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Tag: Literary Quotes

Writers On Writers

Hart Crane_Jonathan Meades_ Chico Buarque_ Aldous Huxley_W.H Auden_Philip Roth_Martin Amis_ F.R. Leavis_ Eugène Ionesco_ John Stuart Mill

”Hart Crane’s poems are profound and deep-seeking.”
Eugene O’Neill

“Meades is a national treasure – original, quirky, fearless and often quite right.”
Nigel Jones

“Buarque’s the real deal, hilarious and innovative and deftly profound.”
Jonathan Franzen

“Aldous Huxley was uncannily prophetic, a more astute guide to the future than any other 20th- century novelist.”
J.G Ballard

“Auden’s range was astonishing.”
John Fuller

“Roth had reached a kind of terminus  – the end of the beginning, as it were.”
Jason Cowley

“Amis does the reader a brilliant, generous (and cathartic) favour.”
Richard Ford

“F.R. Leavis’ ‘eat up your broccoli’ approach to fiction emphasises this junkfood/wholefood dichotomy.”
Angela Carter

“I’d never heard of Ionesco until after I’d written the first few plays.”
Harold Pinter

“John Stuart Mill thought that lyric poetry is not heard, but overheard.”
James Fenton

Sources: The Daily Telegraph, Guardian, The Atlantic, Wikiquote, Dictionary, The Paris Review

Writers On Writers

“To read Patrick White is to discover an extra taste bud.”
Nicholas Shakespeare

“The whole of English Lit at the moment is being written by Anthony Burgess. He reviews all new books except those by himself, and these latter include such jeux d’esprit as A Shorter Finnegan’s Wake and so on….He must be a kind of Batman of contemporary letters. I hope he doesn’t take to poetry.”
Philip Larkin

“James’ repressions and evasions are many, varied and exhausting.”
Camille Paglia

“By saying Simone Weil’s life was both comic and terrible I am not trying to reduce it, but mean to be paying her the highest tribute I can, short of calling her a saint, which I don’t believe she was.”
Flannery O’Connor

“I had always had grave doubts about Eliot’s taste and, indeed, intelligence.”
Anthony Burgess

“Céline’s personal and artistic honesty are of a piece. If he made mistakes, grievous mistakes, in his life, as a novelist he remained true to himself and to his art.”
John Banville

“Behind every Chesterton sentence there was someone painting with words, and it seemed to me that at the end of any particularly good sentence or any perfectly-put paradox, you could hear the author, somewhere behind the scenes, giggling with delight.”
Neil Gaiman

“No one, it seems to me, can hope to equal Augustine. Who, nowadays, could hope to equal one who, in my judgment, was the greatest in an age fertile in great minds.”
Petrarch

“In regard to absurdism, Samuel Beckett is sometimes considered to be the epitome of the postmodern artist … In fact, he is the aesthetic reductio ad absurdum of absurdism: no longer whistling in the dark, after waiting for Godot, he is trying to be radically silent, wordless in the dark.”
William Desmond

“If the English hoard words like misers, the Irish spend them like sailors; and Brendan Behan … sends language out on a swaggering spree, ribald, flushed and spoiling for a fight.”
Kenneth Tynan

Sources: The Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, Wikiquote

Brian Sewell: Forthright and formidable

The title of Brian Sewell’s new book of criticisms is a revealing one. Naked Emperors – a play on Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes – pre-emptively informs that the material contained within pertains to swindlers and imposters unmasked by a single-truth telling individual. Some of these are world celebrated contemporary artists, others belong to the curatorial establishment; all are subject to Sewell’s vituperative evaluation. Sewell has been the art critic for London’s Evening Standard since 1984, almost as long as he has ”locked horns” with the ”successive chairmen, panjandrums, secretaries and Councillors of the Arts Council”. This, he says in a pointedly entitled chapter, A Nest of Vipers, is due to their ”Byzantine methods of selection and appointment, their often outrageous exploitation of appointment for professional advantage, their buddy-boy and back scratching patronage and subsidy”. Unsurprisingly, his repetitive enquiries and interest in this particular institution have been obstructed and deemed “malevolent”. But neither one nor the other has disparaged Sewell in his quest for veracity, or has stifled his stentorian cries at the fact that the public has been duped into gazing “in adoration on works of art in the mediums of human blood, semen, urine and the fluff discovered in an artist’s navel”.

Sewell’s distaste for what is nowadays foisted as art is palpable throughout the collection and only outweighed by his anger, which reaches its pinnacle in a chapter on Tracey Emin and her “retrospective celebration of unmediated autobiographical relics and self-centred sentimentality” at the Hayward Gallery in 2011. The critic duly informs the reader that he has previously “said very little of Miss Emin” since her debut in 1997 due to the fact that he had hoped that even “our insane contemporary art world would have enough common sense to let her fade into obscurity”. But alas it has not thus Sewell’s erroneous assumption is perhaps as much a reason for his vehement hostility toward Emin as is his objection to her patchworks, her tumbled bed and her general “misery reconstructed in self-pity”. The chapter on Emin, which spans all of three pages, is replete with gratuitous name-calling and ebullient contempt for the “art’s Jade Goody” who, according to Sewell, has made her name through “cunning exploitation of ignorance, irascible emotion and raw sex” while playing the “drunken slut” for the benefit of the popular papers. Sewell’s bile toward his subject – with whom he feels “not the slightest sympathy” over her sexual and personal tribulations – is unmitigated, unrestrained and borderline sadistic. On the other hand, his grievances regarding her art are credible and validated. He’s right; crude images of bladder emptying, masturbation and neon signs telling one to “FUCK OFF AND DIE YOU SLAG” and “PEOPLE LIKE YOU NEED TO FUCK PEOPLE LIKE ME” is the stuff of a “teenage girl besotted with boy bands rather than the serious business we might reasonably expect of a famous woman of forty-eight”.

Now in his 80s, Sewell is perhaps both most maligned and celebrated – depending on your stance on conceptual art – for his scathing reviews of the “intelligence-insulting, cynical, exclusive, manipulated and fraudulent” Turner Prize. He attributes the award’s success to its elements of perversity and freakishness and the public’s inexorable interest in the “enjoyable frissons of dismay, incomprehension and distaste”. But Sewell laments it all the more for its “exclusive approach to art, for its blindness to the quality of anything not definable as cutting-edge…for the secrecy that surrounds it and the evident mismanagement of the results”. Simon Starling, who won the Prize in 2005 for Shedboatshed, is a prime example, says Sewell, of someone who was awarded the accolade for the sheer “eccentricity of the idea” rather than its connection with “ancestral forms of art”. Starling dismantled a shed turned it into a boat sailed to Xanadu and then turned it back into a shed. And that won this unassuming genius £25,000. Sewell quite rightly points out that the whole project was an exercise in carpentry rather than art, the very definition of which he questions throughout the collection. He does this scrupulously as he ponders one “incomprehensible postmodernism” to the next, produced by the likes of Anthony Caro who for the past decade has been “toying with the student exercise of making three dimensional tableaux” from the paintings of old masters; Damian Hirst whose “imagination is as dead as all the dead creatures” suspended in formaldehyde; David Hockney whose “portraiture has been unworthy even of the street painters of Montmartre” for the last couple of years and a handful of others favoured by the art establishment.

And here the establishment is as vehemently lambasted as the individual artist. ‘‘The Whitechapel Gallery is,” writes Sewell, “to anything pretending to be a work of art, the most flattering space in London.” Tate Gallery ranks lower than “a minor museum in provincial Germany,” the Arts Council is “an irrelevance to the great majority of working painters and sculptors,” the Royal Academy has “fallen on hard times…complacency [and] indolence,” and the Saatchi Galleries are run by a proprietor whose taste is “crudely literal, bizarre, grotesque, sexual and calculatingly offensive”. Sewell also sneers at compliant journalists and submissive broadcasters espousing uniform and uncritical praise for artists of international calibre but little skill. His astringent disposition was famously challenged in 1994 when 35 art world signatories wrote a letter to the Evening Standard accusing Sewell of prejudice, homophobia, misogyny, hypocrisy, demagogy and “formulaic insults and predictable scurrility”. Sewell retorted in kind and with a letter from 20 other art world signatories condemning the accusers for their attempted censorship. As a critic Sewell is both forthright and formidable, as a man he often appears quite vulnerable, somewhat wounded, perhaps, by the fact that the industry considers him an outsider, even if an esteemed one. His commentary, however biting, bitchy and belligerent, is insightful, interesting and supported by over 30 years of expertise which lends itself to understanding individual works as well as their place in history.

Naked Emperors is a shrewd and witty book charting a man’s interest in and changing perceptions of art as well as the industry’s shifting values, ethics and standards. It is also a book which makes it easy to see why many take objection to Sewell’s brand of criticism. His is not a subtle approach, but it is astute, intelligent and humorous. Sewell studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art under celebrated historian and disgraced Soviet spy Anthony Blunt. He graduated in 1957 and after a stint in the National Service worked at Christie’s auction house, specialising in Old Masters. He has since been a regular commentator on television and radio, and has won several prestigious awards including the George Orwell Prize for his column in the Evening Standard. Naked Emperors gathers Sewell’s reviews of exhibitions by contemporary English artists, most of which were written exclusively for the London paper. They are arranged chronologically under artist and institution and coalesce into a comprehensive and intelligent record of how “ancestral conventions of painting and sculpture” have been discarded for the sake of shallow, vulgar and fatuous installations and daubs, which have made the Naked Emperors undue millionaires.

Publisher: Quartet Books
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 368 pages
ISBN: 9780704372825

Writers On Writers

“We cannot help but see Socrates as the turning-point, the vortex of world history.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

“Mayakovsky impregnated poetry in such a way that almost all the poetry has continued being Mayakovskian.”
Pablo Neruda

“I wouldn’t like to do what Elizabeth Bowen once told me she did—write something every day, whether I was working on a book or not.”
Angus Wilson

“Vladimir Nabokov, and I languidly English the name, takes up a good five feet of my library. “
Martin Amis

“Flann O’Brien is unquestionably a major author.”
Anthony Burgess

“Between thirteen and sixteen are the ideal if not the only ages for succumbing to Thomas Wolfe—he seemed to me a great genius then, and still does, though I can’t read a line of it now.”
Truman Capote

“As far as I’m consciously aware, I forget everything I read at once, including my own stuff. But I have a tremendous admiration for Céline.”
Henry Green

“It may really be said: You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

“Kingsley Amis and I used to exchange unpublished poems, largely because we never thought they could be published, I suppose.”
Philip Larkin

“Tolstoy is the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction.”
Vladimir Nabokov

Sources: Wikipedia, Brainy Quote, The Paris Review  

Evan S. Connell: Makes the ordinary seem extraordinary

There are certain books that capture an era. Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell is one of them. Narrated in a superbly rhythmic and shifting tone, the book relays the story of the eponymous character, a wife and a mother living in the verdant suburbs of Kansas City. The straightforward reportage-style narrative is punctured by Mrs Bridge’s personality and partial verbalisation of her innermost thoughts, fears, aspirations and prejudices. Originally published in 1959, Mrs Bridge has recently been reissued in an elegant aureate paperback by Penguin Modern Classics. The book – consisting of 117 vignettes – paints a sympathetic if a somewhat condescending picture of Mrs Bridge, living through the social vicissitudes taking place in post war America. A beacon of old-fashion propriety and manners, she struggles to come to terms with the new ways of the world, her children’s rebelliousness, her husband’s stoicism and the burgeoning realisation that her life is entirely futile. Mrs Bridge, therefore, spends a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by a sense of expectancy, but “nothing intense, nothing desperate” ever happens and yet she can’t shake the “foreboding that one day, without warning and without pity, all the dear important things would be destroyed.”

Mrs Bridge’s pathological fear that her meticulously orchestrated existence will begin to unravel materialises when her three children desert home, leaving her with a life in which neither her wants nor her expectations seem to have been fulfilled; a life without discernible purpose or direction. Her mundane thoughts and activities are interspersed with a superficial desire for transcendence, but her monologues are almost entirely without self-reflection, or a discernible aptitude for it, denoting her hollow configuration. And yet there was once a moment, a singular moment, when Mrs Bridge “almost apprehended the very meaning of life, and of the stars and planets, yes, and the flight of the earth”.  That moment, however, passed leaving her unchanged, unaffected. In many ways, Mrs Bridge is a heartbreakingly sad book;  a mercilessly realistic parody of an ordinary life, described in concise yet unsparing detail, full of ennui, abiding servitude to social mores and dilettantish misgivings about new world progress. Connell captures the primitiveness and primness of Mrs Bridge with nonpareil realism; her reservation; her insipid nature and social stupefaction, which permeate her insular world. Mrs Bridge has never had an original thought in her life, “she brought up her children very much as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of it would be in connection with their nice manners” she believes “without question that when a woman married she was married for the rest of her life” and she perennially reserves judgement on all matters, for fear of betraying her ignorance or speaking out of turn.

Every one of the 117 pieces is rippling with real-life situations, personages and instances, universally identifiable as having belonged to a certain generation. In a chapter called Table Manners, for example, it is revealed that Mrs Bridge “judged people by their shoes and their manners at the table”. In another called Guest Towels we learn that she values these bathroom essentials almost equally to her children, thus finding herself “unaccountably on the verge of tears” when one is unexpectedly soiled.  Mrs Bridge is a traditionalist, who on occasion ponders the practicalities of tradition in a changing world, only to console herself with the thought that “it was the way things were, it was the way things had always been” and therefore it is the way things should always be. It is precise this attitude that Mrs Bridge’s three children find laughable, and it is precisely these mores that they rebel against having had no choice but to accept them in their childhood. Mrs Bridge’s relationship with her husband, the grimly determined lawyer Walter Bridge, is no less awkward. Kind and hardworking, Mr Bridge treats her to embarrassingly opulent gifts – a mink coat, a Lincoln – for her birthdays but is unable to voice his affections when she summons the courage to ask, thus the wife finds her husband “incapable of the kind of declaration she needs”. Mostly, however, Mrs Bridge doesn’t know what she need or indeed wants, now that her social and familial duties have been met; restless and unhappy she spends her time thinking wistfully of the past – ricocheting around her large, elegant and brilliantly arranged home with a sense of boredom and torpor.

Connell has an uncanny ability to make ordinary things seem extraordinary, and incessantly animated.  He manages to evoke completely the tragedy of a woman who has opted for a prudent marriage and family life rather than giving reign to her heart; a woman who while growing up believed “she could get along very nicely without a husband” but who later yielded to convention. He skilfully juxtaposes Mrs Bridge’s life against those of her children; each troubled in its own way, and no one more fulfilling or happy than the other. Inevitably, Mrs Bridge’s story elicits sympathy despite her ostensible hollowness, her humourlessness and her bigotry. In part a satire of the post war social climate, in part an exposition of Middle America, Mrs Bridge is funny and tragic. It is also one of the most accurate and pointed literary portraits of suburban entrapment and subsequent frustration, luring beneath a guise of effortless splendour.  One cannot help but speculate that as a Kansas City native this is something Connell may have witnessed first-hand; people crushed under the weight of their own value systems, oppressed by their own beliefs and social affectations. In fact, this phenomenon is something Connell has always been aware of, once explaining: “I have a friend, very Southern, to whom I offered a set of dishes I didn’t need. He did need them because he had just bought an apartment, but he couldn’t bring himself to say yes or no. He had been taught from childhood that one doesn’t answer such questions directly. I’m limited in similar ways. All of us probably know the feeling.”

Connell’s right, all of us probably do know the feeling but some of us can put it into words better than others. This is what makes Mrs Bridge brilliant; that and Connell’s ability to merge his life experience with his work, drawing on his formative years growing up in a similar upper middle-class household with parents who valued courtesy, cleanliness, honesty, thrift, consideration, and other such qualities, above emotional ties with each other and their children. And perhaps that’s the real tragedy of Mrs Bridge, the realisation that her subsumed passions and feelings have left her both lonely and alone. Mrs Bridge is a perspicacious rendering of a bygone era, droll yet distressing, sad yet satirical; a book to rival others by any Kansas City author. Today, Connell lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he moved in 1989. Over the past 50 years, this seldom remembered writer has published nearly 20 books but Mrs Bridge remains his crowning achievement, which has secured his place among the greats of American literary tradition.

Andy Merrifield: Engaging and insightful about finely textured humanism

Andy Merrifield’s study of John Berger offers an engaging and astute overview of the “white-haired novelist, playwright, film scriptwriter-poet” and “art critic-essayist”. And like Berger’s lengthy appellation Merrifield’s book contains an array of insights about the man, the artist, the “concerned citizen” and the “uneasy rider” aboard his Honda Blackbird. The motorbike, writes Merrifield, stood outside Berger’s Quincy farmhouse, isn’t just “a machine to confront walls; it is the ticket to ride towards a modern destination, a metaphor of modern politics, even of modern life”. Berger himself explains his passion for the open road in more fecund terms, saying aboard a motorbike “there’s nothing between you and the rest of the world. The air and the wind press directly on you. You are in the space through which you are travelling,” an experience which “bestows a sense of freedom”. Freedom, especially of the creative variety, is important to Berger, which is one of the reasons he felt inclined to leave England. “I didn’t really feel at home there,” he once explained, “So often I had the feeling when I was with people, when I spoke, that I embarrassed them. I think because they considered me indecently intense.”  Merrifield notes that it was also Berger’s empathy for the European intellectual and the European way of thinking that intensified his desire to leave and thereby be “unashamedly intellectual…unashamedly intense.”

Born in 1926 in Hackney, London, Berger moved to Geneva in 1962. He moved again in 1975 to Haute-Savoie and the sleepy village of Quincy, where he still resides. To escape, Merrifield suggests, “the society of the spectacle” and to enjoy the simple life among Europe’s peasants and migrant workers. The move from Geneva to Quincy signifies an important change in Berger’s personal and professional life. He left behind his old influences (Georg Lukács, Robert Musil), his own history of the novel and his partner at the time Anya Bostock. Thus the move gave rise to “a new chapter, to a different mode of expression, and ultimately to a new woman,” by the name of Beverly Bancroft. In Quincy, the couple, living among the locals would “share peasant habitat and habits, share with them the same duties of fatherhood and motherhood, and comparable standards of comfort (and discomfort); they would participate in village life, in village ceremonies, in births and marriages, in sickness and death.” Berger would also go on to write about these experiences and observations in order to inscribe this particular way of life in history, and in doing so would adopt new influences, including Karl Marx and Walter Benjamin, subsequently replacing his modernist voice (established in the likes of G.) for the artisanal craft of storytelling.

Merrifield explains that from about the same time animals began to figure heavily in Berger’s oeuvre, just as they did in his everyday rural life. Inspired by his quotidian tasks, and Marx’s theory about humans and animals as species-beings who resemble each other, Berger made Parting Shots from Animals, which Merrifield says is a documentary that would never get made today. It is “too sombre in mood, too ironical in tone, too ambiguous in meaning” the biographer explains. I expect he’s right. The idea that alienation between humans within the act of working is deeply bound up with the alienation of humans from animals, symbolising the loss of meaningful connection to nature and a double estrangement in which both lose something of themselves, is complicated at best. To explain, Merrifield  draws together a number of  interpretative frameworks making the book a little bit too theory-laden for a lay reader. The conscientious biographer does, however, surmise his subject rather accurately as a “finely textured humanist” with “a Blakeian impulse for mystical transcendence” and a love for animal and mineral Marxism. He also documents the complex trajectory of Berger’s professional life with great skill, showing how the modernist novelist, who had given the English novel an art-house Continental twist, has evolved into a craftsman storyteller. In tandem with Berger’s own philosophy, Merrifield conjoins different aspects of Berger, demystifying ostensible disparities and deriving new meaning from his art, his life and his politics.

Early on in the book, the biographer asserts that “in dealing with Berger’s art, in analysis and criticising it, in admiring and edging nearer and nearer to it, we will somehow discover, unveil, the man himself, and his times, our times”. Berger seems indeed omnipresent, installed in our cultural consciousness, perhaps due to the longevity of his career but more likely due to his intensity, lingering and engrossing. “People who read Berger, who love him and his words, are often searching for the like themselves,” Merrifield says “searching for a deeper, richer meaning to the world, to their world. That’s why his stripped-down prose, his increasingly mystical words, carefully chosen earthly (and earthy) words, always strike a chord, always grab you by the collar, force you to join in”. And join in we do whether to look at art or to explore the various facets of Marxism. Berger’s appeal is fortified by his engaging personality, by his uncompromising candour and intellectual rigor. His large and varied body of work offers the biographer an instant chronology of the writer’s ever-changing style and ideas, ordered neatly in Merrifield’s book.

All the key aspects of Berger’s life, which have dominated his long career, are explored here to provide a comprehensive overview of this fascinating cultural figure. Merrifield does well to contextualise Berger’s personal concerns, social insights, varied fiction, aesthetic theory and political commentary, in this concise but meticulously thought-out edition. At 86, Berger remains an unapologetically committed writer, critic and activist still campaigning about social injustices such as the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. He once said that he developed an aversion to power early on and that the feeling never left him.  It is therefore perhaps his “gut solidarity with those without power, with the underprivileged,” that makes him so humane and so likable. Or maybe it is his indecent intensity. Either way, Berger seems to have that rare quality that Søren Kierkegaard wrote about because he always manages to “catch the reader, not in the net of passion, nor by the artfulness of eloquence, but by the eternal truth of conviction”.

Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: April 2012
Paperback: 224 pages
ISBN: 978186189 9040

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 

Samuel Beckett: Between two parting dreams, knowing none

Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing would be better renamed Good for Nothing, if only for the sake of accuracy. Harsh, I know, but perhaps wholly necessary. The book is a peculiar and idiosyncratic one, whimsical, opaque, self-indulgent, confused and confusing yet on occasion exoteric but unassimilable. Originally written in French between 1947-52, it was later translated into English by Beckett himself.Thus one can’t help but wonder how much was lost in the process and how much of the abject “quarto” about the essence of being, perception and will, was meant to be as abstruse as it appears. There is little continuity or narrative structure, but in a most ambiguous way. One assumes that the “I” speaking throughout the 13 monologue pieces is the unnamed narrator’s subconscious but this is just an arbitrary guess, as too often the text falls victim to unwitting sabotage by way of structural and stylistic subversion.

The book opens with the narrator debating the point of existence while dwelling somewhere on a “hill, so wild, so wild.” “What possessed you to come?” he asks himself. This we learn is “unanswerable,” but it may have been due to“fate”. The thought continues as he begins to query time, saying: “How long have I been here, what a strange question, I’ve often wondered, And often I could answer, an hour, a month, a year, depending on what I meant by here, and me, and being, and where I never went looking for extravagant meanings there never much varies, only the there sometimes seems to vary.” This mode of quiet and circuitous flatulence continues for some pages and to a rather soporific degree as Beckett endeavours to reduce existential problems to their most rudimentary structures: the meaning of life; the role of perception; time; communication versus alienation and the interminable perplexities of the self. The prose is spares but saponaceous and orbicular, as it ebbs indiscriminately forward and backward only to retrogress to the point of origin again. For the narrator is neither here nor there and yet he tells us otherwise. “I’m there, I am here”  he says, and then somewhere else altogether, “between two parting dreams, knowing none”.

This sort of literature has the tendency to incite a certain urge to perforate the book’s cover with the sharp-end of a bradawl, not only because it is consummately exasperating but also because its writer is consummately more talented. And while I do realise that there is some vestige of merit in Beckett’s experimental indictment against language as a mode of expression, I still can’t excuse his monotonous eructations about being “here or elsewhere, fixed or mobile, without form or oblong like man,” or overlook his abuse of lexicon when he assert that “the subject dies before it comes to the verb,” because “nothing ever as much as began, nothing ever but nothing and never nothing ever but lifeless words”. Most of Texts for Nothing is spumous mullock only legible in spurts, which makes it somewhat difficult to follow Beckett’s intention or even attempt to decipher it. This is also largely due to the fact that the book flits from internal monologue to commentary on the external, from the narrator expounding about what constitutes living (“getting standing, staying standing, stirring about, holding out, getting to tomorrow”) to questions about the structure of civilisation (“all the peoples of the earth would not suffice, at the end of the billions you’d need a god, unwitnessed witness of witnesses, what a blessing it’s all down a drain”). It is also further muddled when Beckett sporadically asserts that in fact “nothing can be told,” and then proceeds to tell it. But the “it” remains indeterminable.

Somewhere mid-way through the book the obscurantist literary agitprop about the futility of language begins to grate. Not only that, the abstraction and anesthetised prose makes it an offering of laborious pelmanism. The only redeeming quality about Texts for Nothing is the occasional sound of Beckett’s voice manumitting itself from the confines of this postmodernist quagmire. Singular moments capture Beckett discoursing rhetorically, when he says, for example, “But I speak softer, every year a little softer. Perhaps. Slower too, every year a little slower.” Or when he notes plaintively that it’s a pity “hope is dead.” But these are few and far in between, or at least too few to justify the read. In fact, I would go so far as to say that even Beckett can’t justify it as at one point he says resignedly: “I’m the clerk, I’m the scribe, of what cause I know not.” During the middle period of his life when Texts for Nothing was written Beckett was struggling to maximise creativity due to, among other things, an increasing sense of self-censure and criticism, and a torturous desire to find an apt method of expression for his thought. He aimed to discover a form of art which would allow for reality of disorder, the “pettiness of heart and mind,” which in the end led him to lament the challenges of language.

Texts for Nothing pays homage to those challenges, emerging as a sort of preliminary attempt at deconstructed literature prompted by the “dread of coming to the last, of having said all, your all, before the end”. Today, it also reads like a literary posture built upon an outmoded postmodernist premise. Much like Beckett’s plays, Texts for Nothing is an experimental book, which does not comply with any given literary convention, dismantling generic pointers between fact and fiction, prose and poetry, dream and reality. But I fear it dismantles too much thereby turning language into an entity, a character, in itself which makes for an obtuse and wearisome piece of writing, devoid of irony and energy and the subtle nuances of effulgent and multiple resonances at the crux of much of Beckett’s earlier work. There is a point in Texts for Nothing, when the narrator says, “I shouldn’t have began,” repeating it throughout the book, and every time I came across it I couldn’t help but think: I definitely second that.

Jean Cocteau: An uncommitted aesthete and a writer of brilliance

Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles is a book about “the mysteries of childhood” and one which could not have been written by a more appropriate contender as the phrase, in the singular, has frequently been used to describe Cocteau himself. Born on 5th July 1889 in Maisons-Laffitte, Yvelines, a small village a few miles outside Paris, into a wealthy and politically influential family, Cocteau left home at the age of 15. His father, a lawyer and an amateur painter, shot himself in his bed when Cocteau was nine – a tragedy which is thought to have kindled Cocteau’s perfervid fascination with death. Speaking about it at the end of his own life, Cocteau said that his father had killed himself “for reasons that are no longer relevant” even though they continued to plague him.  At the age of 19, Cocteau published his first collection of poems, Aladdin’s Lamp. Three years later, another anthology, The Frivolous Prince, followed. Cocteau quickly became a mastodon of the corpuscular literary scene of 1920s Paris, mingling with the likes of Marcel Proust, Andre Gide, Maurice Barrès and Jean Hugo. He wrote more than 50 books in his lifetime, but Les Enfants Terribles remains at the pinnacle of his oeuvre. Penned in just 17 days, the book captures the “legend of eternal youth” and its inevitable tragedies which, as Cocteau says, “bare no relation to one’s preconceived ideas,” because “one is always bewildered by their simplicity”.

The story of Les Enfants Terribles – inspired by a real life tale of a “family closed from societal life” – revolves around a brother and sister who inhabit a world of their own, a fantasy world with its own rules, created to alleviate the monotonous languor of everyday realities. Elisabeth and Paul’s psychological pulsations, partly responsible, for their alienation from the world at large are established early.  A mother crippled by some paralytic illness, a woman who “only four months ago had been young and vigorous” but now at the mere age of 35 “longed for death,” a woman who “had been bewitched, spoiled and finally deserted by her husband.” Cocteau illustrates the situation further: “For three years he [the father] had gone on treating his family to occasional brief visits, during the course of which – having meanwhile developed cirrhosis of the liver – he would brandish revolvers, threaten suicide, and order them to nurse the master of the house; for the mistress with whom he lived refused this office and kicked him out whenever his attacks occurred. His custom was to go back to her as soon as he felt better. He turned up one day at home, raged, stamped, took to his bed, found himself unable to get up again, and died; thereby bestowing his end upon the wife he had repudiated. An impulse of rebellion now turned this woman into a mother who neglected her children, took to night clubs, got herself up like a tart, sacked her maid once a week, begged, borrowed indiscriminately,” and finally died.

Right from the outset Les Enfants Terribles emanates an “atmosphere of perpetually impending storm” when Paul gets struck by a “marble-fisted blow” of a snowball, hurled in play by Dargelos, the subject of Paul’s infatuation,  which leaves him incapacitated and revelling in the “sweet delights of sickness and perpetual holiday” under his sister’s care. Elisabeth, the “ministering angel” hastily reveals herself to be an enclave of jealousy, malevolence and lust looming over the household like a “Byzantine Empress”.  One very quickly realises that the relationship between the siblings is not as straightforward or orthodox as social mores prescribe, and tentatively reels on the verge of incest, their incongruous love never consummated but paramount. Elisabeth is a domineering soubrette, a hurricane to Paul’s harmony, manipulating and conniving in her efforts to keep him all to herself and to comminute anyone who gets in her way. Paul’s quixotic nature paints him as a biddable naïf determinedly under his sister’s spell. The two together, live in “The Room” perpetually playing “The Game” according to unwritten, recherché rules known only to them. The siblings, the “twin seraphs”, curiously united by a familial intimacy verging on romantic love, do not know the meaning of “embarrassment in the presence of each other” and their shared space is “a masterpiece of their own being” in which they live, dress, wash together as if “twin halves of a single body.”  Left largely to their own devices, after the death of their mother whom they had treated “with scant consideration, but nevertheless they loved” Elisabeth and Paul entice outside spectators into “The Game”. Gerard and Agathe get whirl-winded into the snare and the love-hate sibling relationship kept under a strict “seal of secrecy”. “The Room”, their room, becomes like a “gypsy camp” and the brother and sister who once “adored” and “devoured each other” begin to drift apart, except Elisabeth refuses to let go until the two of them can meet elsewhere “where flesh dissolves, where soul dissolves, where incest lurks no more.”

Cocteau’s ability to capture the reader’s attention and direct it to the idiosyncrasies and psychological antecedents behind the events in Les Enfants Terribles underlines the book’s intrigue and the writer’s brilliance. But, in his early years, as the epitome of moderne amid 1920s bohemian circles, Cocteau experienced an unexpected but rapid  fall from grace and was dismissed as a social chameleon, a crude dilettante and an uncommitted aesthete. He was deemed frivolous for diversifying into poesy, painting and cinema .  Andre Breton regarded him with particular animosity and along with his Surrealist companions attempted to sabotage Cocteau’s artistic endeavours. Cocteau himself did some collateral damage too by spreading himself too thinly. It wasn’t merely his poor health, aggravated by decades of opium abuse and subsequent detoxification, it was also the fact that he continuously put himself on the line, at once consumed by the world and consuming others to gain greater acclaim and clout as an artist. Thus,  he lived in an eternal state of identity crisis and by his own admission continued to experience anguish and turmoil, from as early as his father’s suicide up to the tragic and premature deaths of his closest male paramours.

Cocteau’s literary undertakings were inexorably influence by his mercurial disposition and unremitting fatalism. They also exhibited his profound leanings toward death, morbidity and violence, engendering many paternal phantoms and references to suicide. This is particularly true of Les Enfants Terribles which also reflects his idealism and captivation with the cult of youth, his need of fantasy at once unnerving and enthralling like the escapist machinations of Paul and Elisabeth. The element of melodrama in Les Enfants Terribles is handled with considerable acuity, and the alluring horror which pervades the ingenuous self-destruction of the siblings is led gloriously to a ripe climax. The book entails copious cross references form William Shakespeare to Lord Byron to Sigmund Freud, all of which coalesce masterfully to make a very poignant point, namely that love is wayward, cruel, uncompromising and in the extreme: fatal.

Seminal Lines

 

“My policy has always been to burn my bridges behind me. My face is always set toward the future. If I make a mistake, it is fatal. When I am flung back I fall all the way back – to the very bottom. My one safeguard is my resiliency.”

Sexus – Henry Miller

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