Posts Tagged ‘Mary McCarthy’

Poet Elizabeth Bishop: “the loneliest person who ever lived.”

Sunday, March 12th, 2017
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bishop-bookIn case you missed it, The New Yorker has a long feature by Claudia Roth Pierpont, “Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing.” It catalogs precisely how much Elizabeth Bishop lost over the course of a lifetime. In one passage, about her unrequited love for a Vassar classmate, Bishop mulls over that vague word in English, “friend,” that can describe Twitter followers you’ve never met or a man you’ve dropped two babies with: “Bishop confided to her notebook a few months earlier, while suffering over Margaret Miller: ‘Name it friendship if you want to—like names of cities printed on maps, the word is much too big, it spreads all over the place, and tells nothing of the actual place it means to name.'”

An excerpt from the New Yorker article, which discusses Megan Marshall’s new biography, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt),

Bishop began to travel restlessly—France, Morocco, Spain—at about the time she began to publish, in the mid-thirties. She had no real home, after all. At school, she had always hated holidays, getting through in an empty dormitory or as a friend’s appendage or sometimes just staying in a cheap Boston hotel. Her father’s estate provided enough money so that she didn’t need to work, and the Vassar classmate who did respond to her feelings, Louise Crane, was seriously rich. (The Crane family made paper, including the paper used in dollar bills.) Bishop was attractive to both women and men, sometimes too much so for her own good. In 1935, she turned down a marriage proposal from a young man she had strung along (just in case?) since college. He committed suicide the following year, and a postcard he’d sent her arrived a few days later, inscribed “Elizabeth, Go to hell.”

Louise whisked her off to Florida to recover, and she soon discovered Key West. Still a sleepy backwater of an island, it became her regular haven for nearly a decade, long outlasting the relationship with Louise. Bishop was deeply drawn to islands—places where she felt isolated, solitary, safe. Although she continued to spend time in New York, she hated the city’s pressures. Even having lunch with people from Partisan Review (including [Mary] McCarthy) gave her nightmares. She wrote very slowly, often working on a poem for years, and increasing requests for publication only made her aware of how little she had done. Her finest works of the late thirties were two Kafka-like stories that seem to reflect her emotional state: “The Sea & Its Shore,” in which a man toils to keep a public beach free of ever-accumulating papers, working every night, by lantern light, and trying to make sense of the scraps he finds; and “In Prison,” a condition that the narrator anticipates with relief.

And one more excerpt, on the publication of her collection North & South and her relationship with poet/critic Randall Jarrell:

Reactions to the book itself were mixed, but the most influential voices were highly favorable. Moore, wholly ungrudging, wrote a keen appraisal in The Nation, and Randall Jarrell, the most brilliant critic of the time, set the tone for future evaluations with his praise of Bishop’s “restraint, calm, and proportion,” just as she was entering a period when she seemed to be trying to drink herself to death.

Jarrell gave Bishop another important gift when, in January, 1947, he introduced her to Robert Lowell. Tall, handsomely tousled, and six years Bishop’s junior, Lowell charmed her as no one had since she’d met Moore. Indeed, he soon replaced Moore as her most valued friend, even though his first commercial book, “Lord Weary’s Castle,” also published in 1946, beat out “North & South” for the Pulitzer Prize. Throughout their lives, his work was far more celebrated than hers. Yet any competitiveness was softened by his devotion to her writing, by his eagerness (and ability) to help her in material ways—grants, jobs, reviews—and by an aura of romance, which he perpetuated (Lowell gave pretty much everything an aura of romance) and she indulged. Two years after they met, he nearly proposed; he remembered later that she told him, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”

Read the whole thing here.

Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem turns 50 – and it’s still controversial

Monday, December 2nd, 2013
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eichmannHannah Arendt‘s Eichmann in Jerusalem was published fifty years ago, in 1963, and it’s still provoking controversy.  The New York Times offers two interesting takes: one from poet-critic Adam Kirsch, the other from author Rivka Galchen, who incidentally, was a recipient of the William J. Saroyan International Prize for Fiction (we wrote about the prize here). Both focus on the use of language.

Kirsch argues that she’s misunderstood. Many objected to the inflammatory tone, but for Arendt, the medium is the message: “It’s not hard to see that for Arendt, this stringency was a form of respect. By holding Jews to what she conceived to be the highest professional and personal standards, she was treating them as full moral persons. For Eichmann, on the other hand, she had only contempt, refusing even to dignify him with hatred: He appears in the book only as a bumbling mediocrity, ‘genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché.’ But it’s also easy to understand how this tactic could appear, to readers still traumatized by the Holocaust, as an arrogant inversion placing blame on the victim while minimizing the criminality of the criminal. Eichmann would be a better book, perhaps, if Arendt were not so intent on demonstrating mastery over her material, and could admit that at times the only adequate response to the Holocaust was mute pity and terror.'”

Kirsch points out that the book has been, at times, a litmus test for gentile and Jewish sensibilities. Arendt’s chum Mary McCarthy characterized the book as “a paean of transcendence, heavenly music, like that of the final chorus of Figaro or the Messiah“; Saul Bellow accused Arendt of “making use of a tragic history to promote the foolish ideas of Weimar intellectuals.”  Well, as we pointed out earlier, he didn’t like her much.

Hannah_Arendt1

She fled the Nazis twice, in 1933 and 1940.

Galchen writes that “Eichmann spoke in a mix of canned speech, officialese and repetitions of his own formulations. Arendt sees this as a symptom and an abettor of his variety of evil. ‘The longer one listened to him,’ she wrote, ‘the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.’”

She continued: “Nearly 15 years after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt wrote another long essay for The New Yorker, ‘Thinking,’ in which she tried to clarify and further analyze the ‘thoughtlessness’ of Eichmann. ‘Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality; that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts make by virtue of their existence,’ she wrote. ‘If we were responsive to this claim all the time, we would soon be exhausted; Eichmann differed from the rest of us only in that clearly he knew of no such claim at all.'”

Buried in the comments section is an unusual reminiscence from Rudy Wein: “I had lunch with Hannah Arendt not all that long after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. I had read the New Yorker article, but was completely ignorant of the controversy. I was no doubt a soothing lunch companion, since I told her that I understood what she had in mind with ‘the banality of evil’ and agreed with her. So let me say, as no one really does in the above, what I think she meant by the banality of evil – that is the banality of Eichmann’s doing evil. And let me do so by pointing to the doing of evil that is not banal. Start with fiction: the baddies in the film Metropolis are explicitly, consciously aiming to kill, maim, undo those underground workers. Not banal. Himmler aimed at rounding up Jews, starving and killing them. Yes, he did what Hitler wanted done, but he was not following orders first and doing evil as a result; he aimed at doing that evil because he wanted it to happen. Eichmann, on the other hand, if anything like Arendt’s depiction is correct, followed orders first or, worse, induced what his superiors wanted done, for the sake of being the kind of bureaucrat that would be praised and, above all, be promoted. If doing good deeds would have accomplished that goal, Eichmann would have done good deeds. The fact of his evil’s banality doesn’t make it less evil or excuse it and, as I recall, Arendt agreed that Eichmann’s death sentence was fully justified.”

Read the whole thing here. And below, Margarethe von Trotta‘s 2012 film, Hannah Arendt, starring Barbara Sukowa, pretty much makes the case for Galchen and Kirsch:

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.  


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