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Showing posts from December 28, 2014

Some thoughts on The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 1

The different voices he has writing to his different correspondents come over remarkably like the different voices of The Wasteland. It is almost uncanny. The popular nonsense sections sound like large parts of his correspondence to Conrad Aiken, which really makes one wonder about his motives there in contrast to the interpretations of the critics. The high-minded philosophic letters (their implications) with Bertrand Russell are the very positions he later laments and suffers for. Throughout it all the increasingly paranoid correspondence of Vivien runs through the playfulness &c. like a sinister jinx. All of Eliot’s early letters display a deeply felt response to others, a perfectly formed sense of expression, but vivacity, charm, wisdom ready to be tested. The stunning moment after his father’s death where he mourns for all that his father wished to do with his own life and never achieved; hoping that he can be everything his father would be proud of, then asking for hi

Some thoughts on ‘Chekhov’ by Henri Troyat

Troyat on Chekhov, how does he differ from Pritchett? Anyway, there he is again, Anton Chekhov. You sit down and read about this educated Russian doctor who kept his peace, who saved all of his family (even Sonia?) in turn, who wrote all those remarkable stories and plays with seeming facility, who went down with consumption, and all the time made so little of his own trials. One reads thinking, why this Chekhov and not one of his brothers? Why was it Anton who lived like that and wrote that way? Why were there no other Russians who said it so exactly? He stands out, so rare, but how come it was him? All the time it must have seemed miraculous. No wonder the first night crowds went mad and the speechifiers went on for hours, causing Chekhov himself so much chagrin. When something speaks so directly of the social condition, criticism is forgotten. His relationships with women are given defiant shape. Troyat dismisses Aliuva as a romantic with delusions, one who could not see

Some thoughts on ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ by Italo Calvino

I A book about reading, even how to read in a variety of ways, that is. A book that is a pleasure, that speaks itself of the pleasure being released, just as a lover would. But is there any lasting satisfaction? We are led on through never-ending teases to stories that speak not of fulfilment, but of humiliation, revenge, anti-climax, threat, mistaken identity – anything that can go seriously wrong in a relationship. Calvino’s stories offset the hope that we can have an affair with this book and get away with it. Do not believe that we have here some short stories yoked together by the author’s imaginative diversions about reading. Each story is telling you very sharply what the ideal dream reader would not wish to know, that promise is temporary, that a story does not speak of survival and death, that the book is what you are caught inside now and from which (to which) you will always be referring to something else. II What sort of a person writes such a book? This

Some thoughts on ‘Invisible Cities’ by Italo Calvino

But these are the cities of Italy. You read about them in brochures. You contrast the brochure with the reality you are sure is there. These are not cities you know about via history, modern literature and anecdote. These are the cities that you read about in old books – and all of them seem traceable not to Venice (as is supposed to be the case) but to the descriptions of the heavenly Jerusalem. You cannot imagine events going on in these cities, one does not see them as having independent, living cultures of their own. The objectification of these cities disallows anything much beyond a visionary sense of them – and in that only is any meaning invested. Are these cities all arid, even the maritime ones? They have the meaning that the two characters Marco Polo and Kublai Khan invest in them. As for what we think of these two cerebral conversationalists, their modes of communication and their existences are even more remote than the cities they consider. Like ‘If on a winter’s nigh

Some thoughts on François de La Rochefoucauld and Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve

Sainte-Beuve writes: “There comes a moment in life when L. pleases us, and in which we think him more true than perhaps he really is.” He is true for the person, the circumstance, the hurt, the special experience or recollection of the experience which inspired the maxim. He is true for a particularity, that particularlity (whatever it is) being something that we have known or had in our own case. Sainte-Beuve writes: “We cherish the secret insult; we suck the bitterness with pleasure. But this very excess has something reassuring. Enthusiasm for those thoughts is a sign that already we are passing beyond them and beginning a cure.” If we cannot escape amour-propre (self-regard), if self-interest is not only a given but a necessary of all human conduct, then we treat L. as an equal before we begin. But can we ever “pass beyond” in this way, can we ever “begin a cure”? L. gives no answer, he has no philosophy, and no philosophical guide to life – this is not his business.

Some thoughts on the Letters of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné

Reading the letters of Madame de Sévigné. The anthologies of mother-daughter correspondence that come out today seem precious and strained beside her enormous expressions of love. She can hardly control herself in her excitement to get everything out, while her developed, delightful skill of entertaining exacts a complete control. She can gossip and even get bitchy, but she is never small-minded or cruel. But this is only the start. Madame de Sévigné’s view of the court world is broad. Her Catholicism is devout and needful. Her honesty about her own talents, especially as reflected in that of her very fortunate daughter, endears her increasingly. Her confession that she does not understand some of M. La Rochefoucauld’s new maxims is an almost perfect example of her civilization: she obviously comprehends the rest of them. Her self-analysis, as when she fears that her love for her daughter is idolatry, has about it the sudden back cut of Christina Stead. But it is her spirit – the t

Some thoughts on ‘Last Poems’ by Vincent Buckley

The major concerns of Buckley at the end in this collection. Dying. Looking at one life from the point near death. Memory. Honour. Inevitability. Place. Mood and sensuality of place. Australian cities. Sense of moving into or away from a place. And especially Ireland. The creation of poetry. How the voice speaks and sounds. The Irish voice (but, notice, not the Australian voice much). And then, music. Politics of all kinds. Literary politics (his game). Irish politics. War. Family life. The ancestors. The present generation. What the future holds. Relationships within the family. The fears of women. Privacy. Civilization. Human interaction. Human respect. The public domain. Ethical questions, discussed with careful passion or with satire or with irony. Physicality. Uncomfortableness. The restlessness of the body. The coming to terms with materials. Meaning. Finding “some place in a story.” The personal concerns. Notice the voice is nearly always his

Some thoughts on ‘The Star Chernobyl’ by Julia Voznesenskaya

Like Thomas Merton’s nuclear weapon poems composed entirely of newspaper quotes, the book works by accretion and irrefutability of the media evidence. The story of the three sisters is helpful – more helpful for non-Russians, who desire to know what the Russians really think (and how) of the Chernobyl accident – yet the story does not tell us anything deeper. How deep do we want to go? Recognisable types, individuals, caught off-guard by the disaster everyone has secretly known was “a matter of time” and which, when it happened, would be “a sign of the times.” The story is there to help the reader reassess the large segments of Pravda &c. quotes set between each chapter, and it is those which anyone literate in the disaster will find more disturbing than the story itself. The dialogue is shoddy (the translator?) yet the force of circumstance around which it revolves gives it an excuse. The conversation at the expense of the Party sounds like a genre unique to the modern Russian