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Tag: Books Quotes

Writers On Writers

Anthony Powell_Beryl Bainbridge_Jack Kerouac_Virginia Woolf_William Blake_Ernest Hemingway_William Faulkner_ Rebecca West_William Shakespeare_John Updike

“Important novelists often say that writing a novel is hard. I think Anthony Powell said it was like conducting foreign policy—that you have to be prepared to go and do it every day no matter how you feel.”
James Salter

“Beryl Bainbridge understood the absurdity of life and how humour lurks in even the most tragic situation.”
Deborah Moggach

“Jack Kerouac influenced me quite a bit as a writer . . . in the Arab sense that the enemy of my enemy was my friend.”
Hunter S. Thompson

“There was a period in my early career that was determined by the images of women writers I was exposed to—women writers as genius suicides like Virginia Woolf.”
Margaret Atwood

“Blake’s poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry.”
T. S Eliot

“In writing She Came to Stay, I was certainly influenced by Hemingway insofar as it was he who taught us a certain simplicity of dialogue and the importance of the little things in life.”
Simone de Beauvoir

“I find Faulkner intolerably bad.”
Evelyn Waugh

“Rebecca West’s novel The Fountain Overflows taught me a lot.”
Andrea Barrett

“Every year or so I read Shakespeare straight through.”
P.G. Wodehouse

“Updike is a master of effortless motion — between third and first person, from the metaphorical density of literary prose to the demotic, from specific detail to wide generalisation, from the actual to the numinous, from the scary to the comic.”
Ian McEwan

Sources: Bartleby, The Independent, The Paris Review, Wikiquote


Writers On Writers

Rebecca West_ Fyodor Dostoevsky_ Willa Cather_ Walt Whitman_ Margaret Drabble_Raymond Chandler_ Katherine Anne Porter_ Blaise Pascal_ Eugene O’Neill_ Émile Zola

“Rebecca West was one of the giants and will have a lasting place in English literature.”
William Shawn

“I don’t like Dostoevsky. He is like the rat, slithering along in hate, in the shadows, and in order to belong to the light professing love, all love.”
D.H. Lawrence

“Willa Cather. I loved Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock—really all of her work.”
Paula Fox

“Hey—Walt Whitman, isn’t he magnificent?”
Jim Crace

“Well, now I’m over sixty I can simply say this: the reception of my early books was completely meshed up with the fact that my sister Margaret Drabble was a writer.”
A. S. Byatt

“Chandler is all about the wisecracks, the similes, the constant satire, the construction of the knight.”
James Ellroy

“Katherine Anne Porter was an influence on me.”
Nadine Gordimer

“Pascal was the shock of my life. I was fifteen. I was on a class trip to Germany, my first trip abroad, and strangely I had brought the Pensées of Pascal.”
Michel Houellebecq

“I remember at one point going through everything of Eugene O’Neill’s. I was struck by the sheer theatricality of his plays.”
Joan Didion

“When I said that Zola was my favourite writer, I meant that I loved his courage, his indignation.”
Anita Brookner

Sources: The Paris Review, GoodReads 

Charles Nicholl: Dazzling the reader with his prose and infectious curiosity

Traces Remain by Charles Nicholl

“I have always found the details of history more interesting,” writes Charles Nicholl in the preface to his new collection of essays, “or anyway more evocative, than the larger perspectives of History.” And this is precisely what Nicholl explores in Traces Remain – the overlooked and forgotten fragments and people that have failed to make it into the textbooks. The 25 essays gathered here originally appeared in a number of literary publications and were guided, according to the writer, by the general principal of “poking around,” libraries and archives “re-examining existing evidence and then trying to ask new questions about it,” sometimes “prospecting”. Despite his seemingly casual air Nicholl is meticulous in his research, taking on the role of a painstakingly assiduous detective as he trawls through the decades, searching for clues to untold mysteries. One of these is the legend of Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett, an intrepid Amazonian explorer described as a “man in hand-to-hand combat with the wilderness,” who disappeared over 80 years ago. Fawcett was accompanied on the doomed expedition by his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell. His last dispatch was dated 25th May 1925 and was sent from Dead Horse Camp, exactly what happened to the three men after that has never been established although some answers have been provided by the subsequent rescue missions. The first and most famous of these was led by Commander George Miller Dyott in 1928, who learned that Fawcett had “played his ukulele for some Xingu Indians a few days before vanishing in the Mato Grosso jungle” and was most likely massacred by the Nahukwa tribe, who in turn blamed the notoriously fierce rival group Saya. “Despite the staring-eyed fantasies of his later years,” writes Nicholl, “he [Fawcett] was in many ways an admirable Englishman, austere, laconic, honourable, and incredibly tough, playing with a straight bat on some of the stickiest wickets the planet could provide.”

Strange and curious personages like Fawcett feature throughout this fascinating book. Among them is a poet by the name of Thomas Coryate, once the “butt for courtly wits and poets like John Donne and Ben Jonson,” he was also a “courageous traveller,” who in 1608 covered 1,975 miles in just over five months and visited 45 cities around Europe. Coryate wrote a book about his voyages called Crudities – loosely alluding to “raw experience” – which managed to make waves alongside such literary triumphs as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist – on stage at the time. Then there’s an English pseudoscientist, clairvoyant and con-man by the name of Edward Kelly, who fooled Bohemian royalty with his  “esoteric flannel,” and later died in suspicious circumstances most likely at the orders of Emperor Rudolph II. “The usual telling of the story is that Rudolph ceased to believe in him,” says Nicholl, “Kelly’s promises, particularly with regard to heaps of transmuted gold pouring into the treasury, had proved empty.”  Kelly’s story is surpassed only by that of another con-man, adventurer, French scribbler, one time heavy-weight boxer and nephew to Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance, Arthur Cravan. He was briefly married to avant-garde poet Mina Loy who had his child and outlived him by several decades. When asked toward the end of her life what had been her happiest instances Loy said: “Every moment spent with Arthur Cravan. ‘And the unhappiest?’ The rest of the time.” He is thought to have drowned off the coast of Mexico around 1918, although according to the most recent theory, Nicholl says, Cravan reinvented himself as the no less mysterious author B. Traven, who went on to write several hard-bitten Mexico based novels.

Along with the mysterious fates of the aforementioned men, Traces Remain includes two murders cases, two discoveries of unmarked graves, one missing Shakespeare play and one very enigmatic portrait recently found in Herefordshire. The latter is a work of art believed to have been painted by Frederick Hurlstone, its subject may or may not be Lord Byron in the guise of one of his own fictional heroes called Manfred. Yet, as Nicholl explains, despite numerous authentications the sitter and artist cannot be conclusively verified. “Does it look like Byron?” he says, speaking of the portrait after seeing photographs of it, “To answer this, one has to ask another question: what did Byron look like? Byron’s appearance changed all the time – because different artists saw him differently and because he was a great believer in diets and regimes, and his weight fluctuated by as much as four stone. Various portraits show around Byrons and thin Byrons, Byron’s with moustache, with mutton-chop whiskers, in costume, in uniform, in Greek helmet, in his dressing gown and so on.” In fact, there are over 40 portraits of the Romantic poet and albeit this latest one cannot be authenticated,  Nicholl says, “the sad-looking man in the fur hat deserves further investigation”. This kind of uncertainly –  a theme throughout the book  –  is one of its pitfalls and in a general sense the trouble with writing about historical marginalia.

Many of the tales within the collection are about the obscure who crossed paths with those that made history. One of them is of a woman for whom William Hazlitt divorced his wife and wrote “with alarming frankness,” as Nicholl puts it, Liber Amoris. The thinly disguised fictional account of Hazlitt’s love bares no resemblance to any other of the writer’s works, and was once considered a thing of great embarrassment. It also caused a bit of a scandal despite being published anonymously, and while Hazlitt managed to recover from it almost instantly being a bullish “spiky” and “self-absorbed” man that he was, Sarah Walker’s reputation as a “dowdy trollop” and “one man’s amour fou”  prevailed. The turn of her fate is difficult to trace, says Nicholl, but all evidence indicates that Hazlitt’s love was unrequited and that Walker went on to marry and have a son. It is most likely she died of “old age” perhaps, the writer speculates, thinking of those “distant days of her youth, and that strange, hectic man who loved her so passionately, and wanted to marry her, and ended up marking her life and her name with the taint of scandal that would never quite go away”. Nicholl goes from subject to subject with ease and authority, from talking about interpersonal relationships between English poets and European dignitaries to Leonardo Da Vinci’s relationship with his art, which is explored  here through the painter’s Milanese notebooks. Unbeknown to many, Nicholl says, Da Vinci was also a keen writer or rather a “writer-down of things: a recorder of observations, a pursuer of data, an explorer of thoughts, an inscriber of lists and memoranda”.

In describing the famous Italian artist, Nicholl also succeeds in describing something of himself for he is very much a modern day polymath – a historian, a scholar, a travel writer and a sleuth looking for greatness in the neglected and the ordinary. Speaking on the subject to the Guardian, Nicholl recently said that he has always aimed to present in his work the “the realities of life as it was lived by that person” with a sense of complete authenticity. “There’s one world that you know these people very well from,” he explained, “so let’s have a look at the other one, at the other, dark side of the moon, as it were: Marlowe as spy, Rimbaud as traveller or explorer and gun-runner, Shakespeare as lodger rather than great playwright.” It is this desire to construct a comprehensive picture of someone that makes Traces Remain  such a consummately engrossing read, full of thrilling details, shady characters, legends and mysteries from all four corners of the world. Much of which Nicholl has travelled himself, after being given tickets to Martinique as part of the prize for the Daily Telegraph Young Writer of the Year award which he won in 1972. He has since travelled most of the globe, Europe, South America, parts of the Middle East. One of the essays in the book is about the quest to find Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, the beautiful and rich “capital of memory,” as described in the eponymous Quartet. “Only fragments remain of Classical Alexandria,” Nicholl tells us sadly, “but its more recent past can be savoured just by wondering aimlessly through the streets, past shabby villas and Rococo facades and dusty brick-a-brac shops. The city seems like an aging dandy fallen on hard times.” Every essay in the collections has something interesting, worthwhile and amusing to impart, whether it be about a person, an artifact or a city. Nicholl is a man who makes history come alive, dazzling the reader with his prose and his infectious curiosity.

Guardian | Charles Nicholl

Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: December 2012
Paperback: 336 pages
ISBN: 9780140296822

Charlie Campbell: Keeps the reader amused, informed and regaled

“This is essentially a book about stupidity,” Charlie Campbell writes in the introduction to Scapegoat, his book about the cultural history of blame. In the book, Campbell explores a particular kind of human stupidity, the kind “that hits us after disaster, when we single out one person for blame, and hold them responsible for everything”. This practice, Campbell says, extends to almost everything from world-changing disasters to personal failures, the one thing that doesn’t vary is our need find someone or something to blame. “Marx blamed the capitalist system,” writes Campbell, “Dawkins religion. And Freud thought it all came down to sex. Larkin blamed our parents, Akins the potato and Mohamed Al-Fayed still says it’s all Prince Philips fault.” The subject of Campbell’s book could very easily grow wearisome, but the writer is impressively erudite and tells many an interesting story with flair and enthusiasm, which lends itself immediately to the reader. Campbell’s consideration of scapegoating commences with the word’s derivation (coined by William Tyndale in his 1530 translation of the bible to describe a Jewish Day of Atonement ritual, which included the sacrificing of two goats) and concludes with one of the most hapless instances of the practice in history (an innocent man convicted and hanged for the Great Fire of London), with numerous riveting facts and anecdotes along the way.

One might wonder about the importance of the subject, but in fact as Campbell points out, “the ritual of scapegoat goes back right to the beginning of mankind”. It is also something that has bound different cultures and religious denominations throughout the ages; this idea that “sin was a definitive entity that could be transferred from being to being or object and that wrongdoing could be washed away”. Campbell goes on to illustrate this point by citing similar absolution rituals from various beliefs systems  and societies, and shows how over time the animal scapegoat came to be replaced by a human one, which makes for very interesting reading. The book contains a chapter on animal prosecutions, which Campbell points out is one of the instances when human stupidity excels itself. The writer gives some hair-raising examples of animals being put on trial for such crimes as homicide and sorcery. “In Falaise, Normandy, in 1386 a sow was charged with killing and infant… ” writes Campbell, “In Bale in 1474 an old cock was put in the dock, accused of laying an egg…[and]…There was a case in 1478 in Switzerland involving an insect known as inger, which was devastating the local crop. ” For a time this practice also applied to inanimate objects. Indeed.

In order to understand our need to always find a culprit, Campbell looks to the nature of man “essentially a meaning seeking creature” incapable of accepting the fact that “much of life is inexplicable”.He goes on to show  how we use “myth, art and religion” to try and makes sense of seemingly arbitrary events . “Through them,” he writes, “we tell stories to dispel this frightening notion that the universe is a violent and senseless place where anything can and will happen to us. We listen most carefully to those who tell us that this isn’t actually the case, to those who can offer and explanation. And this all too often turns into blame. Blame tells the most comforting story, one in which there is a villain who seeks to thwart us, the heroes, at every turn.” Our need for explanation is thus directly connected to our fear of the unknown. This fear has been written about for decades, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s narrator in Demons, for example, described it as “the gravest, most tortuous fear of something I cannot define, something unknowable and absent from the order of things”. This was also the topic Friedrich Nietzsche gave some consideration to in Twilight of the Idols. “To trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating,” he wrote, “soothing, gratifying and gives moreover a feeling of power. Danger, disquiet, anxiety attend the unknown – the first instinct is to eliminate these distressing states. First principle: any explanation is better than none.”  This “cause-creating drive,” as Nietzsche referred to it, “conditioned and excited by the feeling of fear” is something that Campbell traces back through history to show how it has led man to find solace in the scapegoat, a usually innocent thing or person “demonised to justify persecution” and to bestow on the act an “illusion of rationality”.

But of course there is nothing rational about it, certainly not the different prototypes of scapegoat. Campbell identifies the following: literal, religious, communist, financial, sexual and medical, all of which have their own purposes and causes. The Christian scapegoat, for example, says Campbell, serves to rationalise evil and “to account for the terrible things that happen in the world”. This is because the religious establishment cannot otherwise justify their putatively omnipotent deity’s failure to safeguard humanity from tragedy and misfortune. The devil is therefore identified as the responsible offender, but this is a rather flawed philosophy because “if we cannot accept the idea that there is evil in our God, there is a danger that we will not be able to endure it in ourselves”. The Communist scapegoat, however, surpasses even the religious one. “Totalitarian regimes moved it up a gear,” writes Campbell, “the self-styled perfect form of government could not be seen to brook any form of failure and so it appointed blame with extraordinary ferocity. They used propaganda to create and enemy, demonising them…creating the idea of this shadowy force responsible for every mishap.” But the worst of these is the Sexual scapegoat; an appellation ascribed to women who were believed to be witches and the trials of whom, Campbell says, serve as “the most spectacular and disturbing examples of blame being misdirected onto the vulnerable,”  tens of thousands of whom were burned, hanged and drowned in Europe in the Middle Ages.

The writer of this slight but comprehensive book has certainly done his research. Every chapter and idea is carefully consider and conveyed, with great historical, social and cultural insight. Campbell skilfully carries the subject from past to present day, where scapegoating seems to be flourishing more than ever because “we are faced with more choice than before” thus “we have a greater number of things to blame”. This notion that evil forces conspire against us has always been a popular one but never more so than in the age of internet and conspiracy theory. And let’s not forget that “every conspiracy theory has a victim”. Campbell chooses one of the most disheartening examples of victimisation in history to show the scapegoating practice at its worst. In 1870, a young French army officer by the name of Alfred Dreyfus was suspected of spying for the Germans. The accusations were based on conjecture but Dreyfus was imprisoned, tortured, his name smeared, largely due to his “Jewishness and family wealth” . Eventually, Dreyfus was cleared of the charges but even after being released from prison he remained a popular figure of blame and died a very unhappy man, after a very unhappy life.  Scapegoat is a marvellous little book written by a fine raconteur, who keeps the reader amused, informed and regaled throughout.

Publisher: Duckworth 
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 208 pages
ISBN: 9780715643785

Seminal Lines

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

The Remorseful Day – A. E. Housman

F. Scott Fitzgerald: A wondrous prosateur

In the roaring 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were for a time the golden couple of New York’s high society. Twenty years later, Fitzgerald was dead from a second heart attack while Zelda was in and out of mental institutions where she eventually died in a fire in 1948. Their slow but steady descent toward ruin was documented – as skilfully dramatised fiction – in several of Fitzgerald’s books all of which have recently been published in lavish paperbacks by Alma Classics. The Beautiful and the Damned (1920) was the first of Fitzgerald’s works to include a fictionalised portrait of Zelda as the volatile beauty Gloria Patch, wife to Fitzgerald’s Anthony Patch, a louche and sybaritic heir apparent. The story of man’s obsession with power, money and love was retold again and for the final time in Fitzgerald’s last completed work, Tender Is the Night (1934). The book relays the tale of Dick and Nicole Driver, their tempestuous marriage and gradual undoing. Fitzgerald was one of the most autobiographical and luculent writers with a wondrous binary proficiency to tell a story of a man and his times. A quality so rare yet organic his one-time friend Ernest Hemingway said it was “as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings”. Indeed, one cannot help but agree with Hemingway for there is something spellbinding about Fitzgerald’s prose; its decadence, its verisimilitude, its fatalism, which captured the dazzling milieu of the Jazz Age with masterly foresight and vision.

Unfortunately, Fitzgerald’s life paralleled the trajectory of his generation. It boomed in the hedonistic 20s – defined by a wave of liberated women and bootleg booze – and floundered with the advent of the Great Crash when both he and Zelda buckled under the pressures of excess and financial profligacy. Fitzgerald’s fiction echoed the national mood, his insight and personal experience formed the basis of all his work, reflecting the glamour and the strain of living the American Dream. Their story, an embodiment of the triumph and tragedy that afflicted their decade, began in 1918 when Fitzgerald was stationed at Camp Sheridan, Alabama, where he met 18 year old Zelda Sayre, youngest daughter of a wealthy Alabama Supreme Court judge. The couple quickly became engaged but due to Fitzgerald’s lowly financial prospects Zelda broke it off in 1919. In that same year, Fitzgerald began work on his first novel This Side of Paradise, the early prototype which was to set the precedent for all his later works. The book tells the story of a “sophisticated and quite charming – but delicate” young man by the name of Amory Blaine, his professional aspirations and romantic travails. While working on it, Fitzgerald also began a career as a prosateur for mass-circulation magazines. His moneymaking prospects were further improved by the publication of This Side of Paradise on 26th March 1920, which made the 24 year old Fitzgerald an overnight success. A mere week later, he and Zelda were married and swung full-force into a bustling life of parties, power-play and intrigue.

The realisation of Fitzgerald’s plan to get the girl, however, came at a price, which engendered in him “an abiding distrust” and “an animosity, towards the leisure class”. This enmity echoes stridently in all his works, particularly in the young, handsome and ostensibly successful male protagonists (Anthony Patch, Dick Driver) riddled with a financial and social sense of inferiority, which manifests itself most notably in relation to other mostly female characters. Zelda’s penchant for throwing Gatsbyesque parties, champagne and mink meant the couple were almost always broke, despite Fitzgerald writing profusely in between novels. But neither this nor the questionable start to their affinal life stopped the couple from creating their carefully crafted yet seemingly carefree public personas, which contributed greatly to their overall mythmaking. Both Zelda and Fitzgerald were highly conscious of their media image and kept scrapbooks of press cuttings detailing their professional and personal exploits. Almost from the start, following the success of This Side of Paradise the couple began their courtship with the national press, which they monopolised to up their popular appeal and keep their star ever present in the nation’s imagination. The Fitzgeralds were often featured in newspaper gossip columns as the happily married power-couple having a riotous time in their 27 bedroom mansion. In truth, by the early 1930s Fitzgerald was increasingly turning to alcohol to placate his personal insecurities while Zelda’s ditzy-Southern-belle act had become trite and taxing. The gradual collapse of their marriage and the emotional upheaval that preceded and followed is probably most discernible in Tender Is the Night, which seems to be one of Fitzgerald’s most divisive works. Praised for its literary prowess but condemned for its ostentatious show of overindulgence at the time of austerity and ration it received highly mixed reviews.

The book was conceived and written during a particularly grim period in Fitzgerald’s life, around Zelda’s breakdown and hospitalisation for schizophrenia in 1932. Dick and Nicole Diver were reportedly modelled on Fitzgeralds’ friends on the French Riviera, Gerald and Sara Murphy, yet the fictional couple’s marriage and all its elements – alcoholism, mental illness, a mounting emotional chasm and separation – seem more closely allied to that of the Fitzgeralds. At one point in the novel writing of Dick, Fitzgerald notes that he “had the power of arousing a fascinated and uncritical love” which he always returned with “carnivals of affection” yet upon which he looked back “as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal blood lust”. Fitzgerald writes of love here with exsanguinating fatalism and with an intimacy of knowledge which can only be forged through familiarity, through lived experience. The same acutely autobiographical aesthetic runs through The Beautiful and the Damned, which explores the dissolution of another couple, Anthony and Gloria Patch. Speaking of the fictional wife, also stricken with schizophrenia, Fitzgerald seems to be describing his own, a beautiful but merciless party girl who rebels with “incessant guerrilla warfare” against “organised dullness” . Zelda like Gloria was notorious for her contumacious behaviour such as riding on top of taxis, dancing on kitchen tables at the Waldorf and greeting guest from her bathtub.

There is a sad irony to their story, a story which Fitzgerald spent almost two decades writing about. He must have prevised the tragic end before it approached but if so he did nothing to stop it perhaps because by that point he was no longer able to distinguish between his life and his fiction, speaking of which he once confessed: “Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.” And yet before the blurring of the line and their subsequent troubles, their story was one of intense if deeply flawed love, which provided Fitzgerald with the necessary material for his greatest works. Writing of their relationship in response to criticism from Hemingway and other contemporariesFitzgerald retorted: “I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self-respect and it’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be…I love her and that’s the beginning and the end of it.” For her part, Zelda’s grandiose shows of affection and her devotion to him never wavered even if her loyalty did. There is little doubt that theirs was a passionate and enduring love, just as there is little doubt that their abject ends were precipitated by mutual proclivity for self-destruction, drinking and artistic rivalry. The capping crisis of their marriage was offset by Zelda’s novel Save Me the Waltz (1932), which used exactly the same autobiographical material as Fitzgerald was incorporating into Tender is the Night. Outraged by Zelda’s audacity Fitzgerald wrote to his publisher Max Perkins forbidding publication. Eventually, however, after stipulating a number of changes and cuts he allowed it to go ahead, which it did two years before his own complete final book. The great romance of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald has been dissected, disputed and debated many times over, with blame shifted onto one and the other, but perhaps in the end they were just two people in love who sadly couldn’t live either apart or together.

Publisher: Alma Classics 
Publication Date: September 2012
Paperback: 320 pages
ISBN: 9781847492593

Frederick Turner: Guaranteed to captivate Miller enthusiasts

Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer by Frederick Turner is engaging, erudite, fluent and succinct yet full of novel biographical paraphernalia, which is guaranteed to captivate most Miller enthusiasts. The pulchritudinous little hardback, published by Yale University Press, chronicles how Miller’s first published novel “has risen from smuggled dirty book to American classic”. Turner employs Yankee folklore to explain Miller’s savage abandon and fascination with an anarchically subversive way of life steeped in “murky fringe land between a strict fidelity to the law and actual illegality”. It’s a daring interpretative mode, psychoanalytical speculation always is, but it works. Turner pinpoints certain undeniable similarities between Miller and his folklore primogenitors,  the infamous Mississippi brawlers, gamblers, crooks and filibusterers, who like Miller lived on their wits, shape-shifting, altering occupations, addresses and personae as circumstances dictated. Following in the same line of thought, Turner positions Miller alongside Mark Twain and Walt Whitman –  both once considered on the literary sidelines for their scabrous argots and iconoclast subjects –  to show how Miller inherited a tradition of prose “in the outsized, colourful monologue mode” of the colloquial, and subsequently nurtured it into his very own brand of “rude hieroglyphics”.

Miller had been jawing about becoming a writer long beforeTropic of Cancer, but for all his boorish braggadocio he had perilously little to show for it; or indeed his 30-odd years, except a divorce, a second falling marriage, chronic penury, a handful of literary rejection slips and a profound hatred of America, the unremitting “slaughterhouse” and “monstrous death machine,” as he called it. It is not clear when Miller’s fascination with Europe began, but Turner suggests it may have been inspired by his old school friend Emil Schnellock, with whom Miller corresponded extensively throughout his time in Paris and beyond.  Miller left for the French capital in February 1930, cajoled by his second wife June Mansfield Smith. He shipped out with a borrowed ten dollar note, two valises and a trunk. Turner explains: “In these he had some suits made by his tailor father; the drafts of two failed novels, and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But within him, buried within the accumulated detritus of a random and crudely assembled self-education, Miller was carrying a great deal more than these meagre effects.” Indeed.  He was in fact carrying a myriad of fantasises, which fuelled by his imminent experiences would eventually materialize into a book that now “belongs on a select shelf of works that best tell us who we are, for better or worse”.

While this may only be marginally true for humanity as a whole, it is certainly true for Miller. Tropic of Cancer tells us everything we need to know about its writer, “the gangster author,” who penned a literary deviant, which reads like a variegated autobiography of inescapable Americanism and an aspiration to European sensibility, a libidinous and comical picaresque of a sexual adventurer and a lovable knave, a daring exposition of an ironic moralist, a manual to the lifestyle of the bohemian deadbeat and a triumph of crude and creative splendour. Turner’s sympathetic and skilful evocation of Miller’s time in the US and in Paris,  spent mostly in depravation with a retinue of factotums, the work that followed and how it ought to fit into the American canon offers some interesting insights; but it never unequivocally states the fact that for all his raging and retreating from the establishment Miller actually yearned to be integrated into the high-end literary tradition. For as Turner himself notes, while talking about his subject’s impoverished background, Miller was “cut from different cloth…so Miller the failed Ivy Leaguer, the college dropout… refused to submit to his cultural and personal fate,” by means of a literary self-erudition, a fanatical interest in EVERYTHING (hamburger sandwiches, collar buttons, poodle dogs, slot machines, grey bowlers, typewriter ribbons, oranges sticks, free toilets, sanitary napkins, mint jujubes, billiard balls, chopped onions, crinkled doilies, manholes, chewing gum etc)  and a desperate desire for self-actualisation. In fact, he became a sort of microcosmic noosphere, bursting with ubiquitous knowledge on the page as well as in person.

But neither the writing nor the inspiration came easily, not until Miller met June – at the time the only person who “believed in his star”. Following the chance meeting in the summer of 1923, Miller – then a husband, a father and a man with a responsible job at the Western Union – quit his career, divorced his wife, married June and embarked on a quest to become a writer. With very little success. Turner records Miller’s life with June – the woman who led to his emotional labefaction – with great attention to detail, concluding that “for Miller, June in one way and another inspired his three finest works, the Tropics and Black Spring”. Though often disputed, this is certainly true, for long-after the two separated June remained a permanent fixture throughout Miller’s life, indelibly looming over the man and his work. But there was another force behind Miller’s drive.  Upon his arrival to Pairs, Miller had “apparently lost everything, nationality, job, wife, even his language” thus to stave off loneliness he hit the streets with a notebook and a pen “walking great distances and making notes on virtually anything he happened to see, from the life of the cafes to the carcasses of the newly slaughtered horseS hanging from the market stall hooks”. And  almost everything he did see made it into the book. It is precisely this, his observational deft and pyrotechnical delivery – albeit occasionally blemished by overindulgence in periphrasis and even unabashed flummery -that makes Tropic of Cancer remarkable, brilliant.

Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer is a considered and intriguing book, which aims to show how Miller’s “heroic confrontation” of his own failures eventually made him into a success. Turner treats his subject objectively but with great enthusiasm and at times with much-needed caution, knowing all too well that Miller was prone to casuistry and embellishment. The discerning biographer does well to outline most of Miller’s influences, friendships, struggles and aspirations, the main one of which was to write a  magnum opus for his wife (June), which earned him great admiration among certain circles and a “shadowy reputation as a writer of truly dirty books” among others. Turner remains the voice of reason throughout the narrative, only occasionally showing disdain for Miller’s callousness and dubious morality, when for example Miller refers to his aborted baby as the “seven month toothache” or neglects his duties as a husband and father. On the whole, Turned does well to pieces all the elements together to show how Tropic of Cancer materialised, even if he doesn’t place the book or its legacy into a greater political and socio-economic context. (Some reviewers have griped.)  Still, there is something he says which is on the money, namely that “writing with an increasingly naked candour about his life” Miller was bridging the gap between “autobiography and literature,”  and since many a great writer has followed the path that Miller bravely blazed.

Chandler Brossard: Off-Beat

One hopes that there will always be a publisher willing to take a chance on the underdog, the underdog often being a writer who will most likely yield little commercial success. Such a publisher is not only commendable but also courageous. Allen Berlinski is just such a man, without whom Chandler Brossard’s collected shorts may have never made it into print. Over The Rainbow? Hardly (2004) failed to make publication on two separate occasions, until Berlinski accepted it for his Sun Dog Press. The introduction, written by the book’s editor Steven Moore, is studious and sympathetic, offering invaluable insight into both Brossard’s life and his work.

Chandler Brossard was born in 1922 in Idaho. He dropped out of school aged 11, and by the age of 18 was working in Washington as a reporter. Eventually, he moved to New York City and found employment with a number of prominent publications, including The New Yorker, American Mercury, Time, and Look magazine, where he remained from 1956-67. He later took to travelling around Europe, teaching there as well as in the US, while also writing fiction. Brossard was largely self-educated, and is now mostly remembered as the overlooked Beat, an appellation he vehemently rejected. This wholly unsolicited link was a result of his first book, Who Walk In Darkness (1952), which contained all the nascent elements that later came to define beatnik literature. The novel, set in Greenwich Village, was a phantasmagorical evocation of subterranean culture and life, temulent revelries, sex, psychedelics and the search for creative liberation. Asked about the Beat connection in 1979 Brossard said the critics who had made it were “not very thoughtful people” and had missed the point of the book.

Brossard believed the only correlation between himself and his Beat successors, who came 10 years later, was the fact that Who Walk in Darkness was set in the same bohemian environs of the Village, while everything else – style, syntax, subject – was at contrastive odds. In fact, much of Brossard’s work – especially in Over The Rainbow? Hardly – is irreconcilable with that of his contemporaries or precursors, as it “magically combines, orders, and dramatizes realities”, but not realities as we know them. This is in part due to Brossard’s sui generis prose-style, which shuns traditional narrative structure and literary etiquette in favour of the curious and the avant-garde. Over The Rainbow? Hardly consists of seven independent chapters, which range from venerean pastiches of popular fairy-tales to meditations on etymology and epistemology, poetry and everything in between. In Postcards: You Don’t Wish You Were Here, for example, Brossard offers literary snaps of various cities across the US by way of wry and acidulous narratives.  Each place is defined by an exaggeration of its perceived, or perhaps, more accurately, imagined, idiosyncrasies. In Lying Low, Virginia, for instance, “apples torture Newton by falling diagonally”. In Right As Rain, New Mexico, “Grief [is] a condition treasured by the educated and the upper middle class” and in If Looks Could Kill, South Carolina, “back stroke is not taught in school” because it “won’t help you much if you’re going to drown”.

Brossard’s writing is wayward, unpolished, ludibund and irreverent, adjusting to his mood at any given time as he vacillates from a nihilist to a martyr, from an existentialist to an idealist, from a writer to a reader; a technique which allows him to effectively convey the multiplicity of experience and emotions. In Shifty Sacred Songs, Brossard ruminates on “sadness”, saying: “One thing you’ve got to say for sadness. You don’t have to dress for it. Never. Unlike worshiping graven images of false gods.”  And later, of the character of “loneliness” and the emotion itself, Brossard notes: “It has staying power. It doesn’t stumble at the eight. It doesn’t make dates with you, then stand you up. Nor does it solicit you. No indeed. You come into it on your own terms. With your eyes wide open. You will never, never be justified in complaining, I was talked into this…Against my better judgement…In short, loneliness is a mother to us all. Just as the crust is mother to the pie.” The thought, like most thoughts in Shifty Sacred Songs, aspires to be profound but is somewhat hindered by the writer’s postmodernist anti-aestheticism. Although that’s not to say that Brossard lacks profundity elsewhere.

In a piece called Raging Joys, Sublime Violations, Brossard offers some earnestly profound feelings about the Vietnam War by deriding the American establishment, and its vainglorious imperialist mind-set that facilitated its intervention in the military conflict. Raging Joys, Sublime Violations is rampant, ebullient, bellicose and sexually explicit, the sort of show that galls and appals Middle America and beyond. But in the subtext of the piece, Brossard very cleverly draws out “the rape metaphor inherent in imperialism” and the self-congratulatory brutish bravado of the military, its contradictions and equivocations. At one point in the piece the soldiers break into song: “Our objective in Laos is to stabilise the situation again, if possible, if possible, within the 1962 Geneva settlement,” with the others adding: “So, let us bomb them, bomb them, for democracy,” which, of course, was the intention all along. Brossard was an avid anti-war activist and helped North Vietnamese victims while working in the UK for an organisation dedicated to the cause. Thus, Raging Joys, Sublime Violations is perhaps one of the most impassioned – if subversive – pieces in the omnibus, and one which makes the reader really think. In fact, Brossard’s work demands the reader think an awful lot, as he periodically dispenses with all forms of convention, compelling one to connect the seemingly unrelated dots of his narrative – an occasionally onerous task, but also a rewarding one.

Compensation is also provided amid Brossard’s more light-hearted offerings, including the frolicsome vignettes that make up Dirty Little Books for Little Folks and A Chimney Sweep Comes Clean.  Both pornographic in nature, they read like some bizarrely hircine reveries of a stoned somnambulist. The protagonist in A Chimney Sweep Comes Clean caroms from page to page, from misadventure to misadventure, with ferocious alacrity and to great comic effect; while the tales in Dirty Little Books for Little Folks dramatise popular children’s stories, emphasising and exaggerating their innate erotic elements, and thereby offering a new dimension to the classics.  Harsher critics may grumble that Brossard’s work is often indecipherable, but I am one with E. M Forster, who said that “nonsense and beauty have close connections” – one simply has to look for them.  And looking for them in Over The Rainbow? Hardly is easy, as the collection captures perfectly Brossard’s off-Beat, “unhinged mind,” which is indeed “a thing of beauty”. 

Writers On Writers

“The trouble with Freudian psychology is that it is based exclusively on a study of the sick. Freud never met a healthy human being—only patients and other psychoanalysts. “
Aldous Huxley

“I don’t know what service I provided for Cheever except to be delighted with his work.”
William Maxwell

“Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.”
Jean Cocteau

“I’ve tried to read Proust so often, and I recognize the beauty of his style, but he puts me to sleep.”

Ray Bradbury

“Nabokov is a natural dandy on the grand international scale.”
Anthony Burgess

“Ezra was right half the time, and when he was wrong, he was so wrong you were never in any doubt about it.”
Ernest Hemingway

“Descartes spent far too much time in bed subject to the persistent hallucination that he was thinking.”
Flann O’Brien

“What writers influenced me as a young man? Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!”
Tennessee Williams

“Only a technique like Faulkner’s could have enabled me to write down what I was seeing.”
García Márquez

“Beckett destroys language with silence.”
Eugène Ionesco

Sources: The Paris Review, Brainy Quote 

Guy de Maupassant: A brilliant and delicate psychologist

There is a category of writers whose brilliant careers were tragically cut short by death. Guy de Maupassant is one of them. Maupassant died at the age of 42 in a mental asylum in Paris, following a second suicide attempt. It is thought that his gradual decent into madness was caused by syphilis, which the writer contracted in the 1870s. Maupassant believed he was infected with the “Neapolitan evil” at the age of 20 by a ravishing “female boating companion”. But it may have been any one of the prostitutes he used to frequent on a regular basis. Today, he is largely remembered for his mellifluent but methodically plotted short stories, which set the precedent for the genre even before his death. But Maupassant has also written several excellent novels, one of which has recently been reissued by Penguin to coincide with a new film adaptation. Bel-Ami is a book of genuine intrigue, which follows the life of a charming but unscrupulous young man, Georges Duroy, and his quest for “greatness and success, fame, wealth and love”. A protégé of Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant was always actively encouraged by his master to pursue a literary career as someone who had been “born to write”. Spurred by Flaubert, the young writer developed a lifelong habit of perpetually making notes and conscientiously observing his surroundings, which later provided invaluable material for his work. Whenever asked about his revenant-like, taciturn, disposition Maupassant would simply say: “I am learning my trade.” And learn he did.

In Bel-Ami, his second novel, Maupassant explores the dynamics of urban society through its relationship with politics and the press, power and sex, subjects integral both to the fates of the book’s characters and its  social climate. Written in the 1880s, the book records the social milieu of bourgeois capitalism under La Troisième République, mirroring the reality of its day. Before gaining acclaim and commercial success, Maupassant worked for the Ministry of Public Instruction, which he left after the publication of his first collection of short stories. In the 10-year period before his death, Maupassant produced 300 stories, six novels, three plays, a few travel books and some poetry. But towards the end of his life, his sedulous work ethic was stifled by his illness, as he recorded in a letter from Cannes. “There are whole days on which I feel I am done for,” he wrote,  “finished, blind, my brain used up and yet still alive…I have not a single idea that is consecutive to the one before it. I forget words, names of everything and my hallucination and my pains tear me to pieces.” This writer of immense proficiency and finesse suffered greatly before the “darkness” consumed him. But he also managed to leave behind a literary canon of considerable bulk and scope.

Like Duroy, Maupassant was born in a provincial town and sought to make his name in Paris; and like his fictional counterpart, he had a soft-spot for the ladies, who, as Duroy is told by his old comrade Forestier, are “still the quickest way to succeed”. Bel-Ami is a book that deals with both philogyny and misogyny, liberated women and old-fashioned men, with equally as old-fashioned views toward them. Georges Duroy is a soldier who has returned to Paris after two years in Algeria. Broke and down on his luck he inadvertently meets the “smiling, earnest and attentive” Forestier, now the editor of a daily newspaper named La Vie française – the sort that steers its “course through the waters of high finance and low politics”.  His friend lends him money, sets him up with a job at the paper and introduces Duroy to a number of influential Parisian dignitaries. Yet despite his sudden turn of luck, Duroy feels lowly and humiliated about being “excluded from high society, having no connections where he would be accepted as an equal and being unable to frequent women on terms of intimacy”. The subject of romantic female companionship is a preoccupation that Duroy contemplates continuously, albeit most often in a superficial way. He is frequently seized by a “passionate longing to find love”, but this longing rests upon the condition that in return he should be loved exclusively by “a woman of refinement and distinction”. This plays into his very male idea –one which is endorsed throughout the book by various male characters – of furthering his social position by associating with women of a certain calibre, and so Duroy begins his quest for just such a female companion.

Although immediately bewitched by the “charmingly demure” Mrs Forestier, Duroy postpones pursuing his friend’s wife and instead goes after the “deliberately provocative” Madam de Marelle, who although also married puts up no resistance. The two rent a love-nest and spend their time making “excursions to the dubious haunts where the great unwashed go to amuse themselves”. The romance, however, soon dwindles, while Duroy’s professional life takes an upturn as Forestier’s ailing health paves the way for a promotion to the ranks of editor. Eventually, Forestier dies and Duroy wastes no time proposing to his friend’s widow. Mrs Forestier agrees upon the stipulation that she remain uninhibited to do as she please – in fact she insists “on being free, completely free to act as I see fit, go where I please, see whom I choose, whatever I wish. I could never accept any authority or jealousy or questioning of my conduct.” A bold proposition, but one Duroy accepts. What follows are several affairs, several more moves up the career ladder, divorce, scandal, another marriage and a realisation on Duroy’s behalf that there will always be another “young, good looking, intelligent” and ambitious schemer to take his place. Although the realisation is passing, Duroy will no doubt get his comeuppance in the end. Or so, at least, one hopes.

Maupassant is a writer who refrains from moralising, neither siding with nor objecting to his characters, but rather taking an altogether neutral stance. But the moral of the story is clear and perhaps best summed up in the following excerpt when talking to Duroy an elderly gentleman says: “Life is a slope. As long as you’re going up you’re looking towards the top and you feel happy; but when you reach it, suddenly you can see the road going downhill and death at the end of it all. It’s slow going up but quick going down,” especially when one is alone. And loneliness is where most of the characters in Bel-Ami are headed. This bears an uncanny similarity to Maupassant’s own abject end, which he met solitarily despite having been famous, loved, popular and revered. Bel-Ami contains several other elements from Maupassant’s life, but more than that it showcases his deep and intuitive understanding of the workings of the human psyche. No wonder then, perhaps, that Friedrich Nietzsche declared him to be a brilliant and delicate psychologist. Maupassant himself once seconded this notion saying that a good writer should aim to show true human nature in his work, the unexceptional and the everyday of people’s lives and their characters, “their feelings and passions… how people love or hate each other, how they fight each other…how they make up” – essentially, how they live. And in this Maupassant succeeds, for there is life reverberating through every page of this sprightly and compelling tale.

Publisher: Penguin Classics 
Publication Date: August 1975
Paperback: 416 pages
ISBN: 9780140443158

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