sabato 27 novembre 2010

Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett: review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy now for £23 from Telegraph Books

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

venerdì 19 novembre 2010

The Secrets of Leo Tolstoy



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mercoledì 17 novembre 2010

Battle to save George Eliot's unspoilt vista


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

By Rob Sharp, Arts Correspondent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The developer, Michael Austin, was unavailable for comment.

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

martedì 16 novembre 2010

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sabato 13 novembre 2010

Letters from the man who wrote The Leopard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

venerdì 12 novembre 2010

The Philosopher of Auschwitz

A book to buy...


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

Reviewed by Rebecca K Morrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

giovedì 11 novembre 2010

Misreading Gulliver's Travels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sabato 6 novembre 2010

The Irish short story


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

giovedì 4 novembre 2010

A life in writing: Günter Grass'


In time, perhaps, your country will think about its colonial crimes. No country has the right to point only at the Germans. Everybody has to empty their own latrine.' Günter Grass talks to Maya Jaggi

In his studio in the Behlendorf woods, near the Baltic city of Lübeck, Günter Grass reflects on the outcry over his fictive memoir Peeling the Onion. His mention, four years ago, of having been drafted as a teenager into the Waffen SS at the tail end of the second world war sparked the most explosive in a half-century of career controversies. "I'm used to it by now," he says. "What I do is sometimes – at least in Germany – met with wounding campaigns. I always face the question: should I grow myself a thick skin and ignore it, or should I let myself be wounded? I've decided to be wounded, since, if I grew a thick skin, there are other things I wouldn't feel any more."

His bestselling debut novel, The Tin Drum (1959), was decried in some quarters as blasphemous pornography, and banned in dictatorships from the Eastern bloc to Iberia, while his novel Too Far Afield (1995) was savaged by critics, not least for raining on the unification parade. The story of his stint in the Waffen SS was broken in the German press in 2006 as a shocking disclosure, though "it came out later that I'd spoken openly about it in the 60s," he says. "Nobody was worked up by it at the time."

That was in an era turning its back on the past amid Germany's "economic miracle", whose amnesia was assailed by Grass and other writers, including Heinrich Böll, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Martin Walser – before opinion shifted with the Auschwitz trials and 1968 student protests.

Yet for decades, he wrote in Peeling the Onion, he "refused to admit" to the "double letters" of the Waffen SS. He always avowed membership of the Hitler Youth, volunteering without success for the submarine corps at 15, and being conscripted as a tank gunner at 16, before being wounded, never having fired a shot. Yet, as one of the "schoolboy generation" burdened with crimes he learned of only as a PoW in US hands, he wrote: "What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame." That Grass took 60 years to address his Waffen SS membership in his work might be a reminder of the difficulty of the task he undertook. As his oeuvre suggests, the past is never "come to terms" with, but recurs in a perpetual grappling with responsibility and guilt of the kind that "hibernates in dreams".

On whether he might have handled things differently, he says, "I would have had to write my autobiography earlier. It was portrayed . . . as though I'd made a confession – and even that full of false comparisons. I did not volunteer for the Waffen SS, but was, as were thousands of my year group, conscripted. I did not then know as a 17-year-old that it was a criminal unit. I thought it was an elite unit."

For Grass, his conscription has less significance than the unquestioning beliefs of his youth, for which he claims responsibility, and spent a lifetime "working through" in fiction, poetry, drama, essays and memoir. "I belonged to the generation that grew up under National Socialism, and was blinded and led astray – and allowed itself to be led astray," he says. Soon after 1945, "while many were retrospectively counting themselves members of the German resistance, I said: 'No, right until the end, I believed like an idiot in the final victory.' I was shattered when the Germans capitulated. I never made a secret of it. Everything I have done since emerged as an insight after the war."

Though the "Grass affair" brought attacks on his moral authority, he has never styled himself "Germany's conscience" ("No one person can be the conscience of a country – it's stupid"). Accused of hypocrisy in attacking others' wartime records, he objects: "When I criticised [Kurt Georg] Kiesinger because he wanted to be chancellor, I was talking about a man who . . . during the Nazi-era, had a leading position in the propaganda department. He was no 17-year-old."

A lifelong Social Democrat, though no longer a party member ("I criticise them but I'm still on their side"), Grass sees the furore as politically driven. "I was supposed to keep my mouth shut. That didn't work. I still keep opening my mouth."

The controversy is touched on in an exhibition in Günter Grass House, the Lübeck museum that houses prints, watercolours and sculptures by the 1999 Nobel laureate. It was founded in 2002 in the 15th-century print works where he keeps an office, near a red-brick Gothic cathedral like those in Danzig, his Hanseatic birthplace (now Polish Gdansk). "Günter Grass and Poland", on until January 31, has a newly unearthed photograph from his first return in 1958, clasping his Slav great-aunt Anna, a Kashubian in voluminous skirts who inspired the potato-field conception in his most famous novel.

Later he met the Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who in 2006 demanded that Grass hand back his honorary citizenship of Gdansk. Grass says he wrote to the mayor, and the idea was rejected. "The people of Gdansk said: 'No, he belongs to us!' I'm there every other year; I'm proud they celebrate me." In 2005 he showed 10 translators around the city on the occasion of new 50th-anniversary translations of The Tin Drum. The English one, by Breon Mitchell – out this month in Vintage paperback – is unexpurgated and more faithful, Grass feels, to his "tapeworm-long sentences".

His studio barn is next to the house he shares with his wife Ute, an organist. Downstairs he hammers on his blue Olivetti, and upstairs makes prints. With his "walrus moustache" and pipe paraphernalia, Grass seems relaxed, switching between German and English – even mischievous. Rehearsing his objections to the "annexation" of East Germany in 1990, he scowls theatrically, "you're speaking with an angry old man", but laughs with good humour. He looked forward to marking his 83rd birthday this month with friends. As for fearing death: "No, I'm astonished with each new spring. At my age, every year is like a gift."

The second volume of his fictive autobiography, The Box, is published by Harvill Secker next week, in an English translation by Krishna Winston. It forms part of a trilogy that took him seven years. Its third part, Grimms' Words, which combines memoir with the story of the Grimms' dictionary, came out in Germany in August.

While Peeling the Onion covered his youth – up to publication of The Tin Drum, aged 23 – The Box, he says, is the "familial part: how my children experienced this father, whose head was always floating in his fiction."

Each volume has an "autobiographical bent" but a "fictional form". He changed the names of the children he has with "four strong women" – four from his first marriage, two daughters with two women he lived with between his marriages, and two stepsons with Ute – and now has 17 grandchildren. "I've always been surrounded by children – never bothered by their noise." Women, he chuckles, may have been more disturbing to his work, yet for 30 years he has lived with "an independent woman who accepts this form of loneliness I need, and who would actually mind if I stopped writing."

The "box" is an Agfa camera with magical properties, which survived wartime firestorms to capture not only memories but things to come. Like the diminutive Oskar's tin drum, it is a metaphor for his art. Grass sees it as a "fairytale to explain to children how fiction works in my mind. Our minds aren't bound by a chronological corset. When thinking and dreaming, past, present and future are mixed up. That's also possible for a writer." His children witness how, later in life, he had to work through the stuff he'd experienced when he was "a boy in shorts". Grass feels a renewed urgency to sift the rubble of what happened, "slowly, deliberately and in broad daylight", as the generations who lived it dwindle. "It's an endless story," he says. "The inordinate crime of the 'final solution' still can't be explained."

Born in 1927, "almost late enough", he is haunted by how narrowly he escaped being involved in crimes: "That I wasn't is not by merit." His parents ran a corner shop, and in the Depression he was his mother's debt-collector. She also fostered the talent that led him via stonemasonry to art college and writing. "My mother liked my fantastic, made-up stories – unlike my father," who wanted him to be an engineer.

Leaving school at 15, he volunteered to fight, partly because "in school, military heroes were our role models, and – idiotic as it was – we feared the war would soon be over. But it was also the confinement of the two-room flat and the conflict with my father."

In Peeling the Onion, he excoriates his boyhood self for failing to ask questions, about the Kashubian uncle executed by the Germans during the war's first shots in Danzig in 1939, or as a "curious spectator" as synagogues were set ablaze. Those, he says, are "the things that still oppress me today".

The Tin Drum was a grotesque satire of those, like his parents, who were seduced by Nazi ideas. "The petit bourgeoisie is politically homeless," he says, "dismissed by the rich and by leftwing ideology. Big industry was the first to finance Hitler; the aristocracy held itself aloof or joined in; the Churches all collapsed. But this abandoned stratum was the mass support." He adds, "I come from that background, and stand by it. There's nothing more repugnant than people who play at being upper-class."

He was shaped too as a refugee. "Homeland is something one becomes aware of only through its loss," he says. That the loss was irreparable "became clear to me early on. I wrote The Tin Drum partly to counter the received view that these lands could be regained. My parents believed the lies of [Konrad] Adenauer, who said, 'If you vote for me, you'll be able to go back to your old homeland'." Grass was quick to affirm the new borders, and was with Willy Brandt in 1970 when the chancellor knelt in atonement at the Warsaw ghetto. "He invited people from the lost provinces – like me from Danzig, and Siegfried Lenz from East Prussia. It was very moving." From the Diary of a Snail (1972) splices Grass's campaigning for Brandt's chancellorship with the fate of Danzig's Jews in the 1930s. His displacement created an affinity with Gdansk's postwar populace – many expelled from Soviet Russia. "My hometown was mostly destroyed, but I met refugees who understood how I felt. We could speak about lost things."

In fiction he could reconjure what was lost, including German dialects. "Nobody speaks Silesian any more; East Prussian is gone. That monstrous loss can never be recouped." His Nobel lecture recalled a "duty to take the goose step out of German", saying the only way to counter Adorno's objection to poetry after Auschwitz was for writing to "become memory". While the generation before him honed a purist language since "German had been injured by the Nazis", his view, he says, was that "one cannot punish the language for having been abused. Even though I had the greatest anger for my fatherland, the unbreakable link is the language. I wanted to go back to its richness."

Writing his first novel in Paris, he found a mentor in the poet Paul Celan, who killed himself in 1970 ("he led me to the German translation of Rabelais"). His inspirations ranged from Grimms' fairytales and the Spanish-Arab picaresque, in whose picaro "the era is reflected in concave and distorting mirrors", to Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon – "a medieval murder story told from varied perspectives". "There is no such thing as the truth," he says.

Eventually he breached a taboo on the suffering of German civilians. After his mother's death from cancer in 1954, he learned that when the Red Army took Danzig, "My mother was – as I found out from my sister – raped repeatedly when she placed herself protectively in front of my sister, who was 13. My mother never spoke about it, though I tried to get her to speak; it was impossible." He adds: "It was like that for many people. I got to know young Jews in Germany whose parents survived Auschwitz and who have never spoken to them about it. There are things for which one can't find words."

Grass had feared his parents lost on the Wilhelm Gustloff, the cruise ship packed with refugees fleeing the Red Army, which was sunk by a Soviet submarine in January 1945 – the subject of his novel Crabwalk (2002). "This terrible catastrophe in which 10,000 people – mostly women and children – lost their lives, appears first in The Tin Drum . . . but it took a long time to find a literary form for it." Readers told him Crabwalk broke a silence within their families. "Literature has this possibility for people to fasten on to it and then begin to speak," he says. Whereas the "history of the victors has always been documented, the writer can uncover this suppressed history".

The Call of the Toad (1992) evokes the millions of Germans expelled from Germany's former eastern territories after the war. "I make clear that this crime of expulsion was begun by the Germans," he says. "The same applies to the bombing of cities. The German crime was answered with British and American crimes, like Dresden – but that does not diminish the crimes of Air Marshal Harris."

He opposed a lobby by Germany's Federation of the Expellees to create a commemorative museum, "because it was one-sidedly from a German perspective. Expulsion started with the Armenian genocide in Turkey. It was practised by the Germans and repeated by the victors." In Istanbul this year, "I said, 'We Germans, too, found it difficult even to recognise our crimes. Turkey needs time, but it can't avoid opening itself up to the facts.'"

Although some younger Germans chide Grass for an obsession with the country's past, he applies its lessons widely. Victory, he wrote, "makes you stupid." It is ironic, he says, that the "Germans, who lost the war, had the chance – were forced – to think about the past. The winners didn't. Perhaps in time, your country, England, will think about its colonial crimes . . . No country has the right to point only at the Germans. Everybody has to empty their own latrine."

For him, the "west's moral voice lacks credibility. How do we prevent Iran developing an atomic bomb, when, on the American side, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not recognised as a war crime?" The Nuremberg trials "rightly sentenced war criminals. But by the same token, the Bush and Cheney administration belongs in front of a war crimes tribunal. That will never happen, so the Nuremberg trials retrospectively become a farce, granting rightwing extremists an argument they wouldn't have had." Yet for Grass, more dangerous than neo-Nazi parties are "politicians in the democratic parties who make a big circus to win votes from the far right – as in the Netherlands, with Islam enemy number one."

On whether his trilogy completes an autobiographical "working through", he says: "Some people want it to be the end, but it isn't. At my age I don't think an epic work is possible. But I will write again, poetry perhaps. Now I'm etching; that's how I regenerate."

He is religious only outdoors, with paper and pencil. "I'm always astonished by a forest," he gestures at the darkening woods. "It makes me realise that the fantasy of nature is much larger than my own fantasy. I still have things to learn."

With thanks to the Goethe Institute London for work on translation.