is to get the rough drafts of the novels down," Ms Grant said. "But so many people then go on to rewrite."

Two years ago, Birdsong author Sebastian Faulks wrote a James Bond thriller, Devil May Care, in only six weeks – following the work pattern of Bond's creator, Ian Fleming.

"I enjoyed the rush," he said. "There was a way in which my own race to the finish line mirrored the chase of the plot. Novels that have been written quickly can retain a slightly torn-off, uneven quality – like life. This is certainly one of the miraculous things about Jean Brodie, where the story zooms back and forth through time. There is a careering, out-of-control feeling, which is exhilarating. The main danger is that the writer hasn't worked out his/her theme. They don't really know what the novel's about."

Graham Greene wrote one of his most popular novels, The Confidential Agent, in only six weeks in 1938 while also labouring on the much more difficult The Power and the Glory. He later wrote in his autobiography: "The Spanish Civil War furnished the background. I was struggling then through The Power and the Glory, but there was no money in the book as far as I could foresee. Certainly my wife and two children would not be able to live on one unsaleable book, so I determined to write another 'entertainment' as quickly as possible in the mornings, while I ground on slowly with The Power and the Glory in the afternoons."

A Christmas Carol By Charles Dickens, written in six weeks in 1843

Dickens more or less invented the Christmas spirit, goodwill to all men and general jollity in this classic ghost story, which also gave us Scrooge, Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit. "I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me."

As I Lay Dying By William Faulkner, written in six weeks in 1930

Faulkner, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, turned out one of the 20th century's greatest novels while working at a power plant. It tells the story of the death of Addie Bundren in stream-of-consciousness style from 15 points of view. "I set out deliberately to write a tour de force."

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie By Muriel Spark, written in one month in 1960

The inspirational Scottish teacher Jean Brodie, who taught her girls more about life than anything else, catapulted Muriel Spark into the premier league of contemporary writers. "We were given to write about how we spent our summer holidays, but I wrote about how [my teacher] spent her summer holidays instead. It seemed more fascinating."

A Study in Scarlet By Arthur Conan Doyle, written in three weeks in 1886

Noted as the first outing of Sherlock Holmes rather than as a great detective story or literary masterpiece. "It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes ... Round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man," Conan Doyle wrote in a letter to his former teacher, Joseph Bell.

The Tortoise and the Hare By Elizabeth Jenkins, written in three weeks in 1954

Jenkins, who died in September aged 104, wrote her masterpiece in the "white heat of betrayal" following an entanglement with a married man who refused to leave his wife. "I have never looked at it since; it marked an era to which I had no desire to return," she said in 2005.

On the Road By Jack Kerouac, written in three weeks in 1951

Kerouac wrote one of the few books to cause a cultural shift on a single scroll of paper in one sitting. He had, however, kept copious notes during the seven years he spent crossing America. "I write narrative novels and if I want to change my narrative thought I want to keep going."

King Solomon's Mines H Rider Haggard, written in six weeks in 1885

The story of treasure guarded by a lost civilisation in Africa became an instant best-seller and founded the lost-world genre. It began life after a bet that Haggard could write a better tale than Stevenson's Treasure Island. "The thing must have a heart; mere adventures are not enough. I can turn them out by the peck."

The Confidential Agent By Graham Greene, written in six weeks in 1938

Greene was "struggling" through The Power and the Glory when he realised he'd quite like to make some money, so he began writing The Confidential Agent in the mornings. "I fell back for the first and last time in my life on Benzedrine. For six weeks I started each day with a tablet, and renewed the dose at midday."

Devil May Care By Sebastian Faulks, written in six weeks in 2008

James Bond creator Ian Fleming wrote his 007 thrillers in six weeks, and Faulks decided he should follow suit when asked by Fleming's estate to write a new story. "After almost five years researching Victorian psychiatry for Human Traces, there was something attractive about a jeu d'esprit which I could write in six weeks."

The Gambler By Fyodor Dostoyevsky, written in 26 days in 1866

The Russian author was heavily in debt and was addicted to gambling while he was working on the tour de force that was Crime and Punishment. So he had to knock out this novella at the same time, dictating to a young stenographer called Anna Snitkina. Shortly afterwards he married her. "I realised that it was his own life he was telling me about," Snitkina said.

Andrew Johnson

lunedì 25 ottobre 2010

Keepers of the flame: The literary widow's lot

Natasha Spender, who died last week, was married to a great poet. After Sir Stephen's death, she became gatekeeper to his memory and his work – a burden many literary widows have shared

By Peter Stanford

Natasha Spender liked to recall that when she first met her husband, the poet Sir Stephen Spender, in 1940 she had little interest in writers.

She was busy making a name for herself as a concert pianist when an invitation turned up to a party given by Horizon, the literary magazine. "I was so not into literature," she remembered with a throaty chuckle, "that when they asked me to Horizon, I thought it was a pub."

The remark is typical of her self-effacement, especially during the last 15 years of her life – from Spender's death in 1995 until her own peaceful end, at the age of 91, last Thursday. During those years, she became, like many literary widows, the keeper of the flickering flame of his enduring reputation, first forged as one of the celebrated "poets of the Thirties". But it is also ironic – as she knew when she told the story – because during that decade-and-a-half she became, in her own words, "a walking memory-bank" for all those interested in the literary figures of the second half of the 20th century.

The procession of academics and biographers and historians who sat and listened in the draughty basement kitchen of her marital home in London's St John's Wood was never-ending. Each was treated – if their subject had known Natasha and her husband at some stage during their 50-plus very social years of marriage – to her humour, her crystal-clear power of recall, and her candour. Plus tea and cake. If there were papers in the archive that she was carefully assembling in her study, she would share them.

Her good grace and open-door policy to enquirers was all the more remarkable because, as she herself often acknowledged, there are few more thankless roles than that of literary widow. Their private grief, and that of their children (the Spenders had two), at the loss of their writer husbands was usually rudely intruded upon by those who wished to rake over the coals of episodes in their marriage (infidelities, political posturings, straightforward misjudgements) that most widows would prefer to forget. In Natasha Spender's case, there were always questions about her husband's sexual orientation, and about his being a CIA dupe when the US intelligence agency covertly funded the literary magazine Encounter, with which he was closely associated in the Sixties.

The first challenge for a literary widow was to develop a way of coping with such questioning. Natasha had it off to a T. She once replied good-humouredly, to an interviewer who pressed her on the exact nature of her husband's late-flowering passion for American zoologist Bryan Obst: "It's less clear, isn't it?" But the main thing that a literary widow has to master is management of her husband's literary estate. Since she has right of veto over any use of his writing, her powers range from saying yea or nay to all requests to quote from them to the appointment (or not) of an official biographer.

This is all notoriously tricky territory. TS Eliot's widow, Valerie, for instance, has had to put up with carping from biographers and critics over the years for her decisions since her Nobel Prize-winning husband's death in 1965. For instance, she is reported to have tried to block Peter Ackroyd's 1984 life of Eliot by refusing him permission to quote from the poems, but then allowed Andrew Lloyd Webber to use them in his West End musical Cats. Illogical, cried her detractors, who usually then go on to question her qualifications for making such choices because she had been Eliot's secretary for eight years before their marriage in 1957.

Some even queried whether their marriage had genuinely been a love match – in spite of much evidence to support that view – and theorised that Eliot had simply been in search of a young woman who would live on and fight his corner in the battle of literary reputations for decades afterwards.

Similar motives, it is claimed, lay behind George Orwell's marriage, in October 1949, three months before his death, to Sonia Brownell, better known as another formidable literary widow, Sonia Orwell. Yet to her many defenders, Mrs Eliot is a much-maligned figure. Her knowledge of "the work" is profound, they say. She had admired his writing as a schoolgirl, and remains his greatest fan. And as she herself has pointed out, her husband had insisted that there should be no biography of him – or at least no authorised biography. "Ackroyd knew that when he set out," she once explained, "So to start bleating at the end about not being able to quote from the poetry, when everyone else has to obey the same rules, is pretty feeble."

So maligned have literary widows been, though, that they tend to stick together. Valerie Eliot and Natasha Spender, for instance, were last seen in public together earlier this year at the memorial service for another of their number, the actress Jill Balcon, widow of Poet LaureateCecil Day-Lewis. The three had other things that united them; all were second, younger wives.

Balcon used to reflect that she was unusual in that her husband had left her clear instructions on how to play the literary widow, in a poem entitled "The Widow Interviewed", published in 1965. Or, to be more precise, how not to. It had been inspired by two literary widows of an earlier generation, Willa Muir, wife of the Scottish poet Edwin Muir, and Helen Thomas, whose poet-husband Edward died at the age of 39 in the trenches of the First World War.

"The Poet" (well, that's the way her


Talked) "the Poet wrote these for me when

first –"

(she said, touching the yellowed manuscripts

Like a blind girl gentling a young man's hair)

– "When first we were betrothed. I have kept them:

The rest I had to sell."

It was not, Balcon agreed, an attractive portrait, but it gave few clues as to what in fact she should do. In her case, that dilemma was further complicated because some of Day-Lewis's best-known verse had been written for, and about, the novelist Rosamond Lehmann – the woman Balcon displaced in his life and who ever after maintained a none-too-private campaign against her. Should Balcon put his literary reputation above her own feelings and champion those poems about her rival as key to Day-Lewis lasting literary legacy, or should she seek to deflect attention onto the work he produced later, when she was his muse, even though it had prompted less enthusiasm among the critics? It was a circle she never quite squared.

And like other literary widows, she had also to contend with bio-graphers (myself included) who sought to identify other love affairs referred to in her husband's poetry. The struggle to reconcile her completely understandable wish to draw a veil over their private disputes with the need for any biography of Day-Lewis to be candidabout his failings was often written on her face as I questioned her.

Did his memory belong first and foremost to her and their children, the writer Tamasin Day-Lewis and the actor Daniel Day-Lewis, or was it something which, in pursuit of literary immortality, she was going to have to share openly with a public audience? Bravely, she chose the latter course, but at great personal cost.

There were 21 years between Balcon and Day-Lewis, 37 years between Tom and Valerie Eliot, but Janis Bellow tops them both. She was 44 years younger than the American novelist Saul Bellow when she became his fifth wife.

Still only 50, she is perhaps a role model for a new generation of literary widows. She said in a recent interview about the publication next month of Bellow's collected letters that she had left the editor to it and avoided being proprietorial. (Other widows, Valerie Eliot included, have chosen to edit the letters themselves.) Janis Bellow claimed, moreover, to feel "overwhelmingly joyful" about the new book – even though she did not make her appearance until page 411 of its 550 pages.

Talk of literary widows suggests that this is an exclusively female club. And though the latter part of the 20th century boasted many more women in the role than men – to the list should be added Kathleen Tynan, widow of Kenneth, Caitlin Thomas (Dylan Thomas), and Beatrice Behan (Brendan Behan) – there is one notable (and for some notorious) interloper: Ted Hughes. He was repeatedly attacked by admirers of his wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, for the way he handled his role as literary executor. They felt he was too anxious to control the material left in his charge, both to protect the couple's secrets and to present as positive a picture as possible about his own role in Plath's life, and death. The couple had separated five months before her final depression and suicide in 1963.

Though Jill Balcon and Natasha Spender both had considerable careers of their own, Hughes is exceptional in this context, having been a literary figure to rival Plath, and Poet Laureate until his death in 1998. To be open with biographers and academics about Plath's life would therefore have been to lift the lid on his own, and, like many living writers, he did not want to do that. He would not let his own biography become an offshoot of his wife's. That was a sacrifice that Natasha Spender, by contrast, always seemed more than happy to make.

Peter Stanford's biography of C Day-Lewis is published by Continuum

sabato 23 ottobre 2010

Harold Bloom discute sua seleção de cem poemas

Em entrevista, Bloom fala sobre sua seleção de cem derradeiros poemas de autores de língua inglesa

Lúcia Guimarães - O Estado de S. Paulo

Ele nunca decepciona seus interlocutores. Passional e provocador. Professoral, sempre. Num momento pede socorro à mulher porque derrubou o aparelho de audição ("Está tudo desmoronando por aqui!") e em seguida elogia, sedutor, o que chama de voz maviosa da repórter ao telefone.

Harold Bloom acaba de completar 80 anos. No final de 2009, sua saúde o afastou por meses do convívio com os estudantes da Universidade de Yale, onde ocupa a mais famosa cadeira de crítica literária do país. Se você faz 80 anos e passou a vida lendo o melhor da poesia, então, "começa a saber que, diante do morrer e da morte, a imaginação é, ao mesmo tempo, nada e tudo".

Assim Bloom explica seu desejo de reunir cem poemas em Till I End My Song - A Gathering of Last Poems (Até Eu Terminar Minha Canção - Uma Reunião de Últimos Poemas). O título cita o verso repetido em Prothalamion, de Edmund Spenser, o poeta elisabetano, que abre a coletânea. O fim que une os poemas não é necessariamente o fim temporal.

O livro cobre 450 anos de poesia, de William Shakespeare a James Merrill, de Robert Frost a Robert Lowell e termina com o poema The Veiled Suite, de Agha Shahid Ali, indiano de Kashmir morto em Massachusetts, os 52 anos, em 2001 e incluído numa coleção póstuma publicada em 2009. Bloom considera os versos de The Veiled Suite entre os mais obsessivos que trataram da morte.

Apesar do tema e de sua avançada idade, Bloom está longe de se deixar abater pelo assunto. Comemora suas cinco décadas na academia - "Dei aula para cerca de 25 mil estudantes, o bastante para lotar uma cidade" - e conclui: "O propósito de ensinar é estender a bênção da vida prolongada."

Quando telefono para sua casa em New Haven, Connecticut, o professor contorna a primeira pergunta e já sai palestrando sobre a nova obra. "Sim, há um tom um pouco sombrio na obra que inclui poemas de amigos queridos, como Robert Penn Warren, morto em 1989, e Anthony Hecht, morto em 2004. Ainda sofro o luto por eles." E segue, entusiasmado com Till I End My Song. Acompanhe.

Qual é a distinção que o senhor faz entre a finitude da morte e a finitude que encontrou em certos poemas?

Veja que não é uma coleção de poemas sobre a morte e sim uma coleção de poemas que lidam com a incerteza. Todos nós queremos e não queremos saber quanto tempo temos de vida, e esta é a incerteza. Reuni três tipos de "últimos" poemas. Os poemas cronologicamente finais são minoria. Há poemas que marcam o fim de uma carreira. E queria me concentrar também no que considero o auge - o final - de um processo de imaginação.

Por que o senhor diz no livro que estava interessado em conhecimento e não na piedade, no pathos ligado à morte?

Sim, por que dizemos isso? Queria deixar claro que o fim é uma parte importante do conhecimento. Montaigne, o ensaísta maior, nos dá o melhor conselho: "Não percam tempo aprendendo a morrer. Quando chegar a hora, vamos saber morrer direito."

O senhor destaca que os poemas se colocam contra a morte e não contra o morrer.

Sim, a morte é uma ideia. O ato de morrer é diferente. É algo que todos vamos experimentar. Mas a ideia é complicada. Como a ideia da morte não é um modo de existência, a poesia pode nos esclarecer sobre ela.

Por que o senhor considera importante desfazer a mitologia da morte?

Falo da minha própria metafísica. Três poetas que sempre celebrei, Percy Shelley, Walt Whitman e Wallace Stevens, são românticos lucrecianos. Eles seguem a metafísica epicurista, em que a morte é exposta como um filamento da imaginação, um bicho-papão que as pessoas impõem sobre si mesmas. O W.H. Auden e eu discutíamos sobre isso. Ele nem considerava aqueles três poetas, tinha um temperamento forte.

O senhor concorda que o medo da morte é o oposto do gosto por viver?

Com certeza. Não existe essa coisa chamada morte. Shakespeare é o mestre em tratar disso. Como nas palavras finais de Hamlet, "o resto é silêncio".

Na introdução, o senhor manifesta uma esperança de renascimento na Era de Obama, "depois de anos no mato" ("In the bush", trocadilho com o nome do último presidente.)

Eu nunca quero falar em política. Mas confesso que fui um pouco otimista e me arrependo. Eu não imaginava o que ia acontecer. Por favor, pode me citar: os EUA ficaram completamente malucos. Talvez possamos nos recuperar depois que Obama for reeleito. No dia 2, vamos ter eleições e ninguém com acesso à mídia tem a honestidade ou a decência de dizer a verdade. O Tea Party é o nosso movimento fascista. Nem adianta falar em "neo", como neonazistas. É fascismo mesmo. Vários candidatos deles vão se eleger e os democratas vão perder a maioria entre os deputados. Haverá uma total paralisia legislativa. Eles vão instalar comitês de investigação. Se puderem, vão tentar o impeachment de Obama. Os próximos dois anos serão assim. Depois, tenho confiança que aquela mulher magnífica vai ser candidata a presidente e perder. Sarah Palin (Bloom parece estar na sala de aula), uma peça bem acabada de fascismo populista.

Till I End My Song - A Gathering Of Last Poems

Organizador: Harold Bloom

Editora: Harper Collins

(Importado; 379 págs., R$ 56,73)

venerdì 22 ottobre 2010


Le héros récurrent, une longue histoire


Une rature : c'est par ce geste que prend forme l'idée géniale du retour des personnages sous la plume d'Honoré de Balzac, lorsqu'il remplace, dans le manuscrit du Père Goriot, en septembre 1834, le nom d'Eugène de Massiac par celui d'Eugène de Rastignac, grande figure de la future Comédie humaine, que le lecteur avait déjà "rencontré" trois ans auparavant dans La Peau de chagrin. Le romancier était sans doute conscient de la portée de son invention : après avoir conçu l'idée de relier tous ses personnages pour en former une société complète, il aurait traversé Paris, si l'on en croit le témoignage de sa soeur, pour annoncer à celle-ci : "Saluez-moi, car je suis tout bonnement en train de devenir un génie !"

A vrai dire, l'idée du retour des personnages d'un livre à l'autre du même auteur n'était pas tout à fait nouvelle. Plusieurs écrivains, et non des moindres, l'avaient déjà pratiquée, et cela dès le Moyen Age : Chrétien de Troyes, Rabelais, Madame de Lafayette... ou, à l'époque d'Honoré de Balzac, Fenimore Cooper dans le cycle des Histoires de Bas-de-Cuir (1823-1841), pour ne parler que des textes narratifs.

Balzac donne cependant au procédé une ampleur jusqu'alors inconnue, d'ailleurs presque inconcevable quand on se rapporte aux chiffres : près de 600 personnages reparaissent, sur les 2 500 êtres de papier qui peuplent l'univers de La Comédie humaine. Surtout, Balzac élève l'idée du retour des personnages au rang de système, ressort essentiel pour créer une oeuvre-monde visant à concurrencer l'état civil, selon la devise du romancier, et à peindre la fresque de l'état social contemporain.

Effet de familiarité

Félicien Marceau se demande même comment Balzac aurait pu faire pour éviter le retour des personnages : "Quand, dans Illusions perdues, allant à l'Opéra, Rubempré y rencontre Marsay et Rastignac que nous, lecteurs, nous avons déjà rencontrés dans d'autres romans, qu'y a-t-il d'étonnant à cela ? Tous les trois, ils vivent à Paris, dans le même temps." C'est dire à quel point on risque de prendre la fiction pour la réalité, ou vice versa... Expérience capitale : pour le lecteur, retrouver les personnages déjà connus crée un effet de familiarité, voire l'illusion d'entrer dans un univers pensé comme un réseau relationnel.

C'est dans ce sens que l'expression de "personnage reparaissant", employée pour le roman balzacien, n'est pas entièrement synonyme du "héros récurrent" que l'on connaît dans les oeuvres sérielles : cette dernière renvoie en effet au retour d'un personnage central, le plus souvent identifié par son rôle, par exemple, le détective dans le roman policier. Dans ce cas aussi, il faut remonter au XIXe siècle pour assister à la naissance du concept, incarné par la figure d'Auguste Dupin qu'Edgar Allan Poe met en scène dans trois nouvelles (la première étant Double assassinat dans la rue Morgue, de 1841) qui fondent le genre policier. Or les paradigmes de Balzac et de Poe - auxquels il faudrait ajouter celui d'Emile Zola, fondé sur les lois de l'hérédité, et systématisé par l'arbre généalogique des Rougon-Macquart - relèvent d'une vision qui assigne à la littérature le rôle d'interroger la relation de l'individu au monde, au sein d'un système de valeurs que l'oeuvre instaure par la dialectique entre le particulier et le général (Balzac), ou par la démarche analytique déductive (Poe).

Au coeur de cette littérature qui s'érige au rang de forme de connaissance du réel se trouve le personnage récurrent. Non seulement il est doté du pouvoir de ne pas mourir symboliquement à la dernière page du livre, mais il acquiert surtout une profondeur psychologique nouvelle, qui donne chair à son être de papier.

Andrea Del Lungo est maître de conférences de littérature française à l'université de Toulouse II-Le Mirail (Haute-Garonne), et membre de l'Institut universitaire de France.

Kertész : «Quand je n'écris pas, je suis un homme inutile»


Par Bruno Corty

L'écrivain hongrois, Prix Nobel 2002, publie son Journal des années 1960-1990.

Journal de galère est un passionnant document pour qui voudrait appréhender l'œuvre de Kertész et tout savoir sur son métier d'écrivain, ses lectures et sa vision de survivant de la Shoah pris dans l'engrenage du communisme.

LE FIGARO LITTÉRAIRE. - Moins de 300 pages en trente ans, ça semble peu pour un Journal?

Imre KERTÉSZ. - J'ai pratiqué beaucoup de coupes, car le manuscrit original était trois fois plus épais, mais il comportait des longueurs. J'ai réduit, mais tout en veillant à ne pas altérer le sens. Je n'ai jamais cessé d'écrire ce Journal. Pour réfléchir, j'ai besoin d'écrire, tout le temps, partout. Je suis un graphomane. Je peux dire avec Cicéron: «Pas un jour sans une ligne.» Quand je n'écris pas, je suis un homme inutile.

Dès la première page, évoquant votre premier livre en gestation, vous écrivez: «Tout est bon à jeter» Ça commençait mal…

Au début des années soixante, le seul fait de penser que je puisse un jour devenir écrivain avait quelque chose d'invraisemblable. Je n'avais pas les moyens matériels; je vivais dans une toute petite chambre en sous-location et je n'avais personne à qui dire que je voulais écrire un roman. La littérature de l'époque était victime de la censure stalinienne. Un jour, j'ai eu entre les mains La Mort à Venise, de Thomas Mann, et un petit livre jaune, L'Étranger, de Camus, dont je ne connaissais pas même le nom. Ce livre, j'en suis devenu esclave ! Et puis, j'ai découvert à la fin des années soixante Kafka, dont je relis ces jours-ci Le Procès. C'est l'écrivain du moindre détail; un tel géant ! Tout comme Flaubert: L'Éducation sentimentale est en tête de mes romans préférés. J'enrageais d'avoir attendu si longtemps pour découvrir ces merveilles. Je me disais: c'est ça, la littérature. Quelque chose que je pensais ne jamais pouvoir atteindre. Je vivais dans un sentiment d'infériorité perpétuelle.

D'où l'idée du suicide qui revient sans cesse. Faites-vous toujours vôtre la phrase de Cioran: «Un livre est un suicide différé»?

Chaque livre publié est un nouveau sursis. On ne peut mourir tant qu'on a des livres à publier. Il ne faut pas vivre trop longtemps non plus, car toute l'histoire finit par le déclin, la dépression. Quand ça arrive, il vaut mieux se jeter par la fenêtre… ou écrire. Vous ne pouvez pas imaginer le quotidien d'une dictature, sa grisaille atroce, son ennui terrible. Quand j'ai eu fini mon premier roman, Être sans destin, en 1975, je l'ai porté en main propre à l'un des deux éditeurs de Budapest, sans dire que j'en étais l'auteur. J'ai essuyé un refus aussi impoli qu'impitoyable qui se résumait à quelques formules: «langage incompréhensible, fautes de style, roman nauséabond et antisémite». C'en était trop pour moi. Pas l'offense, car j'étais sûr de moi et du livre. Mais l'amertume, l'absence d'avenir, d'issue. Que faire de ce texte?

En 1975, après quinze années d'acharnement, vous sortez des ténèbres…

Quand Être sans destin a paru, l'accueil a été grandiose, mais j'entendais les gens dire: «Quel dommage d'avoir écrit cette histoire si tard, ces événements appartiennent au passé désormais.» Et moi, je pensais et je pense encore aujourd'hui qu'Auschwitz est le plus grand traumatisme de l'histoire européenne et de la chrétienté. Si des gens l'ont oublié et si l'on n'y pense plus, ça reviendra, car rien n'est effacé. En pleine crise économique et financière mondiale, il y a encore des gens qui lisent Mein Kampf. Ne sachant pas comment sortir de la crise, ils cherchent des issues, et beaucoup retombent sur les slogans nazis. Le totalitarisme, c'est la solution de facilité pour certains ; cela dispense de réfléchir. L'individu n'est plus responsable de rien ; tout est entre les mains de partis politiques ou de meneurs. L'individu isolé n'oserait pas assassiner, mais, en nombre, on le fait par obéissance. Comme l'Europe n'a pas encore fait sa catharsis d'Auschwitz, tout peut recommencer demain.

Dans la suite de ce journal, Un autre (1991-1995) vous finissiez par ces mots: «Je me tiens à la limite de la vie et de la mort.» Et aujourd'hui?

J'ai terminé la moitié d'un roman qui me tient très à cœur. J'ai toujours l'envie. Vous savez, le plus troublant à mes yeux, c'est que la vie avait signé un contrat avec un garçon de quatorze ans. Elle lui avait dit: «Tu seras déporté à Ausch­witz, tu survivras et tu écriras.» C'était quelque chose d'absurde et de mauvais, mais ce quelque chose avait malgré tout un bon côté.

Journal de galère de Imre Kertész, traduit du hongrois par Natalia Zaremba-Huzsvai et Charles Zaremba, Actes Sud, 276 p, 21 €.

Hunting for the Dawn of Writing, When Prehistory Became History



CHICAGO — One of the stars of the Oriental Institute’s new show, “Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond,” is a clay tablet that dates from around 3200 B.C. On it, written in cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia, is a list of professions, described in small, repetitive impressed characters that look more like wedge-shape footprints than what we recognize as writing.

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Olaf Tessmer, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin
A Sumerian clay tablet from around 3200 B.C. is inscribed in wedgelike cuneiform with a list of professions.
In fact “it is among the earliest examples of writings that we know of so far,” according to the institute’s director, Gil J. Stein, and it provides insights into the life of one of the world’s oldest cultures.

The new exhibition by the institute, part of the University of Chicago, is the first in the United States in 26 years to focus on comparative writing. It relies on advances in archaeologists’ knowledge to shed new light on the invention of scripted language and its subsequent evolution.

The show demonstrates that, contrary to the long-held belief that writing spread from east to west, Sumerian cuneiform and its derivatives and Egyptian hieroglyphics evolved separately from each another. And those writing systems were but two of the ancient forms of writing that evolved independently. Over a span of two millenniums, two other powerful civilizations — the Chinese and Mayans — also identified and met a need for written communication. Writing came to China as early as around 1200 B.C. and to the Maya in Mesoamerica long before A.D. 500.

“It was the first true information revolution,” Mr. Stein said. “By putting spoken language into material form, people could for the first time store and transmit it across time and space.”

The Oriental Institute spent two years assembling the show, much of which comes from its own collections. However, it did borrow important Sumerian pieces from other institutions, including the clay tablet from the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, which has never before been seen in the United States.

The Oriental Institute, which opened in 1919, was heavily financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had been greatly influenced by James Henry Breasted, a passionate archaeologist. Abby Rockefeller had read his best seller “Ancient Times” to her children.

Today the institute, which still has seven digs going on, boasts objects from excavations in Egypt, Israel, Syria, Turkey and Iraq. Many artifacts were acquired from joint digs with host countries with which the findings were shared. Among the institute’s prized holdings is a 40-ton winged bull from Khorsabad, the capital of Assyria, from around 715 B.C.

The exhibition, which runs through March 6, focuses heavily on the Sumerian civilization that flourished between 3500 B.C. and 1800 B.C. in what is now southern Iraq. Until the 1950s experts had believed that the Sumerians influenced the Egyptians, spreading the use of writing westward. But in the 1950s Günther Dryer, a German archaeologist, found writing on bone and ivory tags in an elaborate, probably royal burial site at Abydos in southern Egypt. The depth at which they were buried and subsequent carbon tests proved the pieces to be as old as Sumerian works. Because the marks were different in style, scholars believe that the Egyptians developed their own writing system independently.

Experts are still struggling to understand just how writing evolved, but one theory, laid out at the Oriental Institute’s exhibition, places the final prewriting stage at 3400 B.C., when the Sumerians first began using small clay envelopes like the ones in the show. Some of the envelopes had tiny clay balls sealed within. Archaeologists theorize that they were sent along with goods being delivered; recipients would open them and ensure that the number of receivables matched the number of clay tokens. The tokens, examples of which are also are in the show , transmitted information, a key function of writing.

Writing as a carrier of narrative did not evolve for another 700 years, as shown in the inscribed versions of the Sumerian epic tale of Gilgamesh, also on display in the institute’s general collection.

Although Egyptian hieroglyphics are more broadly familiar than cuneiform, Sumerian writing was done on clay, which is more durable than papyrus. As a result, Sumer is among the best documented of ancient societies.

An important part of the Oriental Institute exhibition’s allure is that it describes some of the unknowns that still intrigue archaeologists, including the birth of the alphabet. The show includes a plaque dated from 1800 B.C. that contains signs that seem to be inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics but that are actually the earliest letters of an alphabetic script representing Semitic languages. It was found near an ancient turquoise mining site in the Sinai Peninsula, in what was part of ancient Egypt, but the men who worked there spoke the Semitic language of the Canaanites.

Because this is one of the first examples of the use of the alphabetic letters, it suggests that the alphabet was inspired by hieroglyphics. Still, no one really knows who the miners were, if they were literate or how they adapted hieroglyphics to write a western Semitic language. But in later discoveries those same forms make up parts of words.

An alphabetic language has a limited number of signs and is easier to both use and to teach than a representational system like hieroglyphics. An alphabet allows a more rapid spread of literacy and communications. Today almost all languages except Chinese and Japanese are alphabetic. The lack of an alphabet makes Chinese particularly difficult for foreigners. But if Chinese bears little similarity to languages elsewhere in the world, its origins — like the origins of hieroglyphics — have to do with the gods. Bones from ancient Chinese tombs, also on display at the Oriental, were used to help divine the future. The inscriptions on them are the earliest form of Chinese writing, and they make statements about events, such as a battle or the birth of a royal child, and also, in effect, ask how they will come out. Hot brands were put into hollows carved into turtle shells, and the configurations of the resulting cracks were interpreted as answers to important questions.

Less is known about the earliest phases and origin of Mayan writing. Much of the work under way concentrates on artifacts from the Mayans’ later period, around A.D. 600. The exhibition includes a Mayan stone monument showing the face of a dead Mayan lord. It carries his name and the date of the dedication of the stone.

To Christopher E. Woods, associate professor of Sumerology at the University of Chicago and the curator of the show, it was important to include examples from all four cultures because the goal of the exhibition was “to present and describe the four times in history when writing was invented from scratch.”

domenica 10 ottobre 2010


Iceland Takes German Literature Market by Storm
Contracts have been made on the publishing of around 100 works of literature in Germany in the next 12 months that will be translated from Icelandic or feature Iceland. The first press conference in relation to Iceland being the guest of honor at the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair was held on Thursday.

According to Morgunbladid, the atmosphere was relaxed at the press conference. Towards the end the authors Steinunn Sigurdardóttir and Sjón stole the show. Sigurdardóttir recited a poem in both Icelandic and German and then Sjón said he knew what spectators were wondering:

“You’re wondering whether it is possible that an Icelandic press conference ends without any of the distinguished speakers mentioning fish,” he said, then moving on to a story of a rare fish causing pregnancy and explaining the roots of Icelanders being a literary nation.

Jürgen Boos who directs the Frankfurt Book Fair said the fact that the tombstone of Argentinean author Jorges Luis Borges quotes the Icelandic Sagas shows that the book has no borders.

His epitaph weaves together Argentinean and Icelandic literature, which is fitting since Argentina is the honorary guest at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year.

This connection will be in the foreground when Argentina formally passes the torch to Iceland on Sunday; author Gudbergur Bergsson will accept it on behalf of Iceland.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is the largest book fair in Germany and among the most important in the world. More than 7,300 stands will be at the fair, 3,300 thereof from Germany.

Approximately 30,000 visitors from 100 different countries will attend the fair this year and more than 10,000 journalists are registered to participate.

In regard to Icelandic literature, authors whose books have never been translated before are among those that will be published in Germany, along with classic works of literature, poetry and two large literature collections. The Icelandic Sagas will be published in a new comprehensive translation by the publishing house S. Fischer.

The marketing office Sagenhaftes Island (Fabulous Iceland) will promote Icelandic literature through a number of events next year in cooperation with literature centers, the Goethe Foundation, publishing houses, bookstores, libraries and literature festivals all around Germany.

Icelandic contemporary art will be highlighted in events held in relation with the book fair. Icelandic medieval manuscripts will be displayed at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and woven into the symbolic world of Gabríela Fridriksdóttir’s exhibition “Crepusculum”.

An Erró exhibition will also take place, along with a large solo exhibition of the works of Ragnar Kjartansson and an overview exhibition of Icelandic contemporary photography

Saul Bellow's letters are to be published later this month, five years after his death.


Saul Bellow's widow on his life and letters: 'His gift was to love and be loved'

Letters. Sometimes, released from dusty shoeboxes and tall filing cabinets, they can explode in your face, like bombs. For Janis Bellow, however, the long-awaited publication of the letters of her husband, Saul, is "overwhelmingly joyful". Yes, there are some surprises within the collection's pages, things she found "a little bit daunting… and intermittently painful". But of one thing she can reassure me straight off, and that is that she has long since come to terms with the fact that, in a book that runs to 550 pages, she makes her first appearance only on page 411. Happily, she is not one of those terrifying literary widows you read about within the pages of the New Yorker, hoarding and proprietorial, always firing off furious letters to this inquisitive scholar and that nosy biographer: a wife desperate to bolster her role as muse and amanuensis. Apart from anything else, she is too busy juggling her teaching at Boston University with the care of her 10-year-old daughter, Rosie, to spend every spare moment warming her hands on the flame of her husband's renown. But it's also a simple matter of history, of facing facts. "Of course there were times when I thought: 'How could I not have known about this?'" she says, with the ghost of a smile. "But this [Saul's] is a very long life, and my part of the story is only a small one."

Although I should know better – my own father was married four times – I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to stereotyping the serial monogamist, and the kind of woman who might be attracted to him. On the way to meet Saul Bellow's fifth wife here at the house she shared with him in a coppery suburb of Boston, I looked again at an old newspaper photograph of the couple. It was taken in 1997: Saul was then 82, his wife 38. Saul is facing the camera, but his head is lowered slightly, and one hand rests lightly on his brow, as if he were tired, or thinking. Janis, meanwhile, is leaning against him – draped might be a better word – her head on his shoulder, her hand on his knee, her smile sly or victorious, I can't quite tell which. Outwardly, it seems a pretty simple state of affairs: the old guy, who needs always to be in possession of a wife; the younger, rapacious woman who wants the fast-track to a certain sort of lifestyle, to a world where she is always the youngest and the prettiest in a room full of people who admire her new husband so much they hardly dare speak in his presence.

But then Bellow opened her front door, and I saw immediately that this was all wrong. Small, steely and still, she is wearing a denim shirt, black jeans and no make-up; hard to believe this is the same person as the fox in the photograph. She is warm, but extremely serious: clever, clear, the kind of person who thinks about a question before she sets to answering it, and is sometimes, as a result, visibly amazed by her own responses. In a bowl in the middle of the kitchen table is a pile of cakes and pastries she bought at the bakery only moments ago. Once she starts talking, however, her own croissant remains in scattered pieces on her plate. The stories pour out – which is a surprise to us both. By rights, she should be guarded. She remembers all too well the squall that blew up when she and Saul first got together. But grief is at its most painful when the rest of the world has moved on; when the letters and phone calls stop, and you are deemed to be "over it". It is lovely to have an excuse to talk about Saul, and only Saul. Five years after his death, and 21 years after their marriage in a Vermont courthouse – he wore a bowtie, she wore a little dress he bought for her – she is plainly still in love with him. Any woman would notice this. You can see it on the curve of her cheekbones, which glow like incandescent lightbulbs.

When they began their relationship, Bellow had already chalked up four ex-wives: Anita Goshikin, Alexandra Tsachacbasov, Susan Glassman and Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea. He was also in possession of three grown-up sons. Wasn't she wary? "You'd think that I ought to have been," she says. "But all that receded. I wasn't in any way wary. He wasn't really a bad boy. He was a serial marrier, but it had to do with a strange desire on his part to be intimate, to have love at the centre of his life. That was part of the daring I saw in him. He was audacious! What would it take to start over again [at that time in your life]? He was hungry in his soul. 'I'm going to have that,' he thought." So he was unbothered by the gossip? "Yes. But he was also keenly aware of how difficult it [our relationship] was [for other people]. He did not just bulldoze through. He did not want to hurt the people he loved. And though people were talking, we were so focused on each other… We liked all the same things. It wasn't: here's this old guy, and I'm this young person. There wasn't a single part of my being that wasn't able to open up to him."

Like Saul, who moved to Chicago from Montreal with his Russian immigrant parents at the age of nine, Janis Bellow was born in Canada. She came to America in 1979 when she enrolled as a PhD student at the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago University (it sounds Orwellian, but the committee is in fact a highly distinguished interdisciplinary graduate degree programme); Bellow was one of her professors. "I didn't go there to study with Saul Bellow, but the very first class I took, there he was. I was his student; he was on my doctoral committee. So when we got together, that all had to be rearranged. Nowadays, of course, that would be actionable or something." But all this was still long in the future: it was several years before they were to be a couple. "After a while, I went to work for him. His assistant was leaving, I needed work, and the job was offered to me. I remember thinking: 'Ugh, I don't type!' I spent that summer pecking away at a typewriter in preparation. That formal period was quite a long one. Several years. The romantic part happened later, and quite suddenly."

She was a young (just 21) and inordinately quiet student. She came from a small place, and most of her new peers had been to Yale or Harvard. As a newcomer and an outsider, when she entered Bellow's class – the Nobel laureate! – the main thought in her head was: which seat will best enable me to disappear? Unfortunately, she arrived before he did, and when he sat down, it was next to her. "I didn't look up," she says. "But I did notice the gentleman's hands." These were beautiful. "Judging by his hands, he was an extraordinary human being."

What else did she notice? "Well, I'd never heard anyone speak that way before. Here was somebody without lecture notes. He would just talk, and it was pouring out of him, a cascade. You felt in the presence of something extraordinary. I found something in those seminars. This was the literary life he was speaking to us about. They were not ordinary classroom discussions – Joyce, Proust, Conrad, Flaubert, Tolstoy: whatever he felt like teaching. I never missed a single one."

When she went to work as his assistant, however, she saw a different Bellow. "Outside the classroom, he was overwhelmed and… bothered. It was like trying to dig somebody out. He was funny and very formal, but I could see the weight of the world on him. He seemed oppressed." As his letters reveal, in his role as the elder statesman of American letters Saul was overwhelmed with requests; he travelled constantly, delivering lectures and speeches. He was also dutiful when it came to scribbling recommendations to awards committees on behalf of other writers. "He was frail and harassed," says Janis. "He was very correct and cordial, but not a particularly pleasant human being. That's why, when I hear people talk, when they say: 'I was so nervous when he came into the room; I needed a stiff drink before I spoke to him', I know what they mean because, at that time, I'd no idea how much joy and energy there was inside him. The man that I lived with and loved for all those years was like a 17-year-old boy. He was not a grump. He woke up happy."

In the winter of 1985, Bellow's fourth wife, Alexandra, a celebrated mathematician, asked him for a divorce, and the couple separated. The writer had to leave their home on the north side of Chicago, and set up camp at Hyde Park, close to the university. He also came down with terrible flu. "He got a little apartment, and we graduate students all helped him fix it up," says Janis. "This was a very depressed human being, and a sick one. I remember thinking: this man is in trouble. I didn't think it was very hopeful for a man of those years. I began to do things for him, like bring over food, but there wasn't in any way a connection [between us]. It was like I was taking care of an older family member or something." Then, one day, Bellow saw her leaving the library. "I must have looked weary or something. He said: 'You're having a hard day, aren't you?' At first, I thought that he was complaining that I was leaving the library too early. And then he asked me: 'Why don't you come to my house for dinner?'

"I didn't think anything of it, but when I appeared at the apartment, he was standing in the doorway wearing this apron [she leaps over to the stove, where this tattered relic still hangs] and holding this spatula. I didn't know he cooked; I thought we'd have pizza, and I'd do dictation. He was in a charming mood. I hadn't seen this side of him, and we had this wonderful evening. [It was clear that] he had ideas about this meeting that had never occurred to me. If someone had said: 'Did you ever consider him romantically?' I would have told them: 'No, no!' But… we were never apart again."

For the next few months, she and Bellow existed in a kind of bubble. "We were underground! This wasn't something anyone knew about. I had my own apartment, and I used to go there to pick up messages, but I never spent another night there. All my friends thought I was in the library. We explored Chicago. He showed me where he grew up. We went to the zoo a lot. It was very romantic. An immediate intimacy developed after that first physical intimacy. I was overly studious. I loved nature. But suddenly it felt like every single part of my life came together with his. It was a very beautiful time: [for him] a rebirth, and an unexpected one. He had a way of being that was total openness, or nothing: you give yourself madly, or why bother? He opened himself up. He had that capacity: to be loved, and to be in love." The great joy of reading his letters, she says, is that she has been taking him to bed with her again every night. "To hear something in his voice, something that you've never heard before…" Her voice, already low, drops a little more. "That is such a gift."

Bellow's letters take the reader through a long and replete – "capacious" is his wife's word for it – life. The earliest surviving letter was written at the age of 17, when he was on holiday with one of his two brothers. In it, Bellow breaks off with a childhood girlfriend, Yetta Barshevsky. It is thrilling. Already, you can see a future novelist at work. "It is dark now and the lonely wind is making the trees softly whisper and rustle. Somewhere in the night a bird cries out to the wind. My brother in the next room snores softly, insistently. The country sleeps… Over me the light swings up and back, up and back. It throws shadows on the paper, on my face. I am thinking, thinking, Yetta, drifting with night, with infinity, and all my thoughts are of you. But my thoughts of you are not altogether kind, they sting, they lash. Or shall we talk business?" Further down the page, however, he pulls back from this youthful intensity. Well, almost. "I hate melodrama," he writes. "The only thing that I hate more intensely than melodrama and spinach is myself."

Bellow was born Solomon Bellow in Lachine, Quebec, in 1915, two years after his parents had arrived there from St Petersburg. When he was nine, the family moved to the Humboldt Park neighbourhood of Chicago, the city that would form the backdrop of his greatest novels. His father, Abram, was an onion importer, a deliverer of coal, and a sometime bootlegger. His mother, Liza, died when Saul was 17, but not before she had passed on to him her love of the Bible (he learned Hebrew at four), whose cadences inform every page of his prose, for all that he longed to escape the orthodoxy of his Jewish upbringing.

After university in Chicago, and a stint in the merchant navy during the war, during which he completed his first novel, Dangling Man, he embarked wholesale on his career as a novelist, funding it with university teaching and academic grants. His first serious critical success was The Adventures of Augie March (1953), but it was not until his 1964 novel, Herzog, became a bestseller that he earned any real money. Are his letters riddled with angst over this writerly struggle? His elder brothers, both businessmen, were by this time making serious cash, and regarded him, he once said, as "some schmuck with a pen". But, no. Unlike many writers, his dear friend John Cheever among them, Bellow was not one for self-doubt. He believed in his talent. In a pair of extraordinary letters to John Lehman in 1951, Bellow rails against the British publisher for not praising him enough. "If you can find nothing better to say upon reading Augie March than that you all 'think very highly' of me, I don't think I want you to publish it all," he writes. Later he adds: "Now, I know you haven't seen anything like my book among recent novels. I've been reviewing them; I know what they are. They're for the most part phony, or empty-headed, banal and bungling. I should have thought it would do something to you to see Augie." To adapt the song: I may be wrong, but I think I'm wonderful.

It was women ("They eat green salad and drink human blood," says Moses Herzog) who caused one angst, not writing. James Atlas, the author of a biography of Bellow – the novelist despised it, though he was interviewed by Atlas several times – has suggested that so long as he "still experienced himself as the son, abandoned and betrayed by the mother who died without his permission, he was unable to sustain relationships with women"; Mary Cheever, the wife of John Cheever, believed the two got on so well because "they were both women-haters".

Is this fair? From the letters, it is hard to judge. There are some pretty ugly missives to ex-wives, and more than a few notes to friends in which he rails against the unfairness of his various alimony agreements. He has nothing good to say about feminism, and I was upset by a series of letters to a girlfriend, Margaret Staats, who, while Bellow is travelling in Europe, discovers she might have cancer. When she finds out that this is not the case Bellow tells her to quit moaning. Doesn't she know that it has been just as bad for him, waiting for news? It's not as if he hasn't called her on the telephone! On the other hand, when he is in love, boy, is he in love. He bills and he coos, and he uses baby names, and he cannot wait to be with the object of his desire. He is suddenly a darling.

Most of the letters, though, are more literary life than private life – and they are the more fascinating. There are letters to William Faulkner and Edmund Wilson, to John Berryman and John Cheever, to Cynthia Ozick and Martin Amis. Bellow has a go at Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy (the one is "rash", the other "stupid"); he tells Philip Roth – brave! – that his novel I Married a Communist is unsatisfactory ("I assume that you can no more bear Ira than the reader can. But you stand loyally by this cast-iron klutz – a big strong stupid man who attracts you for reasons invisible to me"); he flirts with Edna O'Brien ("I think you are a lovely woman"); and he disdains Christopher Hitchens, whom Bellow's young admirer, Martin Amis, had brought to dinner ("Hitchens appeals to Amis. This is a temptation I understand. But the sort of people you like to write about aren't always fit company, especially at the dinner table"). He also describes his feelings upon winning, in 1976, the Nobel prize for literature: "this mixture of glory and horror," he calls it, as if he were not incredibly pleased.

Best of all, though, are the critical and descriptive passages: of Chicago ("appalled by its own culturelessness"), of the places he visits on his travels, of the books he is reading (there is a wonderfully succinct and witty account of War and Peace). Capacious is certainly the word. And thank goodness. The digital world being what it is, this could well be one of the last collections of letters by a great writer we will ever get to read.

Janis Bellow did not work on the letters herself, and perhaps this was sensible. "I blush a little when I look back. I had a rather schoolmarmish attitude to Benjamin [Taylor, their editor]. It was because I felt protective. But it was his book, and while I might have been pulling in the direction of 'this will hurt someone's feelings', he was very convincing when it came to telling me something ought to stay." Does she hope it will change readers' perceptions of Saul? Zachary Leader's authorised biography of Bellow is not due for several years. On a personal level, yes. "I keep hoping that people who felt put out – who felt: 'Why didn't he have time for me?' – will realise how busy he was, how much was actually being delivered. That they will see that he has this generosity that somehow spreads out."

She has said that her own share in Saul's life was only a small one, but the irony is that she was also with him for longer than any other woman. Their relationship lasted for two decades, and by her account, they never had a cross word. "Yes. People used to joke: 'You're lucky – you didn't have some mean book written about you; you would if you'd come earlier.' [Saul, it is generally agreed, made nasty characters of his ex-wives] I'm not going to deny that. I'm much luckier. We met at the right time. If I'd been earlier in the line-up… I don't think I could have been with a man who was unfaithful to me. The pain of it."

After they were married, Saul seemed more free: he let go of some of his responsibilities to the outside world. There was a new lightness. In 1994, however, he ate a poisonous fish in the Caribbean, and fell into a coma that lasted five weeks. Janis did not leave his hospital for 10 days, and there followed months of rehabilitation. Had she ever imagined that she would end up as his nurse? "We joked about it. There was nothing he hid from himself. After we'd been married for two years, we asked ourselves: 'Are we going to be able to maintain this?' He wanted me to be free to go when it was over. He dreaded a loss of virility. We said to ourselves: 'We've already had more than most people have.'"

After his recovery, though he would now begin for the first time to define himself as an "old man", he was strong enough to work. He wrote a late, great novel, Ravelstein, based on the life and death of his friend, American academic Allan Bloom ("Bellow survives [and] so does fiction itself," wrote Malcolm Bradbury, possibly a little too dazzled by the miracle). He also, in the 11th year of his final marriage, became a father again – to the daughter he had always craved. "I wasn't the kind of person who was interested [in babies], only then it grabbed me with a ferocity. This was not for him, it was for me. But Rosie got the best of him. He was a writer, you see, not a husband, or a father; [looking back] you see a pattern of him not being able to put in time. When a child comes along, it displaces you, if you need to be at the centre, and obviously Saul did.

"He had huge needs. The writing life needed to be supported. He was aware of this; I'm not saying anything disrespectful. He failed his children; he left them, and it was a wound he carried around. He knew the cruelty of this. At the very end, though he was not a well father, he was in the house. He and Rosie would watch The Lion King together: in the final, unpleasant stages of his last illness, he was at the point where he didn't mind watching the same film over and over. I was somehow managing Rosie and Saul in the same way."

In the last weeks, she was determined to keep the house happy. She remembers, one afternoon, Rosie singing along with gusto to a Depression-era songbook, and dancing around the room. "Don't you think the child should be removed?" asked a visiting friend. "Leave Rosie alone," said Saul. "She's enacting my fantasies." He died at home, aged 89, Janis and Rosie by his side. Do they have a relationship with Saul's sons? Not really. Rosie has special needs, and Janis is focused very much on her. "We had cordial relations… but each of them belongs to a different mother. They're quite separate, even from one another."

It must seem as if her life has been lived the wrong way around. "Yes. I did have the feeling when he died: now my life is over, too. You start to think of yourself as posthumous." Does she dare to think of meeting someone else, or will no one match up? "I haven't had a chance even to wonder about that. In the beginning, I didn't want help. I needed to regroup with Rosie, just the two of us. So… people disappear. I kept thinking: 'I will get back in touch with these people, the people who wrote me all these letters.' I used to read them at the end of the day. It was so good to have them, but then that stops and it was my turn [to write back] and I didn't. I really cut myself off from everyone. If you are grieving, and you have a little child, well, life has to move. Crying was something you did in the shower. I begin to think of myself as a loner, a lone wolf. It's a strange way of being in the world. I'm solitary. I didn't start out that way." She keeps busy – perhaps too busy. But she does not involve herself in Bellow World: in symposia and lectures, in new editions and magazine profiles. "His whole world has disappeared, and that's the strangeness of it. I'm in a different universe now." The new universe is all about Rosie.

She takes me on a tour of the house. It is cosy, not grand, and that goes for Bellow's writing room, too (there is another home, for the summers, in Vermont). It is emphatically a family house, with the strange twist that there just happen to be photographs of a Nobel laureate on almost every shelf. He looks extremely happy in all of them: a picture of patriarchal contentment. You are reminded that, before his final illnesses, Bellow was proud of his fitness: he took care of himself; he was a man who liked to chop wood. And sure enough, when I ask Janis how she prefers to remember him – how she would describe him to an old girlfriend as if she had met him only yesterday – it is not his giant brain she thinks of first, nor his amazing facility with words, nor even the fact that, as she told me earlier, he had "read everything, six times". It is his physicality, the way he felt in her arms. "He had beautiful skin, healthy young skin, even at the end. He wasn't exactly tall, but he had this broad upper body, these giant arms." She slips into the present tense. "He's the kind of person you're so glad to be embracing at the end of the day. In bed. You want to be close to this human being. He's so full of excitement, and energy." She presses her hands to her chest, and closes her eyes.

Saul Bellow Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor, is published on 4 November by Penguin Classics

To John Cheever, 2 May 1979, Chicago

Dear John:

Do you realise we haven't seen each other's dear faces in nearly a year? I have seen you in the papers pulling down one award after another and that has given me great satisfaction. I am somewhat sorry for you because you have only the occasional satisfaction of remembering me. We ought to do something about this, especially as it has not been a happy year, and it would do me good to see you. […]

Atop the Hyde Park Bank building in Chicago 30 years ago there was a Russian nightclub called the Troika where they sang "Don't Forget Me," a sentimental lied which applies to us.


To Martin Amis, 30 December 1990, Schomberg, Ontario

Dear Martin,

Janis and I are in Ontario in the top storey of her parents' farmhouse looking into the falling snow, trees, fields, a pond, and staring directly into the empty face of a Trojan-helmet chimney emitting smoke from wood chopped by me. We've just come out of the bath and we sit beside a huge white tub-with-a-view, a whirlpool or perhaps even a Jacuzzi into which you pour bubble-bath cream which foams up and makes you into an Olympian, Old Massa Zeus looking down on white Chanel clouds.

Too bad the people I care for are so widely distributed over the face of the earth. But then one tends to think about them all the more. Proximity isn't everything. In this bedroom I have found a volume of Aldous Huxley's letters written during the war years, many of them from Hollywood to correspondents in London and other distant places. His views might have been less kooky if he hadn't left England. But there are such things as inner distances and homegrown or domestic kookiness. I come up with odd ideas on my own Chicago turf and friends in England also send me their strange views. Years ago in Greenwich Village I used to say to a particular pal, "There's only me and thee that's sane and I sometimes have my doubts about thee." The occasion for these thoughts is the mention of [Salman] Rushdie's name at the breakfast table, his embrace or re-embrace of Islam. I suggested that he may have believed mistakenly that the civilisation of the west had once and for all triumphed over exotic fundamentalism, After all, the Pope didn't excommunicate Joyce for writing Ulysses and the Church is even older than Islam. In short, it isn't safe yet to say that such and such a phenomenon has passed into history. Just as we were thinking that perestroika and glasnost had purified Russia once and for all we read a speech by the chief of the KGB accusing the US of sending radioactive wheat and poisoned foodstuffs to feed the hungry in the Soviet Union.

The likes of us should quit politics and stick to dreams. It gave me pleasure to hear that I recently figured in a dream of yours positively. I recently dreamt:

Dream I: I identify Tolstoy as the driver of a beat-up white van on the expressway. I ask the old guy at the wheel of this crumbling van what he can do to keep his flapping door from banging against the finish of my car. When he leans over to the right I see that he is none other than Leo Tolstoy, beard and all. He invites me to follow him off the expressway to a tavern and he says, "I want you to have this jar of pickled herring." He adds, "I knew your brother." At the mention of my late brother I burst into tears.

Dream II: A secret remedy for a deadly disease is inscribed in Chinese characters on my penis. For this reason my life is in danger. My son Greg is guarding me in a California hideout from the agents of a pharmaceutical company, etc.

Dream III: I find myself in a library filled with unknown masterpieces by Henry James, Joseph Conrad and others. Titles I have never seen mentioned anywhere. In shock and joy I open a volume by Conrad and read several pages, sentence after sentence after sentence in the old boy's best style, more brilliant than ever. "Why in the hell was I never told about this?" I ask. Certain parties have been holding out on us. I am indignant.

I depend on these dream-events to sort me out. Or perhaps to document my disorder more fully.We may not be going to France after all. Our friend Bloom has for some months been down with the paralyzing Guillain-Barre syndrome and we can make no travel plans till we know whether the paralysis is temporary. Or not. He's making progress but there won't be any holidays until we've seen him through. Somebody at the BBC last year invited me to do a program in May and if the arrangements can be made perhaps we'll fly over and catch you before you leave London. […]

Best wishes for the New Year to you and Antonia and the kids from Janis and me.


[In an effort to be rid of the fatwa pronounced on him by Ayatollah Khomeini, Salman Rushdie had issued a tactical statement – later withdrawn – in which he claimed to have turned to Islam.]

To Philip Roth, 1 January 1998, Brookline

Dear Philip,

Sorry to be so slow. Janis got to your manuscript first and all her enthusiasm, sympathies and forebodings were then communicated to me. A new Roth book is a big event in these parts. We are, to use the Chicago terms of the 20s, your rooters and boosters.

When she took off for Canada on Xmas day to see parents and sister, brother, kiddies, she left I Married a Communist with me for the holiday season. Reading your book consoled me in this empty house. It's a treat to read one of your manuscripts – I say this upfront – but this time the overall effect was not satisfactory. I was particularly aware of the absence of distance – I don't mean that the writer must put space between himself and the characters in his book. But there should be a certain detachment from the writer's own passions. I speak as one who in Herzog created the same sin. There I hoped that comic effects might protect me. Nevertheless I crossed the border too many times to raid the enemy camp. But then Herzog was a chump, a failed intellectual and at bottom a sentimentalist. In your case, the man who gives us Eve and Sylphid is an enragé, a fanatic-for-real.

But that's not the outstanding defect of IMAC. Your reader, out of respect for your powers, is more than willing to go along with you. He will not, as I was not, be able to go along with your Ira, probably the least attractive of all your characters. I assume that you can no more bear Ira than the reader can. But you stand loyally by this cast-iron klutz – a big strong stupid man who attracts you for reasons invisible to me.

Now there is real mystery about communists in the west, to limit myself to those. How were they able to accept Stalin – one of the most monstrous tyrants ever? You would have thought that the Stalin-Hitler division of Poland, the defeat of the French which opened the way to Hitler's invasion of Russia, would have led CP members to reconsider their loyalties. But no. When I landed in Paris in 1948 I found that the intellectual leaders (Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, etc) remained loyal despite the Stalin sea of blood. Well, every country, every government has its sea, or lake, or pond. Still Stalin remained "the hope" – despite the clear parallel with Hitler.

But to keep it short – the reason: the reason lay in the hatred of one's own country. Among the French it was the old confrontation of "free spirits", or artists, with the ruling bourgeoisie. In America it was the fight against the McCarthys, the House Committees investigating subversion, etc that justified the left, the followers of Henry Wallace, etc. The main enemy was at home (Lenin's WWI slogan). If you opposed the CP you were a McCarthyite, no two ways about it.

Well, it was a deep and perverse stupidity. It didn't require a great mind to see what Stalinism was. But the militants and activists refused to reckon with the simple facts available to everybody.

Enough: you will say that all of that is acknowledged in IMAC. Yes, and no. You tell us that Ira is a brute, a murderer. But who else is there? Ira and Eve are at the core of your novel – and what does this pair amount to?

One of your persistent themes is the purgation one can obtain only through rage. The forces of aggression are liberating, etc. And I can see that as a legitimate point of view. OK if your characters are titans. But Eve is simply a pitiful woman and Sylphid is a pampered, wicked fat girl with a bison hump. These are not titans.

There aren't many people to whom I can be so open. We've always been candid with each other and I hope we will continue, both of us, to say what we think. You'll be sore at me, but I believe you won't cast me off for ever.

Ever yours,

domenica 3 ottobre 2010

Found in Translation


AS the author of “Las Horas,” “Die Stunden” and “De Uren” — ostensibly the Spanish, German and Dutch translations of my book “The Hours," but actually unique works in their own right — I’ve come to understand that all literature is a product of translation. That is, translation is not merely a job assigned to a translator expert in a foreign language, but a long, complex and even profound series of transformations that involve the writer and reader as well. “Translation” as a human act is, like so many human acts, a far more complicated proposition than it may initially seem to be.

Let’s take as an example one of the most famous lines in literature: “Call me Ishmael.” That, as I suspect you know, is the opening sentence of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” We still recognize that line, after more than 150 years.

Still. “Call me Ishmael.” Three simple words. What’s the big deal?

For one thing, they possess that most fundamental but elusive of all writerly qualities: authority. As writers we must, from our very opening sentence, speak with authority to our readers.

It’s a little like waltzing with a new partner for the first time. Anyone who is able to waltz, or fox-trot, or tango, or perform any sort of dance that requires physical contact with a responsive partner, knows that there is a first moment, on the dance floor, when you assess, automatically, whether the new partner in question can dance at all — and if he or she can in fact dance, how well. You know almost instantly whether you have a novice on your hands, and that if you do, you’ll have to do a fair amount of work just to keep things moving.

Authority is a rather mysterious quality, and it’s almost impossible to parse it for its components. The translator’s first task, then, is to re-render a certain forcefulness that can’t quite be described or explained.

Although the words “Call me Ishmael” have force and confidence, force and confidence alone aren’t enough. “Idiot, read this” has force and confidence too, but is less likely to produce the desired effect. What else do Melville’s words possess that “Idiot, read this” lack?

They have music. Here’s where the job of translation gets more difficult. Language in fiction is made up of equal parts meaning and music. The sentences should have rhythm and cadence, they should engage and delight the inner ear. Ideally, a sentence read aloud, in a foreign language, should still sound like something, even if the listener has no idea what it is he or she is being told.

Let’s try to forget that the words “Call me Ishmael” mean anything, and think about how they sound.

Listen to the vowel sounds: ah, ee, soft i, aa. Four of them, each different, and each a soft, soothing note. Listen too to the way the line is bracketed by consonants. We open with the hard c, hit the l at the end of “call,” and then, in a lovely act of symmetry, hit the l at the end of “Ishmael.” “Call me Arthur” or “Call me Bob” are adequate but not, for musical reasons, as satisfying.

Most readers, of course, wouldn’t be able to tell you that they respond to those three words because they are soothing and symmetrical, but most readers register the fact unconsciously. You could probably say that meaning is the force we employ, and music is the seduction. It is the translator’s job to reproduce the force as well as the music.

“Chiamami Ismaele.”

That is the Italian version of Melville’s line, and the translator has done a nice job. I can tell you, as a reader who doesn’t speak Italian, that those two words do in fact sound like something, independent of their meaning. Although different from the English, we have a new, equally lovely progression of vowel sounds — ee-a, ah, ee, a, ee — and those three m’s, nicely spaced.

If you’re translating “Moby-Dick,” that’s one sentence down, approximately a million more to go.

I encourage the translators of my books to take as much license as they feel that they need. This is not quite the heroic gesture it might seem, because I’ve learned, from working with translators over the years, that the original novel is, in a way, a translation itself. It is not, of course, translated into another language but it is a translation from the images in the author’s mind to that which he is able to put down on paper.

Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.

But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.

It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.

The translator, then, is simply moving the book another step along the translation continuum. The translator is translating a translation.

A translator is also translating a work in progress, one that has a beginning, middle and end but is not exactly finished, even though it’s being published. A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also the most finished draft he could come up with before he collapsed from exhaustion. It’s all I can do not to go from bookstore to bookstore with a pen, grabbing my books from the shelves, crossing out certain lines I’ve come to regret and inserting better ones. For many of us, there is not what you could call a “definitive text.”

This brings us to the question of the relationship between writers and their readers, where another act of translation occurs.

I teach writing, and one of the first questions I ask my students every semester is, who are you writing for? The answer, 9 times out of 10, is that they write for themselves. I tell them that I understand — that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself. By which I mean that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers, albeit separated by time and space.

I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories. There are a lot of other stories out there, and by now, in the 21st century, there’s been such an accumulation of literature that few of us will live long enough to read all the great stories and novels, never mind the pretty good ones. Not to mention the fact that we, as readers, are busy.

We have large and difficult lives. We have, variously, jobs to do, spouses and children to attend to, errands to run, friends to see; we need to keep up with current events; we have gophers in our gardens; we are taking extension courses in French or wine tasting or art appreciation; we are looking for evidence that our lovers are cheating on us; we are wondering why in the world we agreed to have 40 people over on Saturday night; we are worried about money and global warming; we are TiVo-ing five or six of our favorite TV shows.

What the writer is saying, essentially, is this: Make room in all that for this. Stop what you’re doing and read this. It had better be apparent, from the opening line, that we’re offering readers something worth their while.

I should admit that when I was as young as my students are now, I too thought of myself as writing either for myself, for some ghostly ideal reader, or, at my most grandiose moments, for future generations. My work suffered as a result.

It wasn’t until some years ago, when I was working in a restaurant bar in Laguna Beach, Calif., that I discovered a better method. One of the hostesses was a woman named Helen, who was in her mid-40s at the time and so seemed, to me, to be just slightly younger than the Ancient Mariner. Helen was a lovely, generous woman who had four children and who had been left, abruptly and without warning, by her husband. She had to work. And work and work. She worked in a bakery in the early mornings, typed manuscripts for writers in the afternoons, and seated diners at the restaurant nights.

Helen was an avid reader, and her great joy, at the end of her long, hard days, was to get into bed and read for an hour before she caught the short interlude of sleep that was granted her. She read widely and voraciously. She was, when we met, reading a trashy murder mystery, and I, as only the young and pretentious might do, suggested that she try Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” since she liked detective stories. She read it in less than a week. When she had finished it she told me, “That was wonderful.”

“Thought you’d like it,” I answered.

She added, “Dostoyevsky is much better than Ken Follett.”


Then she paused. “But he’s not as good as Scott Turow.”

Although I didn’t necessarily agree with her about Dostoyevsky versus Turow, I did like, very much, that Helen had no school-inspired sense of what she was supposed to enjoy more, and what less. She simply needed what any good reader needs: absorption, emotion, momentum and the sense of being transported from the world in which she lived and transplanted into another one.

I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing. I’d seen, rather suddenly, that writing is not only an exercise in self-expression, it is also, more important, a gift we as writers are trying to give to readers. Writing a book for Helen, or for someone like Helen, is a manageable goal.

It also helped me to realize that the reader represents the final step in a book’s life of translation.

One of the more remarkable aspects of writing and publishing is that no two readers ever read the same book. We will all feel differently about a movie or a play or a painting or a song, but we have all undeniably seen or heard the same movie, play, painting or song. They are physical entities. A painting by Velázquez is purely and simply itself, as is “Blue” by Joni Mitchell. If you walk into the appropriate gallery in the Prado Museum, or if someone puts a Joni Mitchell disc on, you will see the painting or hear the music. You have no choice.

WRITING, however, does not exist without an active, consenting reader. Writing requires a different level of participation. Words on paper are abstractions, and everyone who reads words on paper brings to them a different set of associations and images. I have vivid mental pictures of Don Quixote, Anna Karenina and Huckleberry Finn, but I feel confident they are not identical to the images carried in the mind of anyone else.

Helen was, clearly, not reading the same “Crime and Punishment” I was. She wasn’t looking for an existential work of genius. She was looking for a good mystery, and she read Dostoyevsky with that thought in mind. I don’t blame her for it. I like to imagine that Dostoyevsky wouldn’t, either.

What the reader is doing, then, is translating the words on the pages into his or her own private, imaginary lexicon, according to his or her interests and needs and levels of comprehension.

Here, then, is the full process of translation. At one point we have a writer in a room, struggling to approximate the impossible vision that hovers over his head. He finishes it, with misgivings. Some time later we have a translator struggling to approximate the vision, not to mention the particulars of language and voice, of the text that lies before him. He does the best he can, but is never satisfied. And then, finally, we have the reader. The reader is the least tortured of this trio, but the reader too may very well feel that he is missing something in the book, that through sheer ineptitude he is failing to be a proper vessel for the book’s overarching vision.

I don’t mean to suggest that writer, translator and reader are all engaged in a mass exercise in disappointment. How depressing would that be? And untrue.

And still. We, as a species, are always looking for cathedrals made of fire, and part of the thrill of reading a great book is the promise of another yet to come, a book that may move us even more deeply, raise us even higher. One of the consolations of writing books is the seemingly unquenchable conviction that the next book will be better, will be bigger and bolder and more comprehensive and truer to the lives we live. We exist in a condition of hope, we love the beauty and truth that come to us, and we do our best to tamp down our doubts and disappointments.

We are on a quest, and are not discouraged by our collective suspicion that the perfection we look for in art is about as likely to turn up as is the Holy Grail. That is one of the reasons we, I mean we humans, are not only the creators, translators and consumers of literature, but also its subjects.

Michael Cunningham is the author of “The Hours” and, most recently, “By Nightfall.”

sabato 2 ottobre 2010

"Must we dream our dreams?" Elizabeth Bishop and Brazil


by William Boyd
Described as 'the writer's writer's writer', Elizabeth Bishop was one of the great 20th-century poets. William Boyd visits the house in Brazil she shared with her lover Lota, where she spent the happiest years of her turbulent life and wrote many of her best poems

Apartamento 1011, 5 Rua Antonio Vieira, Leme, Rio de Janeiro – this was Elizabeth Bishop's first address in Brazil. A few weeks ago I stood on the wavy black and white mosaic sidewalk of Copacabana beach gazing up at the 1940s building opposite. Eleventh floor, penthouse corner apartment. I tried to imagine Bishop looking out over the view. Not that much has changed here in Leme (apart from the odd skyscraper) – most of the apartment blocks fronting the ocean are from the 40s and 50s. Bishop's building is at the eastern end of the beach. West, a few blocks away, is the famous Copacabana Palace Hotel. On the hill behind the apartment I could see the vertically clustered shacks of the Favela Chapéu Mangueira on Babilônia Hill. From the apartment Bishop could see both Copacabana beach, with its kids playing football and its stalls selling coconuts, and, behind her, the lawless favela with its swarming poor. She wrote a ballad called "The Burglar of Babylon" about a young man she saw being chased by the police through the favela's noisome alleyways.

Bishop came to Brazil in 1951. She was 40 years old and had published one book of poetry, North and South, that had made her reputation in the small pool that was the American poetry world. She'd been living for some years in Key West, Florida, but, frustrated artistically and emotionally, had moved back to New York. Unhappy there, she decided that her salvation lay in travelling. Her aim was vague – to "travel round the world" – so she booked a cabin on a freighter called the SS Bowplate and headed south. The ship docked first in Santos near São Paulo (celebrated in her poem "Arrival at Santos"). She knew some people in Brazil, an American former ballet dancer called Mary Morse and her Brazilian lover, Lota Soares. It was at Lota's apartment in Leme that Bishop first stayed. Stay as long as you like, Lota said.

Carlota Costallat de Macedo Soares was a year older than Bishop. She was a small, dynamic intellectual, bespectacled, a self-taught architect, a candid lesbian and fluent speaker of French and less fluent though equally voluble in English. Although she was in a relationship with Morse when she met Bishop, the attraction between Lota, as she was always known, and Bishop was almost immediate. Bishop was a small, dumpy woman with a round face and very thick, unruly, greying hair. She was shy. Like Lota she tended to wear the same clothes all the time, almost as a kind of uniform discreetly declaring her sexuality: a man's shirt and long trousers.

Drink was Bishop's secret problem. All her life she was an alcoholic of the bingeing variety. She would go months without booze and then drink herself into insensibility. She didn't care what she drank as long as it brought oblivion. On one binge, having exhausted all the alcohol in the house, she drank eau de cologne and other perfumes. She was also prone to allergies and suffered badly from asthma. She was in therapy for many years with a trusted psychiatrist. She smoked while she worked – never more than 20 a day, she said.

Elizabeth Bishop's status as one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century is based on the smallest of oeuvres. Some 70 poems were published in her lifetime in four very slim volumes. She died in 1979, aware that her reputation was steadily increasing, eclipsing that of her close friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell. Since her death and the publication of two superb volumes of her correspondence, One Art and Words in Air (letters between her and Lowell) it has grown ever more secure. In the select pantheon of 20th-century poets writing in English, she is placed with TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Wallace Stevens and WH Auden. Her poems often took her years to write and complete, and their formal perfection and the simple, limpid accuracy of their language have always drawn the admiration of other poets. John Ashbery called her "the writer's writer's writer."

Flamengo Park in Rio de Janeiro used to be a landfill. It sits on the northern edge of Botafogo Bay, opposite the famous Sugarloaf. Over a period of years – 1960-66 – it was conceived as a large public park, designed, laid out, landscaped and supervised by Lota as part of a civic programme of reconstruction funded by the regional government. Walking through the mature park today you can see the prescient nature of Lota's design. Flamengo Park works. Everything from the children's playground to the football pitches, from the towering streetlamps (set extra high to give the effect of moonlight) to the groves of exotic trees – all reflect her passionate energy and capacity for decision-making. Lota's obsessive dedication to the design and construction of Flamengo Park brought about the end of her relationship with Bishop. Flamengo Park consumed her and made her ill – and Bishop came to hate the place.

Grinding effortfully up the steep hill, the Rua Djanira, the smell of the clutch burning out, our car reached the gate of Lota and Bishop's other home, Fazenda Samambaia, in the hills near Petrópolis, an hour or so north of Rio today, but a perilous three-hour journey in the 50s. Stepping out of the car and looking around, I saw immediately what an extraordinary project it was for Lota to dream up: to design and build a glass and steel modernist house on top of a distant, isolated hill with a beetling granite cliff at its back. It must have seemed like madness to her fellow architect, Sérgio Bernardes, but Lota would not be daunted. The house was completed in 1952, and she and Bishop moved in. Above it rises the cliff that Bishop described in "Song for the Rainy Season" – "Without water / The great rock will stare / unmagnetized, bare". The steep road to the house is paved now, but it was a dirt track when Lota chose the site. Bishop would be appalled at what has happened to Fazenda Samambaia since she came to live here and to love the place. It's now a neighbourhood of vastly expensive summer homes owned by Rio's plutocracy. Gated communities and tennis courts, uniformed guards and razor wire. But you still gain a clear sense of its magnificent isolation, what it must have been like in the 50s – the forest-covered, mist-shrouded mountains still providing an incredible view: "The mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships, / slime-hung and barnacled."

Happiness came to Bishop in Brazil – or she found happiness in her strange new life with Lota. Samambaia became her true home. She never liked Rio: too noisy, too hot, too many people. Lota built her a small studio in the garden, and Bishop wrote most of her great poems here during the 15 years she lived with Lota. She became slowly absorbed into the small community of servants and their families and the sharecroppers and peasant farmers that existed around the house; became happily accustomed to the astonishing fecundity of the rainforest and the makeshift necessities of living in the hinterland of a rackety third-world country.

Influence. Lota was given the job of supervising the design of Parque do Flamengo by her close friend, the charismatic governor of Rio de Janeiro state, Carlos Lacerda. It was a pretty clear act of political nepotism. Lota was unqualified and inexperienced – and a woman. And a gay woman, as we would now describe her. The fact that she was offered the job and accepted it and that she contentedly lived her life openly as a lesbian says a great deal for the enlightened social attitudes in 1960s Rio. It's almost impossible to imagine such a high-profile, prestigious public-sector job being handed to someone like Lota anywhere else in the world at the time, let alone anywhere else in Brazil. That said, it turned out to be something of a poisoned chalice. Lota's appointment was almost immediately resented; her patrician drive and manner irritated the civil servants she worked with; and her refusal to compromise began to grate with the jobsworths in the Superintendency of Urbanisation and Sanitation. As the park began to swallow up more and more of her waking life, Lota found herself in the firing line. Only Lacerda's support kept her in charge, even when her landscape designer publicly attacked her as an egomaniac and all-round disaster area. When Lacerda fell from grace in one of Brazil's frequent political upheavals (he feared for his life and hid for a while in Samambaia), Lota's power waned too. Embittered and ill as a result of the stress and infighting surrounding construction of the park, she tried to protect it by establishing a foundation to run and preserve it from becoming a political shuttlecock. She failed. Still, Parque do Flamengo is there today, and the fact that it is establishes it as her secret memorial – as she is nowhere acknowledged as the prime mover behind its existence. Not a plaque, not the smallest memorial. Most contemporary citizens of Rio think it was created by the landscape designer she hired, and who turned so virulently on her, Roberto Burle Marx.

Jaguar sports cars were Lota's vehicle of choice, even for Samambaia's muddy dirt tracks, though for a while she drove a black MG roadster as well – Bishop paid for it with a $1,200 cheque from the New Yorker for a short story. Such automotive statements were part of Lota's allure and part of the bravura of her personality. She and Bishop became remarkably close yet, temperamentally, they were opposites. The gregarious and the reclusive; the dynamo and the diffident procrastinator; the engagée and the politically naive; the voluble and the laconic; the hare and the tortoise. Bishop liked the sports cars but preferred them to be driven at 30mph.

Klee, Schwitters and Vuillard were Bishop's favourite painters. "Modest" artists, she called them – and I think you can see in their small-scale but vibrantly beautiful works something of what Bishop was trying to achieve in her poetry. These were her values, so she wrote to Lowell, how she faced the world: "modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time".

Lesbian was not a word Bishop particularly liked but she was already aware of the direction her sexuality was taking when she was at Vassar in the 1930s. Her first serious relationship with another woman took place while she was in her 20s. She had many affairs (including one long one during the years she lived in Key West) before she met Lota. Lota was the love of her life but, even during their years together, Bishop's affections could stray. The poet Anne Stevenson met Bishop in the 60s and wrote: "Always shy and, in a dignified way, modest, Elizabeth was pleased I took so much interest in her poetry, not her life . . . Art, for her, was crystalline, a possibility for purity. That's why she didn't sully it with excretions from her own life."

Mystery surrounds the identity of the young woman Bishop met in Seattle when she went to take up the post of writer-in-residence at the University of Washington in 1966. She's given various pseudonyms in biographical accounts of Bishop's life: "Suzanne Bowen", "Adrienne Collins" and even "XY". Bishop was in her mid-50s when she met Suzanne Bowen, who was in her early 20s and the pregnant wife of a Seattle painter. Bishop was drinking, miserable to be away from Brazil and Lota and therefore more than unusually feckless. Suzanne stepped in – found her an apartment, kept her company. They became lovers. Even when Suzanne gave birth to her child (a boy), nothing changed in this curious ménage. When Bishop returned to Brazil, Lota discovered evidence of the affair in a letter she opened inadvertently. Her relationship with Bishop never recovered.

Nobody should judge by appearances. This old adage applies resolutely to Bishop. There was something about her – photographs don't supply the evidence – that made her intensely attractive to people. Even Lowell contemplated asking her to marry him. Her various affairs lasted well into her late middle age. People – women – wanted to look after her, wanted to be with her, help her out, care for her. It has been said that this was because she was some kind of poet-genius, but I don't quite buy that explanation. Bishop had an appeal that was extra-poetic, I would say, Lota's swift dedication to her being the best case in point. Lota knew lots of famous artists – a minor American poet (as Bishop was when she first met her) would not be any kind of sexual draw, or any great scalp to claim. Lota decided to change her life when she met Bishop – and it wasn't easy, what with Bishop's drinking and other health problems. Bishop's attractiveness was something intrinsically to do with Bishop – not the poetry.

Ouro Preto is an old Baroque colonial town in the Minas Gerais state province of Brazil. It was here that Brazil's gold mines were found and exploited in the 17th and 18th centuries and Ouro Preto benefited from the vast wealth of the ore – hence the name. Bishop travelled widely in Brazil – in Amazonia and other remote parts – and was better travelled than Lota. When the affair with Lota began to founder, Bishop saw in Ouro Preto another Samambaia. She bought a semi-ruined house there and embarked on a maddening, frustrating period of trying to have it restored. Lota visited – and did not see the appeal of the town, or of the ramshackle house Bishop had bought. It became a symbol of the schism that was developing between them. While the house was being restored Bishop would stay in an inn across the street run by a Danish widow called Lilli Correia de Araújo. They had a short but intense affair.

Petrópolis is an extraordinary place, even today. Created by Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, in the 19th century, it was a summer retreat for the ruling royal family and therefore the government. It is set in the forested mountains behind Rio, so even in high summer its temperature is bearable. It's worth bearing this fact in mind: Samambaia was perhaps half an hour down the road from Petrópolis. Bishop was hardly in the sticks. The town was a Ruritanian model of an imperial retreat, full of palaces and villas, canals and boulevards, smart shops and theatres, cafés and restaurants. Le tout Rio decamped there in the hot months of January, February and March. Today it retains its faded retro charm – a 19th-century anachronism in the booming 21st-century Brazilian economy. However remote Bishop thought she was in her house on top of the hill, she was never slumming it, never really the hardy pioneer. It was all rather chic.

'Questions of Travel" is one of the rare Bishop poems that one can easily interpret as autobiographical. Set squarely in the house at Samambaia, it analyses Bishop's decision to leave America and seek her destiny, whatever that might have been, elsewhere. "Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?", the poet asks. "Must we dream our dreams / and have them, too?" And then, in the very last lines, it prompts another question: "Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?" The answer we are meant to infer is, I believe, a confident "no". Bishop – born in Worcester, Massachusetts, a New Englander through and through – was made by her life in Brazil. Brazil became her home – however eccentric, irritating, enthralling, frightening, exotic and perplexing a place it might seem to be, depending on the occasion. When she finally left it in 1971, for the last time, the happiest period of her life was over.

Robert Lowell, dear friend, fellow poet, mentor, patron, ally, almost-lover, is the poetic touchstone in Bishop's life. The graph-lines of their close friendship are highly revealing: at the beginning Lowell is the undisputed star of American poetry – young, handsome, patrician, dynamic, learned, sought-after – and Bishop the country-mouse. Slowly but surely over the long, sometimes fraught years of their relationship the balance changed. Lowell's talent seemed to desert him as Bishop's became more secure. As a poet Lowell became verbose and undisciplined – Bishop eked out her perfect poems a few at a time. Lowell came to Rio to visit her in 1962 and all seemed to go well, though when he moved on to Buenos Aires he had an epic nervous breakdown. In their correspondence one sees the change as Bishop, timid disciple, becomes the new master – and the young, confident maestro senses his powers waning. Bishop's poetic example was one Lowell couldn't really live with. Their friendship nearly ended after he recycled personal letters from his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick in a volume of poetry (The Dolphin). Lowell changed Hardwick's letters as it suited him. Bishop's condemnation was unequivocal and shocking: this was a desecration of all the unspoken laws of poetry and of personal dignity. "[A]ren't you violating a trust?" Bishop confronted him. "Art isn't worth that much," she went on. "It's not being 'gentle' to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way – it's cruel." Somehow their friendship recovered, but the equilibrium was never fully re-established. The power was all Bishop's now. Her elegiac poem written on Lowell's death in 1977 is devastatingly accurate. "You can't derange, or rearrange, / Your poems again . . . / The words won't change again. Sad friend you cannot change."

Suicide is the usual verdict on Lota's death – though her family disputed it, and still do. She and Bishop had spilt up. Flamengo Park, the affair with "Suzanne Bowen", ill-health, the progressive dysfunction of their shared life had brought about a temporary separation. Bishop had quit Brazil and moved to New York, looking for teaching posts at universities to support herself. Lota, unwell, unhappy, stressed out and humiliated by the ongoing fiasco that was the administration of Flamengo Park, came to stay with Bishop at a friend's apartment to see if they could somehow put things back together. That first night, after going to bed after a convivial, friendly meal, she collapsed in a coma. Bishop found her in the morning and she died in hospital a few days later.

Tragedy seems almost too bland a word to describe Lota's death and its consequences on Bishop. Blame, guilt, incomprehension, complete emotional trauma, personal collapse all swept in. Bishop went back to Brazil but was greeted with overt hostility by Lota's family and friends. Somehow she was seen as responsible for Lota's death, however unfair that judgment was. Even Ouro Preto and the cherished, problematic house had lost its familiar charm. Everything seemed to be going wrong. Bishop enlisted Suzanne Bowen's help and flew her out to Brazil to try to settle her affairs (this did not look good to Lota's family, as can be imagined). Then Suzanne had a breakdown and had to be hospitalised herself. Bishop's eventual departure from the place that she had loved, and that had made her as a poet, was fraught, shaming and embittering. After 1971 she never set foot in the country again.

Understanding Elizabeth Bishop is a bit like trying to understand her poems. At first glance they seem straightforward descriptions but further readings reveal new depths, more potent nuances. The same applies to Bishop – the almost schoolmarmy little woman led a life of profound emotional and intellectual complexity. She once wrote to Lowell: "My passion for accuracy may strike you as old-maidish – but since we do float on an unknown sea I think we should examine the other floating things that come our way very carefully; who knows what might depend on it?"

Valium is the drug on which Lota overdosed. Although she was in a coma when she was taken to hospital, it was thought that she would survive – very few people die from an overdose of Valium. But she never came round. Bishop wrote to friends: "She was a wonderful, remarkable woman and I'm sorry you didn't know her better. I had the 12 or 13 happiest years of my life with her before she got sick – and I suppose that is a great deal in this unmerciful world."

William Thomas Bishop, Elizabeth's father, died when she was eight months old. Her mother, Gertrude, never recovered from the loss and was institutionalised for the rest of her life. The last time Bishop saw her mother was in 1916, when she was five. Her mother died in a mental hospital 20 years later. Bishop was to all intents and purposes orphaned at a very early age. She once said to Lowell: "When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived."

'X" might have marked the spot – spraypainted on the cracked and oil-stained tarmac – in a crash investigation team's attempt to understand why a Honda Accord foolishly drove the wrong way down a two-lane one-way street. My driver was trying to find the highway back to Rio from the winding lanes around Bishop's Samambaia house. He innocently turned right into the one-way street (we later saw that the "no entry" sign was the size of a beer mat). The first car hurtling towards us managed to swerve out of the way. Another car stopped, informing us we were in a one-way street. As the drivers conferred, a bus thundered by, horn blaring. I urged my driver to reverse, rapidly. We did so and found a bus stop where we could turn. Delayed shock inevitably set in as I considered this narrow escape. Bishop always dreaded these journeys back to Rio. Lota was a reckless, heedless driver – Bishop always feared she'd meet her death on the road from Samambaia to Rio.

Yeats's famous lines "I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart" had a particular resonance for Bishop. She liked to quote them.

Zona Sul is the official designation of that district of Rio where Lota's Leme apartment was to be found. South Zone. In Lota's will Bishop was left the much-disliked apartment. Beloved Samambaia was bestowed on Mary Morse. And so Bishop found herself, in 1967, the owner of the apartment where she had first stayed in 1951 on what was meant to be a two-week visit to Brazil before she moved on to Buenos Aires. She sold the apartment as quickly as possible. After the Brazilian years Bishop took up a teaching post at Harvard in the 1970s. She was never that happy teaching poetry, but it provided her with an income while her fame as a poet steadily grew. She died in Boston of a cerebral aneurysm on 6 October 1979.