Posts Tagged ‘Henry James’

Rachel Hadas: “Poets and novelists have been writing about life under COVID-19 for more than a century.”

Thursday, August 20th, 2020
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Rachel Hadas (Photo: Cynthia Haven)

There should be a word for it: a word for a passage or page of literature that anticipates, that seems to be written to address, a time that hasn’t happened yet. According to  of the New Yorker, “But good art is always prescient, because good artists are tuned into the currency and the momentum of their time.”

Poet Rachel Hadas gives a few examples over in The Conversation:

“Dipping a bit further back, into Henry James’ “The Spoils of Poynton” from 1897, I was struck by a sentence I hadn’t remembered, or had failed to notice, when I first read that novella decades ago: “She couldn’t leave her own house without peril of exposure.” James uses infection as a metaphor; but what happens to a metaphor when we’re living in a world where we literally can’t leave our houses without peril of exposure?

She continues:

In Anthony Powell’s novel “Temporary Kings,” set in the 1950s, the narrator muses about what it is that attracts people to reunions with old comrades-in-arms from the war. But the idea behind the question “How was your war?” extends beyond shared military experience: “When something momentous like a war has taken place, all existence turned upside down, personal life discarded, every relationship reorganized, there is a temptation, after all is over, to return to what remains … pick about among the bent and rusting composite parts, assess merits and defects.”

The pandemic is still taking place. It’s too early to “return to what remains.” But we can’t help wanting to think about exactly that. Literature helps us to look – as Hamlet said – before and after.

Read the whole thing here. It can be hard on deadline finding a photo that isn’t copyrighted. It was easy finding one this time over at Ablemuse. This photo was taken twenty years ago, when I met and interviewed the poet in NYC.

Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers”: a story for the era of doxxing, “outing,” and our right to be left alone – Zoom discussion on Monday, August 24.

Monday, August 10th, 2020
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James: “the canals assume to the eye the importance of a stage…”

It’s two weeks to our special Zoom discussion of Henry James‘s short 1888 classic, The Aspern Papers. The Another Look book club will be hosting the event, in partnership with Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute, on Monday, August 24, 3-4:30 p.m. (Register for the event here.) If you haven’t read the short novel, you should – you really should. Those of you who associate Henry James with sentences that go on relentlessly for pages will be pleasantly surprised by this tight, yet psychologically insightful work.

The Aspern Papers was inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s correspondence with Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. (Shelley’s novel was featured in a January 2017 Another Look event.) Clairmont cherished the letters until her death. Of course, James transposes that into fiction – but it’s a lively and insightful read, and those daunted by James’s three-page-long sentences needn’t be afraid. The plot keeps a good pace in this psychologically insightful work, while treating us to the wonder that is Venice.

Himself

The story: an elderly invalid who once was the beloved of a renowned American poet, Jeffrey Aspern, lives in seclusion with her spinster niece in a Venetian palazzo. The unnamed narrator goes through elaborate machinations to gain access to her private papers and literary relics from the long-ago romance.

The story has new relevance for us today. “What James delivered, in 1888, was not some dusty antiquarian fable but a warning call against the cult of celebrity that was already on the rise, and against the modern insistence that artists and writers can – or should – be prized out of their work like cockles from a shell, for public consumption,” critic Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker. In the era of doxxing and “outing,” the story explores our right to be left alone, and our right to have secrets. At the heart of the book is the rapacious desire of one man to reach through time to possess another.

Tobias Wolff and Robert Pogue Harrison will lead the discussion. Acclaimed author Robert Harrison, professor of French and Italian, writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. Wolff, a Stanford professor emeritus of English, is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts.

Elena Danielson, director emerita of the Hoover Library & Archives, will offer a few remarks as the author of The Ethical Archivist. And yours truly will have a few words to say on the occasion, too, as the author of the biography, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

Again, register here. We’d love to see you!

Anton Chekhov, a lady, and her dog: “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life.”

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018
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I’m working rather feverishly to finish writing against an important and non-negotiable deadline, and began two blog posts to you, Faithful Readers, but got strangely tangled up in my own words and couldn’t finish. Nevertheless I finally got a chance at last to read poet Dana Gioia‘s discussion of Anton Chekhov’s 1899 short story, “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” His thoughts about it are over at his website here. In the course of it, he writes, the hero (if you can call him that) “undergoes a strange and winding course of emotional and moral growth that few readers would expect.” Vladimir Nabokov called it “one of the greatest stories ever written.”

Dana begins with some background on Chekhov:

Anton Chekhov’s late stories mark a pivotal moment in European fiction–the point where nineteenth-century realist conventions of the short story begin their transformation into the modern form. The Russian master, therefore, straddles two traditions. On one side is the anti-Romantic realism of Maupassant with its sharp observation of external social detail and human behavior conveyed within a tightly drawn plot. On the other side is the modern psychological realism of early Joyce in which the action is mostly internal and expressed in an associative narrative built on epiphanic moments. Taking elements from both sides, Chekhov forged a powerful individual style that prefigures modernism without losing most of the traditional trappings of the form. If Maupassant excelled at creating credible narrative surprise, Chekhov had a genius for conveying the astonishing possibilities of human nature. His psychological insight was profound and dynamic. Joyce may have more exactly captured the texture of human consciousness, but no short story writer has better expressed its often invisible complexities.

Dana and friend.

It is an instructive irony that at the end of the twentieth century current short fiction seemingly owes more to Chekhov than to Joyce or any other high-modernist master. In 1987 when Daniel Halpern asked twenty-five of the noted writers featured in his collection, The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories 1945-1985 (New York: Viking, 1987), to name the most crucial influences on their own work, Chekhov’s name appeared more often than that of any other author. Ten writers–including Eudora Welty, Nadine Gordimer, and Raymond Carver–mentioned Chekhov. (James Joyce and Henry James tied for a distant second place with five votes each.) Chekhov’s preeminent position among contemporary writers is not accidental; no other author so greatly influenced the development of the modern short story. As the late Rufus Matthewson once observed, Chekhov fully articulated the dominant form of twentieth century short fiction: “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life, rendered with immediate and telling detail.” Chekhov was the first author to consciously explore and perfect this literary method in his vast output of short stories.

What do you know? I got this off without too much fuss. And I even found an image of a small yapping dog (you can read the story behind the painting here.) Read the Dana’s essay here.

The “Great War” centenary: Henry James saw it all

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014
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James.

“The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness… is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.”

– Henry James, August 5, 1914

 

 

 

An evening of bad sex…but is it bad enough?

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012
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She’s honored. (Photo: Elena Torre)

Some time ago, we announced the Literary Review‘s finalists for the one of the world’s most dreaded competitions – a prize for the most embarrassing passage of sexual description in a novel.  The awards ceremony for the 20th annual award finally took place last week at the In & Out (Naval & Military) Club in St James’s Square, where 400 guests raised a toast to the winner.

And the winner is … Canadian writer Nancy Huston, with her novel Infrared.  I know, I know … you want me to deliver the goods.  Well, here’s the Literary Review‘s version of why they bestowed the award on Huston:

“Sentences from the novel such as ‘Kamal and I are totally immersed in flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements’ caught the judges’ attention. One long passage in particular stood out:

‘He runs his tongue and lips over my breasts, the back of my neck, my toes, my stomach, the countless treasures between my legs, oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alternation, never will I tire of that silvery fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water, my self freed of both self and other, the quivering sensation, the carnal pink palpitation that detaches you from all colour and all flesh, making you see only stars, constellations, milky ways, propelling you bodiless and soulless into undulating space where the undulating skies make your non-body undulate…”

My goodness, I don’t think it’s all that bad.  Is that the worst they could do?  I think the other finalists were daffier – go here and see if you agree.  (By the by, John Updike received the lifetime achievement award in 2008.)

A friend recently protested against the Literary Review‘s anti-award, saying it inhibited writers from trying to describe sex at all.  I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.  Gone are the days when a writer like Henry James could describe the sexual fever of a hand brushing across the back of another.  Gone are the days when Jane Austen could convey more passion with a blush more than most of today’s writers can express with an orgy.  We’ve lost the ability to describe the range of nuances in affection, love, devotion, rejection in our haste to describe the relentless interlocking of body parts.

According to Literary Review editor Jonathan Beckman, that’s exactly the reason why former editor Auberon Waugh founded the prize in the first place:  “He was genuinely convinced that publishers were encouraging novelists to include sex scenes solely in order to increase sales. The award’s remit was ‘to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it’.”  I couldn’t agree more.

The Paris-based Huston has received more conventional awards, such as the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens and Prix Femina, but she seems to hold a special place in her heart for her newest distinction.  In a statement read at the ceremony, she announced, “I hope this prize will incite thousands of British women to take close-up photos of their lovers’ bodies in all states of array and disarray.”

To which we can only add:  Please no.  Not that.  Anything but that.

Huston is married to the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov.  On Twitter, Elif Batuman responded: “I just learned that the winner of this year’s Bad Sex Award is married to Tzvetan Todorov and it is ROCKING MY WORLD.”  No further explanation offered. After all, it was only a tweet.

 

When literary tête-à-têtes ends in fisticuffs…

Monday, March 26th, 2012
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The subject of the fistfight: Lewis and Tolkien

It’s not often that two guys having a literary discussion end up by hauling off and whacking each other. And yet  it happened in the city of my alma mater, after several hours of serious drinking:

A 34-year-old Ann Arbor man was sent to the hospital with a head injury after another man punched him on Saturday during a literary argument, according to police. … the man was sitting on the porch with some people he had just met, talking about books and authors.

The 34-year-old man was then approached by another party guest, who started speaking to him in a condescending manner. An argument ensued and the man was suddenly struck in the side of the head, suffering a cut to his left ear …

The injured man – who was smacked so hard his glasses flew off and a lens popped out – was treated at a local hospital.

The story jumped from Ann Arbor to The Guardian, whose blogger, Sam Jordison, telephoned Michigan to get the scoop:  “The details remain sketchy, but the prominent rumour around town is that the men were disputing the relative merits of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.”

Virgil says: Don't watch. Don't listen.

Then Jordison shares his own self-satisfaction and his derision of his betters (Henry James, for example, is “the old windbag”) – apparently, he never loses a fight and is always right, just like the rest of us.  (It is the one thing we all have in common.) Then he asks a question:

But all this does make me wonder whether anyone else has experienced book-based violence. Have you had a literary argument so heated that you’ve only been able to resolve it with blows? Or could you imagine doing so – or at least losing your cool? And what’s your tipping point? If, for example, I were to inform you that J.M. Coetzee‘s Disgrace is a clever book for people who don’t like to think, would you hold it against me? And how do you like to annoy other book-lovers?

Here’s a few.

Mailer, Gore

Mad men: Mailer, Gore

There’s the time Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal. “As usual, words failed him,” quipped Vidal.

And two Nobel laureates ended a friendship when Mario Vargas Llosa socked Gabriel García Márquez – story recounted here and here.

Then there’s the fistfight between Ernest Hemingway and Wallace Stevens, confirmed by others but recounted by Hemingway in a February 1936 letter:

"Nice Mr. Stevens" and Hemingway

Nice Mr. Stevens. This year he came again pleasant like the cholera and first I knew of it my nice sister Ura was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc. So I said, this was a week ago, ‘All right, that’s the third time we’ve had enough of Mr. Stevens.’ So headed out into the rainy past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door having just said, I learned later, ‘By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.’

So who should show up but poor old Papa and Mr. Stevens swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only trouble was that first three times put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him. But you mustn’t tell this to anybody.

The winners

Then there’s the time that Desmond Leslie punched journalist and theater critic Bernard Levin in front of 11 million viewers over an article Levin had written about his wife, the actress Agnes Bernelle. The incident occurred the TV show That Was The Week That Was in 1962.

I am forced to come to the conclusion that book-lovers are a quarrelsome lot, not so much from these incidents as from some of the unsupported character assassination in the reader replies (though they did tip me off about where to find the best fights). Basta! What is it in us that likes to watch a fight?  As Virgil says to Dante in the Inferno: “To hear such wrangling is a joy for vulgar minds.” It’s one reason the Inferno has always been more popular than the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. Something to remember when one indulges in the “Comments” sections.

The two who come out best from the whole mess are … those two tweedy Oxford dons, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Lewis, in particular, was generous and self-sacrificing to an extreme, and though the two men disagreed, they remained gentlemen and friends.

No! No! Say it ain’t so! Is the life of the semicolon coming to a full stop? ;*(

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011
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Everyone today seems to be talking about the appointment of Philip Levine as the next U.S. Poet Laureate (you can read about that here), but I have more important things on my mind.

According to an article in The Australian:

For centuries, the semicolon has carved out a tenuous – but precious – place for itself between the comma and the colon.Without the humble semicolon, some of the greatest achievements of English prose – the looping, qualified sentences of Henry James; the elaborate, ironic juxtapositions of Evelyn Waugh – would not have been possible. It has endured; it has persisted; it has even thrived.

But now – under the various pressures of texting, email, journalese, “plain English” and PowerPoint – the career of the semicolon appears rapidly to be approaching a full-stop.

The rare, and usually middle-aged, journalists [Ahem! – ED.] who still revere the semicolon will discover it is no favourite of sub-editors, who will nowadays allow the comma to do much of the semi’s previous work of co-ordinating ideas inside a sentence. And as sentences get shorter, there is less of that work to do.

Is THIS what you want? Huh? huh? huh?

In short (literally), texting, email, tweets – all have given rise to the impatient, minimalist sentence.  The semicolon, it appears, has become an endangered species.

Even technical and legal documents – the bread-and-butter of semicolons everywhere – are dumping their hardworking employees: the middle-aged semicolon is giving way to younger, fancy bulleted points that think they are hot stuff.

Still, the humble punctuation mark has its champions:  Author David Malouf argues for its continued employment:  “If you want longer sentences and still allow readers to find their way through, then the semicolon is very good,” he says.  “I tend to write longer sentences and use the semicolon so as not to have to break the longer sentences into shorter ones that would suggest things are not connected that I want people to see as connected.

“Short sentences make for fast reading; often you want slow reading.”  Like wanting slow food, cooked for hours, over something quick you can grab at a fast food joint.  Like “dining” versus “having something to eat.”

In a vulgar age, however, good things must be put to vulgar uses, and Pavlova‘s pirouettes must make way for pole dancing:

If this most subtle of punctuation marks is to survive, it may well be inside one of the most vulgar: the emoticon.

To which the only fitting response must be: ;*(