Categories
Book Reviews German Matters Literature Uncategorized

Review of Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Gardens”

Rose Zimmer, a feisty American communist radical, takes on many good and great causes. These include everything from feminism and racism to the changing course of Stalinism in the American C.P. but most of all; her biggest causes are the people around her. The effects upon them are diverse and devastating. She often propels them to success but at the same time they feel battered and must escape in order according to their own needs. Her affections are real but invasive. Rose keeps a shrine to Abraham Lincoln. Rose’s self-assertion within the perimeters of the German-designed 20th Century New York suburb of Queens, a multi-cultural suburb and a planned housing development similar to Hampstead Garden City provide the setting for Jonathan Lethem’s Tour de Force.JL

Reading Dissident Gardens is rather like taking a plane to New York and perhaps linked into a time-machine to peruse 80 years of political tensions that stress three generations. Lethem, who trained as an artist, is quite superb at visually rendering the city brown brick tenements, elevated railways, grand bridges and squares and together with their uses. Some of the latter, for instance, under the influence of socially concerned denizens like Rose, have been commandeered into communal gardens. Additionally, you even get a taste of the food from iced bear-claws, milkshakes and salt-beef sandwiches. His ear is at least as strong as his eye and the salty, saucy language carries the vigorous impact of Italian, Irish, Hispanic and Yiddish all gemischt. The reader will benefit from access to a good dictionary of urban slang to navigate this environment as much as his or her GPS so as not to lose your way in this city jungle.

As with a city break, the most interesting aspect of any visit is meeting the locals. Here Lethem provides panoply of fabulous characters. His technique is such that you he reveals not just the stream of consciousness but also the fractured and sometimes damaged nature of their sudden preoccupations. There is Cicero Lookins, the brilliant, angry, black, gay and overweight college lecturer. He has the dubious privilege of becoming Ross’s protégé and carries the burden of growing up the son of a nurse who is suffering from chronic lupus and a conventional heroic policeman from the NYPD who has become Rose’s lover. Cicero is a volatile mixture of intelligence, cynicism and compulsive sexuality. His lecturing style challenges the young and indolent yawning student audience that attend his social philosophy lectures. He is reading Robert Musil’s grand scarcely completed novel, The Man Without Qualities. He has become imprisoned by his own psychological defences and just how this developed is lucidly, believably and eloquently explained with a certain ironic sympathy.JL1

Each chapter can almost be taken as a story within itself. This is a satisfying approach as there is little in the way of a page-turning narrative to speed the story forward. Indeed, this is a novel that casts light upon what has happened in previous chapters as well as links with other persons. It jumps around and resonates in time. This backward linking is intriguing in itself and gradually makes the relationships between the characters memorable. Dissident Gardens is not always easy to read but the detail, texture and breadth of the writing weaves a brisk believable magic as the story progresses. Idealism is often exposed in its naivety in this novel. The characters, as in real life, are often deeply wounded by losses but remain authentic in their striving.

This is a novel which spreads itself over the globe whilst embracing wide belief systems. Nicaraguan armed resistance, passive resistance, the Occupy movement, East German authoritarian Marxism are but a few of the topics encompassed. However, this is not in the usual sense a novel of ideas. It is critical of grand narratives in a manner that the renowned American pragmatic philosopher, Richard Rorty might have approved. It is the individual enclosed within the fascinating psycho-geography of New York that keeps the reader interested. For instance, there is Rose’s daughter who cannot possibly meet her mother’s expectations. Miriam Zimmer survives her mother’s physical attack and seeks an alternative belief within Hippie Greenwich Village of the 1960s. She is pursued by her hustler cousin Lenny whose interests also include chess and numismatics. She falls for an Irish protest singer who is attracted by prospects of living in a commune and attending meetings with the Society of Friends. However, in certain ways Miriam cannot easily escape her mother or her authoritarian distant father.

Reading about Lethem’s writing methods- said to be on an exercise machine using a voice operated word processor- accounts for the energy of the writing. The style is sometimes abrasive but also beguiling. This novel can be described as both tragic and comic. Tragic in the sense that the characters often seem isolated and comic because the reader will recognise some of his own impulses and be encouraged to laugh at them. I am left reminded by the words of a song from the musical Hair: – “Do you only care about the bleeding crowd? How about a needing friend? I need a friend” If there is a message from this novel, it is about our need for human closeness and how the grand systems we erect prevent us getting in touch with each other.

 

Categories
Book Reviews Classics German Matters Literature

Writing in Exile-the Land of Lost Content

The lines from A.E.Housman are well known:-

Into my heart an air that kills
 From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
 What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
 I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
 And cannot come again.

The condition of being in Exile, is one common element in the human condition. It is certainly an important factor in Irish culture as is well pointed out in this excerpt from The Guardian on Beckett and Joyce – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/feb/28/ireland-exile-culture

Here Sean O’Hagan mentions,”This sense of spiritual as well as cultural displacement was evoked, too, by the poet Patrick Kavanagh, who walked the streets around Ealing Broadway in 1953 willing himself to remember his native Monaghan “until a world comes to life – morning, the silent bog”. In the second half of that same decade, an estimated half a million people left Ireland to begin their lives all over again, abroad.” There is spiritual exile, linguistic exile and the sense of personal exile when someone close dies or moves away, in an emotional or geographical sense.

George Klaar (1920-2009)
George Klaar (1920-2009)

TLW I have just been reading a deeply moving account of lost Austrian-Jewish culture in George Klaar’s Last Waltz in Vienna and was sorry to hear of his passing.http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/george-clare-memoirist-who-recalled-life-in-nazi-vienna-and-postwar-berlin-1726060.html .This threnody mentions his experiences not only in Vienna but also in Berlin, from where Klaar attempted his escape from the Nazis, initially to Ireland. A different approach and general introduction to exilliteratur (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exilliteratur) is to be found in Martin Maunthner’s book on German Writers in French Exile 1933-1940. Mauthner was born in Leningrad of  Austrian parents. He worked in journalism and with the

Katharina Mann in Munich in 1905-she later converted to Lutheranism
Katharina Mann in Munich in 1905-she later converted to Lutheranism

European Commission in Brussels as a senior information officer. He also worked with Randolph Churchill on the biography of the latter’s father. In fact the book centres around a small port near Toulon. It makes much mention too of Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham,H.G.Wells, Muggeridge and Mosley. The French writers, Malraux and Gide are included in this account of the émigré community which provides an introduction to the intellectual drama and the tragic zeitgeist of this seven year period. The major figures are naturally Thomas, whose wife Katia came from a wealthy Jewish family of mathematicians, and his francophile brother Heinrich Mann, as well as Thomas’s son Klaus who engaged in a bitter battle of words at one stage with the Berlin based, Gottfried Benn- before the latter was to realise the full implication of Goebbel’s authoritarian drive from 1933 to achieve the synchronisation of the arts (Gleichschaltung) from his Ministry of Propaganda as Weimar collapse. Directed against Bolshevism it engendered militarism and focussed on anti-semitism taking in gypsies and homosexuals on the way and ending in the horrors of the Holocaust. This was all under the title of popular enlightenment. The account by Mauthner lacks the stylistic verve of George Klaar’s biographical account which affords an insight into the historical development of fascism upon Jewish life in Vienna.

Many Jews who were physically harassed and otherwise threatened by the Nazis and travelled to many locations and were exiled to Amsterdam, Stockholm, Zürich, London, Prague, Moscow as well as across the Atlantic to both North and South America. Martin Mauthner’s book seems to have three great strengths. It shows the wide variety of responses of individual refugees and their attempts to organise opposition to Hitler and the hampering difficulties other countries governments and other organisations presented. There is considerable detail about individuals like Feuchtwanger and Schwarzschild, famous at the time and now unfortunately neglected as well as journalists, publishers, cartoonists and illustrators. This book confines itself to writers, poets and playwrights but is particularly intriguing on the splits with the communists and within the United Front. The cruel trials under the auspices of Stalin proving a profound sticking point; also the different approaches in the Spanish Civil War.

Leopold Schwarzschild Editor of Das Neue Tagebuch
Leopold Schwarzschild
Editor of Das Neue Tagebuch

Just this morning I recieved an interesting posting concerning classical antiquity from http://poemsintranslation.blogspot.co.uk/ with a version of Ovid’s Tristia and the mortifying effects of having to leave his wife behind in charge of his posessions.

Illa dolōre āmēns tenebrīs nārrātur obortīs
   sēmjanimis mediā prōcubuisse domō,
utque resurrēxit foedātis pulvere turpī
  crīnibus et gelidā membra levāvit humō,
sē modo, dēsertōs modo complōrāsse Penātēs,
  nōmen et ēreptī saepe vocāsse virī,
nec gemuisse minus, quam sī nātaeve meumve
 vīdisset strūctōs corpus habēre, rogōs,
et voluisse morī, moriendō pōnere sēnsus,
   respectūque tamen nōn periisse meī.
Vīvat, et absentem, quoniam sīc fāta tulērunt,
    vīvat et auxiliō sublevet usque suō.

Translated by A.Z.Foreman as:-

I’m told she fainted from grief, mind plunged in dark,   
   And fell half-dead right there in our house.
When she came round, with disheveled dust-fouled hair,   
   Staggering up from the cold hard ground,
She wept for herself, for a house abandoned, screaming   
   Her stolen man’s name time after time,
Wailing as though she’d witnessed our daughter’s body   
   Or mine, upon the high-stacked pyre;
And longed for death, to kill the horror and hardship,   
   Yet out of regard for me she lived.
Long may she live! And in life give aid to her absent   
   Love, whose exile the Fates have willed. Tristia

Categories
Book Reviews

Gravity: Cracking the Cosmic Code by Nicholas Mee

81qMlEpf3NLDr Mee’s quest begins with raw data used by Thales of Miletus to make an accurate prediction of a solar eclipse as early as 585 B.C. recorded in an the account of a battle by Herodotus. Thales analysed the highly accurate data provided by the skilled observations of the Babylonians. Early theories of the heavens are explored in detail with puzzles provided to encourage the reader, for example, to grasp the importance of Galileo’s experiments, Kepler’s revolutionary theories and the towering work of Newton. Midway through this engaging account Dante and the State of Denmark have all been touched upon. This book is a determined attempt to counter the ignorance of the public about basic science, famously propounded by C.P.Snow, and to introduce them to the latest theories about black holes, string theory and to covey the beautiful links between gravity and the theory of small particles, like leptons, with the grand structure of galaxies.

It is Nicholas Mee’s ability to combine incidental personal detail with grand underlying theories of gravitation that makes his study entertaining. Had you heard about Samuel Foster? He was Gresham Professor of Astronomy and fellow of Emmanuel College in 1632 and the author of treatises on quadrants and sundials. More importantly, he encouraged the observational skills of Jerimiah Horrocks who first attended the College, coming from a Toxteth family of watchmakers. Mee shows us how one generation can inspire another.

Gravity

The young Horrocks, generally little recognised, goes on to use Kepler’s tables whose accuracy he recognises to emphasise the importance of the Sun’s gravity. He explains the effects of the gravitational pull between Jupiter and Saturn. His theoretical ability enables him to explain the “irregularities” in the Moon’s orbit known as precession. Along with Crabtree he made observations of Venus in transit across the Sun. Mee consistently shows the importance of seemingly small disparities in data. Importantly, he indicates just how scientific knowledge is the product of a particular community and reiterates the importance of high quality scientific education.

The First World War was a very tough time for intellectuals posted into combat. Harold MacMillan consoled himself bravely with Greek Prose. Wittgenstein fighting the allies in the Austro-Hungarian Army and also under extreme conditions made philosophical notes and Schrodinger, an officer in the same Army, the future discoverer of quantum wave mechanics was using his physics to predict the path of projectiles for the Austrian fortress artillery. Schwarzschild who was forty years old and a professor at the prestigious at the ancient University of Gottingen was scrambling through trenches on their Eastern Front, also as an artillery officer, not only under attack by the Russians but also beset with a crippling auto-immune skin disease. However, such were his formidable mathematical skills, that he was able to use Einstein’s recently published formulation of General Relativity (1915), and whilst under extreme stress to use symmetry in a novel way. Using this elegant technique he produced a solution to describe the curvature of space-time in a spherical structure such as a star. Such an approach astounded Einstein and continues to inform theoretical astronomy today. “Gravity”, which is subtitled, “Cracking the Cosmic Code” abounds with anecdotes, such as these, to enliven the basic Physics. He mentions the human tragedy too; a few months later in 1916 Schwarzschild died without his ground-breaking work gaining significant recognition.

It is interesting that in an historical account intended for the common reader, there comes a point where theories and more particularly equations have to be stated rather than proved in full detail. There is something of a quantum leap from A-level to post-doctorate topics. In general, Mee handles this very well by maintaining interest with engaging stories and simple examples. There are essentially two chapters on Einstein’s theories and sadly, rather too small diagrams which do not facilitate the leap in comprehension. In short, you may be able to find two complete books which will cover this particular ground in detail. In other respects Mee does a sound job. He provides internet and other references in valuable end-notes. The book is lavishly illustrated with 14 coloured plates, but more thought might have been given here over the balance of choice. Personally, I could do without the mystical geometrics (the products of his software company?) which sit somewhat uncomfortably with a mural of Dante and medieval instruments. I was not thoroughly aware of Minkowski’s geometrical contribution to Einstein’s theories and this alone makes up for other minor weaknesses.

In the final chapters examining theories of space-time surfaces and the earliest expansion of the Universe, Mee touches on the essential grandeur of recent discoveries. Deep connections underlie the combination of colliding black holes with fundamental concepts like entropy and time’s arrow. The fascinating variety of supernovae is adumbrated. This book is certainly a challenging read but will repay the reader’s efforts to grasp the majesty of the mathematics of gravity; the force that holds our worlds together.

Visit Mees’s Website at www.nicholasmee.com.

Mee's previous book on the Higgs Force
Mee’s previous book on the Higgs Force
Categories
Book Reviews Literature Poetry

Naming The Tree-Simon Richey-A Review by Roland Gurney

simon-richey-150x150

Before

Somewhere
the meaning of a word,

before it becomes a word,
waits in the silence. It is as if

it has come as far as it can go
without being uttered. In a moment

it will change from one thing
into another, or its meaning

will tremble into a word,
into something barely familiar,

finding itself spoken,
finding itself understood.

Simon Richey

naming-the-tree

Here is a review of Richley’s collection by my friend and poet Roland Gurney:-

Naming The Tree-Simon Richey-Overstep Books-48pp paperback £8

 

This first collection from a London-based writer(published in reputable magazines such as Magma,Acumen  & Poetry Review) has mostly rural or

existential themes and curiously little sense of city life. Prose poem sequences

such as the title piece, a thirteen section on Fire and a ten section meditation on the nocturnal activities of the author’s cats  loom large. This is ‘free verse’, devoid of much imagery, music, structure or rhythm- example ‘And because there was no word anymore, no sound in which/its meaning could be carried/the meaning had nowhere to go,’ rather thoughts on themes such as The Word(opening) and the Book(closing). This is poetic minimalism, much in vogue and going back to stateside influences such as WC Williams(the 6 liner The Red Wheelbarrow), Wallace Stevens  and the Beats via TS Eliot’s The Wasteland and a host of contemporary imitators.

 

As such it will hopefully give pleasure to some but cannot be rated good value for money as some pages only have 6-9 lines on them. For not much more one can buy a 500 page Bloodaxe anthology of exceptional quality and offering a whole range of poetic experiences!

 

Roland Gurney.

The reviewer is an award-winning and much-published poet based at

Mulfra, Newmill just outside Penzance.

Oversteps Books are to be found at http://www.overstepsbooks.com/events/2653/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Book Reviews German Matters

Angela Merkel-The Official Biography by Stefan Kornelius

Merkel in the DDR
Merkel in the DDR

You have to admire the lady. This rather awkward and shy daughter of a staunch Lutheran pastor who himself had been born as a Polish Catholic. His daughter, Angela Merkel, studied with such intelligence and application that soon brought her academic success particularly in Russian and finally in Quantum Chemistry. At the age of 26, she obtained her doctorate and in passing, it rather seems her first husband, the physicist Ulrike Merkel. Her rise to power was rapid and took place through the period in which the DDR collapsed as Russian policy under Gorbachev changed. Along with a wry and dry sense of humour Angela Merkel’s personality is the embodiment of the characteristic known in German as “fleissig”. This means hardworking, sedulous, diligent and assiduous.

Notably, the international journalist, Stefan Kornelius from the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, describes how by 1998  her party, the CDU suffered defeat, she had reached the point where she was relishing the nitty-gritty of political strife and delivering sharp exchanges with her political opponent from the SPD, the extrovert German Chancellor, Gerhard Fritz Kurt Schröder. These sharpened acutely when, Merkel became her party’s General Secretary. She now began to invest her formidable skills into the arena of Foreign Policy and especially in European politics.

By 2004, the EU Commission was reformed after the elections, which yielded a majority for the conservative faction, and the question of who would be President, crucial. The European Socialists including Schröder were effectively sidelined and Merkel disliked the strong advocacy by Chirac of the Belgian, Verhofstadt. She manoeuvred with the British conservative, Michael Howard to put forward Chris Patten, to whom the then British PM, Tony Blair had to give support. In the end a compromise emerged which delivered a severe blow to Schröder and gave Merkel most of what she wanted. Compromise for Merkel is a strength she possesses and that Margaret Thatcher so obviously lacked. In the current selection of Jean-Claude Juncker presently in 2014, Merkel has had to compromise under attack from the German press. However, she has left the situation having once again achieved the best attainable solution from her viewpoint, seeking to reassure the isolated David Cameron.

Stefan Kornelius
Stefan Kornelius

It must be remembered, however, that this is an authorised biography which is written by a political ally from East Berlin, when both were involved in the Democratic Awakening movement in the DDR. Despite this, for a book which might have been just dry European politics, it contains both useful insights and a lively light touch. It clearly shows the degree of repression in the DDR where even a school play was harshly censored by Stasi agents, travel abroad for a woman was  possible only when she reached sixty and remaining “stumm” in a cabin fever society was necessary for survival. As Kornelius points out, retaining a deeper sense of strategy and also of irony would serve Merkel well as she rose to the highest echelon of power.

In this fluent translation, topics examined include the compromises of handling the coalitions that are thrown up by Germany’s federal system and the relation between the Chancellor’s role and Foreign policy objectives. These also cover the direction of American strategy, led by a leader whom Merkel finds inscrutable. Both she and her partner, the eminent quantum chemist, Joachim Sauer, on a personal level love the Pacific coast; such affection contrasts on the politically with, for instance, what she sees as Osama’s dysfunctional domestic policy. Another area of concern lies in her dealings with Israel. She has espoused a policy of “never again” towards the Nazi past attempting to tackle concerns over racism and in Israel attacking speaking against anti-Semitism. Merkel probably has as good a historical understanding of the complexity of issues in this area as any world leader. Trust between extremists is clearly very difficult to establish. Germany tacitly supported the Palestinian access to the United Nations with observer, non-member status. Other chapters relate the developing relations with China, Russia and Chancellor Merkel’s continuing concern with ensuring peace within Europe. Since Kornelius’s book was written last year, the emergencies in Ukraine have strained these concerns to the utmost limit.AM5

Kornelius’s account touches upon hagiography. Certainly it has patches of humour as in the account of Merkel’s famous trouser suited pose about which she has publicly joked with Hilary Clinton. It is also interesting to hear of the appeal that Wagner has for Merkel and the importance signified in “Der Ring des Nibelungen” of getting the first step just right. Unquestionably, the concept of freedom plays a dominant role in her thinking and associated with it, those of responsibility and tolerance. No wonder then that she must be concerned as Germany’s chief prosecutor currently investigates suspected U.S. monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellular phone, an intrusion which has dominated headlines in Berlin for months and stretched trans-Atlantic ties.

Interview in German at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMvhcUAl7SE

and from The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/profile/stefan-kornelius

 

Categories
Book Reviews German Matters Literature

Mascha Kaléko -“Vor Heimweh nach den Temps perdus …”

Mascha Kaléko (1907 – 1975) wurde als Tochter jüdischer Eltern in Galizien geboren und wuchs in Berlin auf. Sie wurde als Dichterin bekannt und verkehrte im berühmten »Romanischen Café«. Doch 1935 erhielt Mascha Kaléko Publikationsverbot und musste mit Mann und Sohn nach New York emigrieren. Nach dem Krieg fand sie mit ihren so spielerisch eleganten wie spöttisch scharfsinnigen Texten wieder ein großes Publikum.

MK2

Mein schönstes Gedicht

Mascha Kaléko

Mein schönstes Gedicht ?
Ich schrieb es nicht.
Aus tiefsten Tiefen stieg es.
Ich schwieg es.

Das Ende vom Lied

Ich säh dich gern noch einmal, wie vor Jahren
Zum erstenmal. – Jetzt kann ich es nicht mehr.
Ich säh dich gern noch einmal wie vorher,
Als wir uns herrlich fremd und sonst nichts waren.

Ich hört dich gern noch einmal wieder fragen,
Wie jung ich sei … was ich des Abends tu –
Und später dann im kaumgebornen «Du»
Mir jene tausend Worte Liebe sagen.

Ich würde mich so gerne wieder sehnen,
Dich lange ansehn stumm und so verliebt –
Und wieder weinen, wenn du mich betrübt,
Die vielzuoft geweinten dummen Tränen.

– Das alles ist vorbei … Es ist zum Lachen!
Bist du ein andrer oder liegts an mir?
Vielleicht kann keiner von uns zwein dafür.
Man glaubt oft nicht, was ein paar Jahre machen.

Ich möchte wieder deine Briefe lesen,
Die Worte, die man liebend nur versteht.
Jedoch mir scheint, heut ist es schon zu spät.
Wie unbarmherzig ist das Wort: «Gewesen!»

 “Diese eigentümliche Mischung aus Melancholie und Witz, steter Aktualität und politischer Schärfe ist es, die Mascha Kalékos Lyrik so unwiderstehlich und zeitlos macht.”

Wiedersehen mit Berlin

mascha-kaleko

Seit man von tausend Jahren mich verbannt.Ich seh die Stadt auf eine neue Weise,So mit dem Fremdenführer in der Hand.Der Himmel blaut. Die Föhren lauschen leise.In Steglitz sprach mich gestern eine MeiseIm Schloßpark an. Die hatte mich erkannt. 

Und wieder wecken mich Berliner Spatzen!

Ich liebe diesen märkisch-kessen Ton.

Hör ich sie morgens an mein Fenster kratzen,

Am Ku-Damm in der Gartenhauspension,

Komm ich beglückt, nach alter Tradition,

Ganz so wie damals mit besagten Spatzen

Mein Tagespensum durchzuschwatzen.

 

Es ostert schon. Grün treibt die Zimmerlinde.

Wies heut im Grunewald nach Frühjahr roch!

Ein erster Specht beklopft die Birkenrinde.

Nun pfeift der Ostwind aus dem letzten Loch.

Und alles fragt, wie ich Berlin denn finde?

— Wie ich es finde? Ach, ich such es noch!

 

Ich such es heftig unter den Ruinen

Der Menschheit und der Stuckarchitektur.

Berlinert einer: »Ick bejrüße Ihnen!«,

Glaub ich mich fast dem Damals auf der Spur.

Doch diese neue Härte in den Mienen …

Berlin, wo bliebst du? Ja, wo bliebst du nur?

 

Auf meinem Herzen geh ich durch die Straßen,

Wo oft nichts steht als nur ein Straßenschild.

In mir, dem Fremdling, lebt das alte Bild

Der Stadt, die so viel Tausende vergaßen.

Ich wandle wie durch einen Traum

Durch dieser Landschaft Zeit und Raum.

Und mir wird so ich-weiß-nicht-wie

Vor Heimweh nach den Temps perdus …

 

Berlin im Frühling. Und Berlin im Schnee.

Mein erster Versband in den Bücherläden.

Die Freunde vom Romanischen Café.

Wie vieles seh ich, das ich nicht mehr seh!

Wie laut »Pompejis« Steine zu mir reden!

 

Wir schluckten beide unsre Medizin,

Pompeji ohne Pomp. Bonjour, Berlin!

 Drei gute Webseiten sind:-

 http://www.kaleko.ch/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=1

http://www.deutschelyrik.de/index.php/kaleko.html

http://www.dtv.de/autoren/mascha_kaleko_181.html

mascha_kaleko-9783423346719

Categories
Art and Photographic History Book Reviews Literature

Reading a novel about Hogarth

As an introduction to this topic take a quick look at this clip from the excellent film producer, Ken Loach-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odZrzqgOruE made for the Tate.

The novel in paperback-I,Hogarth
The novel in paperback-I,Hogarth

How similar in many ways was Hogarth’s London in the middle of the Eighteenth Century to the London of today. A city where it was easy enough to end up in debtor’s prison, as indeed did Hogarth’s beloved and unworldly father, having been condemned to the Fleet; a sad fate for a brilliant Latin scholar and writer of erudite texts. He opened a Latin speaking coffee house in St John’s Gate. Here the governor and authorities were open to high levels of corruption, as later in Dickens time and very reminiscent of the scandals of G4S today, from which Bill Gates has just withdrawn his investments. In other respects, the London which Michael Dean so vividly depicts with its gin shops and stews and general squalor appears more genial and creative than the contemporary city. A backdrop is painted where a young chancer such as William Hogarth Esq. can develop his prodigious artistic talents. Beyond the joy of the paintbrush, to say nothing of the etching tool, he ravishes with gusto the charms of both serving wenches and the daughters of his aristocratic patrons. Dean, who is incidentally versed in Chomsky’s linguistics, has furnished his readers with a beguiling study of this genius of visual satire.

Hog2 Shrimp Girl

There are also rich comparisons to be made between current financial calamities and the South Sea Bubble, the first major crash of the early stock market in 1720 and from which the first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole was deft at concealing his personal involvement. This was the very first subject for Hogarth’s satirical print where he depicts speculators of every religious persuasion gambling on the huge machine which stands for the merry-go-round of unlicensed gambling.

Dean illustrates vividly the crowded and fetid cobbled streets of the old city and his protagonist’s sharp eye for both hypocrisy and the opportunities for Hogarth’s enterprising talent. The account dwells considerably upon the dreadful prisons, already mentioned but also gives us an insight for instance, into the techniques which Bill Hogarth used to portray the dreadful plight of the murderess, Sarah Malcolm two days before her one- way cart ride to Tyburn. Dean shows us Hogarth’s determination to reveal the human qualities of his subject and the skill and concentration when posing her for this portrait. The chameleon nature and psychological adaptability of the great artist is outlined in the constant reappraisals that Hogarth made of his work and even how he recorded his own name.

Samuel Johnson showed his own admirable restraint by his famous remark the actor-manager David Garrick,” I’ll come no more behind your scenes, David for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities.” Hogarth, however, shows little self control in his own sometimes comical and bawdy investigations, some of which were indeed conducted at the dark and chilly recesses in the Royal Theatre. In relation to other members of the female sex, whose general treatment at the time was abysmal, there is a touching bittersweet quality. Infection was to lead to this particular rake’s downfall.

Hog1

Michael Dean focuses, in a mildly erotic account, upon the exchange of a hooped dress between his own intended, Jane Fenton, and the actress, Lavinia Fenton. The latter lady becoming the subject of further paintings he made of her and of her on-stage appearances. In an innovative and almost Brechtian manner Hogarth considered the inclusion of the audience; an opportunity too to provoke and admonish!

Essentially I,Hogarth is a non-fictional novel, sometimes referred to as a bio-fic; a form which has certain ambiguities and is exemplified by another well-known Eighteenth Century novel about Samuel Johnson, According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge where the story of the great man is told through an ancillary close observer. Dean’s book is written in the first person and this adds extra challenges. The style in which it is written, at first noticeable becomes gradually more engaging. There is little in the way of a conventional plot, however the narrative pace is sustained by the energy with which Hogarth pursues his goals, like his wooing of Jane Thornhill in opposition to her father, his patron. Those who wish to progress to a factual biography couldn’t do better than to read William Hogarth: A Life and a World by Jenny Uglow to whom the author refers in a note.

The pleasure in reading this account lies in its vivid, picturesque and satirical world view as seen through Hogarth’s sharp and observant eyes. The reader is introduced to an amusing variety of characters and educated about Eighteenth Century life. Many scenes from the book are posed as in an engraving. It will send people back to really look again at Hogarth’s achievement and support Michael Dean’s

Hogarth's Bust in Leicester Square
Hogarth’s bust in Leicester Square

heartfelt request for a better memorial to this inspired rebel.

 

 

Categories
Book Reviews Literature Penwith St Ives West Cornwall (and local history)

Außerhalb Lilly Schönauer und Rosamunde Pilcher (1) Virginia Woolf

Außerhalb Lilly Schönauer und Rosamunde Pilcher (1) Virginia Woolf

The Cornish Review Edited by Denys Val Baker
The Cornish Review Edited by Denys Val Baker

 

West Cornwall has many literary connections and famous writers have been attracted to its scenery and its people. In an idle moment I was thinking about how useful it might be to give an account of some of the significant figures that are associated with the Penwith peninsula. In her magical notes, “Moments of Being” Virginia Woolf writes of the evocative inspiration which waking in Talland House gave to her. Not only was it a source of inspiration for her great modernist novel,“To the Lighthouse” but to remember that once Henry James took tea on the lawn recalls once again the long Edwardian summer and the echoes of the conversations between him and Virginia’s father, the formidable Leslie Stephen. Links include http://www.woolfonline.com/timepasses/?q=node/271

and

http://fernham.blogspot.co.uk/2009/07/virginia-woolf-on-henry-james.html

Books about Virginia and her sister in St Ives include “Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Remembering St Ives” by Marion Whybrow (currently unavailable on Amazon) and the novel “Virginia and Vanessa” said to be;”…a chronicle of love and revenge, madness, genius, and the compulsion to create beauty in the face of relentless difficulty and deep grief”. In addition there is Dell, Marion. Peering Through the Escallonia: Virginia Woolf, Talland House and St. Ives. No. 23. 1999. ISBN 1-897967-47-0. Price £7.00VW

There are more websites to peruse and pursue, should you have the time. Namely, http://www.glennhorowitz.com/featured/virginia_woolf_goes_to_the_beach

And

https://bloggingwoolf.wordpress.com/books/

It is interesting, though unsurprising, how Woolf keeps turning up as a factional character in novels. My personal favourite as I have mentioned on here before is “House of Exile” by Evelyn Juers –mostly about Thomas Mann-which contains an interesting and memorable incident where Virginia and Leonard visit a restaurant in the Funkturm in Berlin and loses her elegant scarf which is recovered by another leading character.” Some moments of exhilarating coincidence in these pages are reminiscent of Stoppard’s Travesties.” According to the reviewer, Robert McCrum at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/may/22/house-of-exile-juers-review. Although not associated with St Ives, Virginia Woolf turns fictional in the film “The Hours” based on the novel by Michael Cunningham, which came out in 2002 directed by Stephen Daldry (who also filmed The Reader). Her bent-nosed appearance, which some critics found rather hilarious, won Nicole Kidman the best actress award that year. Recently I came across Alison Macleod at this year’s Jewish Book Week, where she was talking about her haunting and remarkable novel, “Unexploded”. She is Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester and a lively and engaging speaker who talked about her research into the background of the novel which is set in Brighton, where she herself lives, during the hazardous summer of 1940. The novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and deals with, among other sensitive issues, anti-Semitism in wartime Britain. Virginia Woolf lectured in Brighton during this period and she and her novels turn up as one leitmotiv in this persuasively constructed story. Many of the issues are based on a thoroughgoing examination of the archives. http:/www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10244729/Unexploded-by-Alison-MacLeod-review.htmlVW3

VW1

Returning along the coast in a westerly direction to West Penwith, a glance at A Literary Atlas and Gazeteer reveals that many fascinating littérateurs lived or visited from Truro and to the west.  Here are a list of just ten whose connections may not be very well known. At Zennor at Higher Tregarthen from 1916-1917, D.H.Lawrence, J.Middleton Murray and Katherine Mansfield. In Truro, Samuel Foote (1720-1777 became celebrated as much for his acting as his didactic diatribes)-his story has just been magnificently told by Ian Kelly see- http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/05/mr-footes-other-leg-review. Sir William Golding lived nearby at Perranaworthal from 1985 until his death in 1993-where he became a great friend of the controversial novelist and translator of Russian Poetry, D.M.Thomas. He has recently published a poetry collection, Light and Smoke.http://www.dmthomasonline.net/

Samuel Foote
Samuel Foote

In St Ives, Mrs Havelock Ellis wrote Cornish Idyll in 1898. Much later, after the War in 1945 Norman Levine found the town conducive to his stories, poetry and travel writing. At Madron, the inspirational poet’s poet, penned his charmed verses:-http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poems/listen-put-morning

Listen. Put on morning.
Waken into falling light.
A man's imagining
Suddenly may inherit
The handclapping centuries
Of his one minute on earth.
And hear the virgin juries
Talk with his own breath
To the corner boys of his street.
And hear the Black Maria
Searching the town at night.

]Daphne Du Maurier arrived here in Penwith before her time at Menabilly -for more details see http://www.intocornwall.com/features/literature.asp

 

 

 

Categories
Book Reviews Literature

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee

PFA major and intelligent novelist like Penelope Fitzgerald has happily become the subject of a sensitive and engaging biographer, Hermione Lee. The result is enthralling; a work which is entertaining, informative and profound. In an earlier essay, A Quiet Ghost, Lee mentions interviewing Fitzgerald on the radio in 1997. Two impressions struck the interviewer. First, how her novels always seemed to leave something unsaid. They contained some mysterious, perhaps even transcendental quality to stimulate the reader’s imagination. On the other hand, Fitzgerald thought that the writer ought not to be impartial and indeed should be clear about her own moral position. This viewpoint drew her to write both eloquently and sympathetically, of those who are born to be defeated, the weakness of the strong and the tragedy of…..missed opportunities.

Penelope Fitzgerald came from an earnest and renowned academic family, the Knoxes, which included several prominent clerics; her grandfather was the Bishop of Manchester. A considerable biographer herself, she wrote a book on the Knox brothers, these included two Oxford pastors (one of whom, Ronald Knox, converted to Catholicism, was famous as a biblical translator and whilst chaplain at Trinity College became a mentor to the future prime minister, Harold Macmillan), a top Bletchley cryptographic analyst and Penelope’s own eminent father, ‘Evoe’ who was editor of Punch. Fitzgerald wrote prolifically from childhood and fulfilled some of these high expectations by gaining a brilliant First at Somerville. Graduating in 1938, she was already known for her membership of the smart set, for her student journalism and a reticent, indeed peremptory manner. Women could not actually graduate at Oxford until a statute was passed in 1920. Hence she was amongst Oxford’s early women graduates. Her striking appearance within the smart set earned her the nickname of the blonde bombshell.PF5

Hermione Lee usefully reminds her readers of other contemporary writers throughout her account; that Iris Murdoch was to arrive at Somerville in 1939. A.S.Byatt is referred to somewhat wryly and the influences of Rose Macaulay and Stevie Smith as friends outlined. This is an unashamedly literary biography and wonderfully so. The importance of the Georgian poets and the Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury to Charlotte Mew, whose biography Fitzgerald’s wrote, are entertainingly conveyed. Hermione Lee conveys her subject’s deep capacity for diligent background research and put this across deftly. Her account too shows great depth of feeling for the plight of that generation of women who had to face both the devastation of bombing and the scars of war on men like her husband, Desmond, who had fought bravely in Italy with the Irish Guards. Post traumatic stress was not then fully recognised. Her attempts to cope with his drunkenness and criminality and still look after her three children underline Penelope Fitzgerald’s tenacity and courage.

During the Blitz, Fitzgerald was writing as a recording assistant at the ocean liner of Broadcasting House. The courage shown by the staff, their tasks and relationships, quarrels and difficulties became the material for her novel, Human Voices. This work showed her ear for conversation, propaganda and announcements. Not only was this a war where radio played a historical role in rallying the nation, it broadcast De Gaulle’s speeches to invigorate the Free French. Hermione Lee is magnificently instructive on how the writer’s experiences are turned into a thought-provoking novel.

Hermione Lee
Hermione Lee

In the early fifties Desmond Fitzgerald, then an Irish lawyer, became the editor of an influential literary review. However, Penelope provided the drive behind the international World Review. This project was successful in publishing a panoply of significant authors including major figures like Bertrand Russell and Walter de La Mare as well as the about to become successful J.D.Salinger. Not only did this publication crumble in this era of austerity but it seemed to herald the most distressing period of her career. Although, she was associated in two great enlightened projects that many will recall; BBC school broadcasting and writing for Marcus Morris who brought out the EagleGirl and Swift. Not the least of the pleasures of perusing this book is the facsimile reproductions, little drawings and evocative photographs.

The difficulties which the Fitzgerald family faced in the early Sixties culminated in the sinking of the houseboat on which they were living in Battersea. This and the consequent homelessness are heart-rending to read. However, the resulting novel, Offshore was to win her the Booker Prize in 1979. Her greatest work is considered to be her short enigmatic historical novel, The Blue Flower (1995). It retells the entrancing love story of the German Romantic poet, Novalis. Hermione Lee’s exposition of this short work is a tour de force in itself. To conclude, this is a marvellous biography that shows how Fitzgerald’s remarkable determination finally gained her recognition in her sixties. Author and subject demonstrate the same exuberant curiosity.

The poet Novalis -about whom "The Blue Flower" is concerned
The poet Novalis -about whom “The Blue Flower” is concerned
Categories
Book Reviews

Inside The Centre: The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer by Ray Monk

Thinking back to the early 1960s, Bertrand Russell, the subject of another prize winning biography by Ray Monk, was frequently seen on black and white television declaring his concerns over Nuclear Weapons. He stated, Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear. For nearly seventy years, mankind has wondered in the words of Sting, How can I save my boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy? As concerns about nuclear proliferation in relation to Iraq, Pakistan and North Korea escalate it is salutary to return to a thorough biography of the man, known as the father of the bomb, that felt a deep and urgent need to be at the centre and to belong, J Robert Oppenheimer.

JRO

Oppenheimer’s father, Julius, a wealthy cloth merchant came from Hesse and was among the many German Jews to arrive in America in 1888. Oppenheimer visited his Grandfather’s home at the age of four and thought it a medieval village. A strength of Monk’s biography is his facility in evoking locations. In adolescence Oppenheimer was attracted to New Mexico where he had been taken by his English teacher, Herbert Winslow Smith, and fell in love with horse riding and the landscape. At Cambridge, however, he was particularly miserable and suffered a nervous breakdown following his attempt to poison his elegant supervisor, P M S Blackett. His recovery on Corsica was due apparently to a passage from Proust, providing much needed stoic calm before his exciting time at the beautiful university and centre of theoretical physics in Göttingen.

The portrait emerging from letters and documents that Prof Monk has so carefully sifted, is of a highly intelligent man who assumes a debonair persona, motivating others, well-read and proficient in several languages from classical Greek to Sanskrit. His interest in physics covered the chemical bond to astrophysics, from quantum electrodynamics to cosmic rays. In all these fields he made major contributions. He even discovered the possibility of black holes. Here is a man that bullies and inspires his research students and whose lectures are displays of his own facility spiced with a high degree of arrogance and hauteur at the cost of clarity to his audience. Impatient and incompetent with arithmetical calculations, he was ham fisted with experiments. Oppenheimer, a tragic figure with a highly developed knowledge of classical tragedy lacked a real sense of self.

Oppie, Pauli and Rabi on Lake Geneva
Oppie, Pauli and Rabi on Lake Geneva

Monk’s biography is particularly good at clearly explaining basic physics. Especially the confusions between different formations of quantum mechanics, the difference between the absorption of neutrons in various isotopes of Uranium and the confusion between weak and strong nuclear forces in cosmic ray showers. This was an extremely exciting time in physics and the eloquence of this multi-layered biography lies in painting in both the political background and the personalities of Oppenheimer’s associates, friends, family and lovers.

This variety keeps the reader engaged throughout, iIn particular with the insight which Inside the Centre affords into American values and attitudes. Racism and anti-Semitism was deeply ingrained both in social and academic circles, notably at Harvard where he had been a student. Oppenheimer’s great contribution was the establishment of Berkley in California as a vital international centre for theoretical physics. Becoming a worthy American citizen was always a central concern to him. Seeing a fairer society was important to Oppenheimer who had actively supported a docker’s strike. This would land him in deep trouble with the FBI and later with the McCarthy inquisition and despite his endeavours at Los Alamos, his security clearance was withdrawn.

Inside the Centre by Prof Ray Monk
Inside the Centre by Prof Ray Monk

There is a sense of drama in this book which keeps the reader involved. This is due to the historically momentous events involved but enlivened by the personalities Oppenheimer encountered. His radical brother Frank was an able experimenter. There is the bulky, garrulous and memorable figure of the Swiss, Wolfgang Pauli, depicted among the thirty photographs with Oppenheimer in a boat on Lake Zurich and Ernest Lawrence obsessed with building larger and larger cyclotrons, using ersatz equipment like an 80 ton magnet rusting after WW1 in a junkyard. The contribution of one woman, a pacifist, Lisa Meitner, exiled in Sweden, together with that of Otto Hahn on Christmas Eve 1938 explaining nuclear fission and the devastating amount of energy released clarified the possibility of the construction of a weapon.

In conversation with Einstein at Princeton
In conversation with Einstein at Princeton

Monk’s technique when detailing a particular event or person, allows that the reader may see it differently. The detailed footnotes and comprehensive biography makes it possible to follow up alternative explanations. This is particularly useful in relation to a conflicted individual such as Oppenheimer who felt ambivalent about many issues, some of which he must have kept very close to his chest. There is a certain liberal generosity about Monk’s technique. This is a very fine intellectual biography.

An interview with Oppenheimer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVCL3Rnr8xE