Posts Tagged ‘A.N. Wilson’

Was Dante happily married? Maybe so…

Monday, June 6th, 2016
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Was Dante Alighieri happily married? Tradition has it that he was not. Gemma Donati is regularly made the butt of jokes, so Marco Santagata’s Dante: The Story of His Life (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press) is a refreshing reconsideration of her role in his life. It’s refreshing in other ways, too: over at The Spectator, reviewer A.N. Wilson, author of Dante in Love, concludes: “This is a wonderful book. Even if you have not read Dante you will be gripped by its account of one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of literature, and one of the most dramatic periods of European history. If you are a Dantean, it will be your invaluable companion for ever.”

An excerpt on Gemma:

santagataThe strange mystery surrounding Dante’s marriage is also seen from a genial and old-fashioned point of view. Boccaccio made Gemma, Dante’s wife, into one of the shrews about whom he liked to tell funny stories in the Decameron. So, when Dante was exiled, Boccaccio has her remaining in Florence, with the marriage effectively at an end. Santagata shows how Dante holds back, in the Commedia, from attacking Gemma’s family, the Donati, until Corso is dead. He does not directly place Corso Donati in Hell, leaving it for his brother Forese Donati, in the Purgatorio, to describe Corso’s grisly death. In Paradise, we find Corso and Forese’s sister Piccarda, who is given one of the best lines in the entire poem. So, while the poet was ruined by his wife’s family, Santagata thinks that Dante made every effort to be pardoned by the city of Florence and to be allowed back. Gemma, Santagata speculates, might well have later joined Dante in his exile. Perhaps one of the most moving Canzone might even have been addressed to her.

The usual wisdom is that Dante never alluded to his wife in his writings, though sentimental Victorian scholars liked to imagine that the ‘donna gentile’, the lady seen smiling at him from a window after he had lost Beatrice, might have been Gemma. Santagata does not go along with this, but he thinks that the lines about Dante being set on fire by a woman’s eyes, though she is removed from his sight (‘per lontananza m’è tolto dal viso’) is an allusion to Gemma being stuck in Florence while he is in the first shock of exile.

Read the whole thing here

“The best writer alive, in verse or in prose”: Sir Geoffrey Hill turns 80 today

Monday, June 18th, 2012
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Difficult? Who says so?

It’s Sir Geoffrey Hill‘s 80th birthday today.  How shall we celebrate?

At first I noticed two appearances in the day’s newspapers – well, in fact, both were in The Telegraph.  In the first, U.K. Education Secretary Michael Gove hails Hill as “our greatest living poet” in the Commons. “Our” being… the U.K.?  Or the English-speaking world?  A.N. Wilson went further, calling him “the best writer alive, in verse or in prose.” That takes geography out of it.

The second is an article of dire prognostication,  “Dithering Europe is heading for the democratic dark ages”:  “However complacent we may be,” in the words of the poet Geoffrey Hill, “Tragedy has us under regard”.

Well, not much to celebrate there.

I turned instead to the Paris Review interview of a dozen years ago, conducted by one of his former students at Boston University, Carl Phillips, which begins with a description of the poet’s outwardly unassuming home in Brookline, Massachusetts:

To step into it, though, was to enter a number of seemingly disparate worlds: one part literal menagerie (two dogs, along with seven cats of varying degrees of forwardness); one part a kind of gallery—in the form of photographs on sideboards, walls, and mantles—of what is clearly central to Hill: family, ancestry, the need for the relationship between the living and the dead to be an active and ongoing one. Hill gave me a tour through them, now pointing out an infant cousin circa 1917, now his own parents, now his wife Alice Goodman, and their daughter Alberta, and now a friend riding her tractor through the Lancashire village streets.

When I first arrived, I was greeted by Alice (herself an intriguing mixture: the librettist for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, a translator of The Magic Flute for the Glyndebourne Opera, and a soon-to-be ordained Anglican priest). She led me into the living room where Hill arrived shortly, seating himself beside a life-sized dollhouse. We met in front of the fireplace, over whose mantle hung an amusing wedding gift: a copy of Hogarth’s The Distressed Poet. No way to explain it, exactly: I knew all would go well.

The sensual Milton

Then Phillips asked the inevitably question:  “What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.”

Hill replied:

Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.

So much for difficulty. Now let’s take the other aspect—overintellectuality. I have said, almost to the point of boring myself and others, that I am as a poet simple, sensuous, and passionate. I’m quoting words of Milton, which were rediscovered and developed by Coleridge. Now, of course, in naming Milton and Coleridge, we were naming two interested parties, poets, thinkers, polemicists who are equally strong on sense and intellect. I would say confidently of Milton, slightly less confidently of Coleridge, that they recreate the sensuous intellect. The idea that the intellect is somehow alien to sensuousness, or vice versa, is one that I have never been able to connect with. I can accept that it is a prevalent belief, but it seems to me, nonetheless, a false notion. Ezra Pound defines logopaeia as “the dance of the intellect among words.” But elsewhere he changes intellect to intelligence. Logopaeia is the dance of the intelligence among words. I prefer intelligence to intellect here.  …

Read the whole magnificent thing here.  Or listen to Hill lecture on “Milton as Muse,” on the occasion of Milton’s 400th birthday,  here.  And pop open some champagne while you’re up.

“Evil is not good’s absence but gravity’s
everlasting bedrock and its fatal chains
inert, violent, the suffrage of our days.” – Geoffrey Hill,  Canaan

V.S. Naipaul opens mouth, changes feet: A round-up of literary kerfuffles, and a soupçon of misogyny

Saturday, June 4th, 2011
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Friends again. (Photo: Daniel Mordzinski)

V.S. Naipaul has offered definitive proof against the adage that to be a good writer, you must be a good reader.

First, the happy news:  Naipaul has ended his 30-year feud-over-nothing with Paul Theroux.  The root of the matter seems to be that Naipaul thought Theroux was horsing around with his first wife.  From the Telegraph:

A furious Naipaul retaliated by trying to sell one of Theroux’s books, inscribed to Naipaul and his first wife, online for $1,500. When Theroux found out, Naipaul told him to “take it on the chin and move on.” Naturally Theroux didn’t, and went on to write a book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which he’s said to detail Naipaul’s “elevated crankishness”. The fracas went on until last weekend when – in what is surely Hay [Festival]’s biggest literary coup to date – they made up, “corralled” into a handshake by Ian McEwan in the festival’s green room.

Perhaps Hallmark ought to create a card for the occasion.  The forgettable feud and its resolution is recounted here and here.

The episode has brought to mind other great literary feud of our times, recounted here:

We all love a good literary feud, not least because they are much more amusing and erudite than a spat between, say, a footballer and a reality television star. Of Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, Norman Mailer wrote: “Reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a 300lb woman. Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.” Wolfe retaliated in his essay “My Three Stooges,” casting Mailer alongside his other critics, John Irving and John Updike.

Mad men: Mailer, Gore

Revenge can take many forms. Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal. “As usual, words failed him,” said Vidal. Evelyn Waugh used the name of his tutor at Oxford for such diverse characters as a quack doctor and a psychopathic burglar. Salman Rushdie and John le Carré had a row over who had suffered more at the hands of religious fanatics, which ended in Rushdie calling le Carré “an illiterate pompous ass”.

Rushdie not above the fray (Photo: Mae Ryan)

In 2006, Salman Rushdie also fell out with John Updike after the latter panned Shalimar the Clown, in particular Rushdie’s choice of names. “A name is just a name,” Rushdie retorted. “Somewhere in Las Vegas, there’s probably a male prostitute called John Updike.” The same year Bevis Hillier duped A.N. Wilson, the writer of a rival biography of John Betjeman, into publishing a spoof love letter; the first letter of each sentence spelt out: “A N Wilson is a —-.”

Which all goes to show that maturity or character, also, isn’t a prerequisite for being a writer, either.

But in the Telegraph here you can also read about the feuds between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman (that one will not be resolved; the principals are dead) and Harold Bloom and J.K. Rowling.

And I thought the Poles were bad with their acrimonious literary feuds – I’ve recounted the one between Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert here, in “The Worst Dinner Party Ever.”

Naipaul must be anxious to promote himself, because he made these cranky comments to the press.  From the Guardian:

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of [Jane] Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

Queen of literary mathematics

He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.

He added: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”

Of course that dropped the cat among the pigeons.  Why?  Why would one expect Sir Vidia to say something sensible on the subject?  He’s obviously not a careful reader of Austen.

Oh yeah?

As for women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world,” I have only two words to say:  Simone Weil.

Jennifer Egan took the bait, however, and made these comments on the kerfuffle to the Wall Street Journal:

“He is such a kook. It makes me laugh because he sounds like such a cranky old man. It’s the classic case of how prejudice works – you feel like you see it confirmed all over the world but the prejudice is tainting your perception everywhere you look.”

“I would put money on the fact that he has not read Jane Austen in 10 years. She’s the most cool, mathematical writer to come along, male or female. It’s a word no one who’s familiar with her work would call her. The nature of the comments read as so silly that it’s hard to see it spurring a gigantic turmoil. They’re not remarks that lead to a deeply-engaged conversation because they’re just so easily dismissible, largely because of what he says about Austen. He raises questions about his authority by calling her sentimental. Only a person with an idea of what Austen is — and not actual familiarity with her work – would say that. She’s not a melodramatic writer.”

Meanwhile, the Guardian has published “The Naipaul Test:  Can You Tell an Author’s Sex?” – it’s here.

Naipaul is said to be a great writer (I haven’t read him, so I’m taking that on authority), but a crappy human being.  So why do we take any of his opinions seriously?

If you’ve a taste for this sort of thing, Vidal and Mailer wrangle on fuzzy clip from The Dick Cavett Show below – journalist Janet Flanner takes the better part.  


se più avvien che fortuna t’accoglia
dove sien genti in simigliante piato:

ché voler ciò udire è bassa voglia.