Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Beguiled by Another Prague

Josephine Schmidt

PRAGUE'S Art Nouveau curlicues, once seductively frivolous, just seemed flighty now, and its Gothic arches, though still handsome, were suddenly dull. Even the spires atop churches and schools bothered me, glinting like cheap baubles in the sun.

To be fair, on my early April visit the city was beautiful, the clumsy traces of its Communist past largely gone, its streets updated with plush cafes and babble from half a dozen lands. It sparkled, albeit demurely, a picture of poise as the Czech Republic readied itself to join the European Union. On the first warm day of spring, it was all unquestionably lovely.

But, frankly, it was a little boring, too. The City of 100 Spires, the Golden Prague of travel books, the shadowed streets where the myth of Kafka still skulks thanks to T-shirts and tour guides had lost its allure for me. After 12 faithful years as a resident and then a visitor, I was restless and ready to stray. I snubbed the crystal and gilt of the Beaux-Arts Obecni Dum, the Baroque palaces, the cherubs and serpents cavorting on scrubbed facades and, for a few days, allowed myself to be seduced by another Prague.

While Berlin had the Bauhaus, and Paris Le Corbusier, Prague nurtured its own Modernists. In the years before World War I and the interlude between the two world wars, they filled the city with innovative and sleekly functional buildings. Yet for decades their work was lost to most of the world. The Communist government disdained Modernist architecture as bourgeois indulgence, a dalliance of a young democracy best forgotten. Now, a stroll through the heart of the city reveals sweeping curves of concrete and gleaming walls of glass, newly buffed and retrofitted for the 21st century. They return a missing chapter to the history of 20th-century European architecture, and offer an unexpected -- and slightly rakish -- counterpoint to Prague's more familiar trove of architectural treasures.

Some of the city's Modernist buildings have been turned into museums and private offices, others returned to their original use, as banks or stores. In their designs, the bombastic curves and stucco flourishes favored by the Hapsburgs gave way to clean, straight lines and simple shapes. Finding them is like discovering an old mirror that, when polished, holds a reflection from long ago of a short-lived nation that emerged from the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, determined to sprint until it reached the future.

authors Jiri Svetska, Thomas Vlcek Pavel Liska

That was the Prague I craved, one where even the materials used for its buildings were modern stone, glass and steel, products of an increasingly rich industrial state. I yearned to revisit its Cubist apartment houses whose origami angles sometimes seemed to fold in on each other. On the wide expanse of Wenceslas Square, in the center of town, I lingered by glass-fronted buildings as beguilingly modern now as they were 80 years ago -- some, like the Bata shoe store, again ablaze with neon. I planned the best time to gaze at Veletrzni Palac, now an art museum but originally the Trade Fair Hall, designed with the balanced precision of a 1920's ocean liner.

In the hilly residential quarters surrounding the center, I found villas so spare and timeless they would be the envy of the neighbors were they built today. Downtown, along the main shopping street, Na Prikope, I peeked into sleek covered passageways lined with gray and white marble. And when I needed a rest, the slightly faux Art Deco Cafe Slavia beckoned from the Vltava Embankment offering views of Mala Strana, the neighborhood surrounding the castle, from a room illuminated by lights the color of absinthe.

The Czech architects of the 1920's and 30's had visited Russia and Germany, the Netherlands and France, and returned determined to create a style more modern yet, and not just in Prague. Brno, a center for manufacturing, and Zlin, home to Bata, then the world's largest shoe manufacturer, became architectural showcases, too. President Tomas Masaryk hired an iconoclastic Slovene architect, Josip Plecnik, to modernize portions of Prague Castle. Le Corbusier came to lecture, and to look for work. (He found none.) And 12,000 people trekked up a hill in the Prague neighborhood of Baba to inspect a community of model homes that were daringly flat-roofed amalgams of horizontal and vertical spaces.

''It was a young, new state, and they realized that architecture could play an important role to promote a vision of modernity, of modern democracy,'' Jaroslav Andel, an art historian, told me as we looked at architectural photos he had unearthed from the 20's and 30's.

Or, as Stephan Templ, an architectural historian and writer, explained later, ''Modernism was almost a state style here.''

''Czechs,'' he added, ''had a feeling they had to show their individuality.''

I understood what he meant as I stood on a busy street at the edge of the Old Town outside the Czechoslovak Legion Bank, completed in 1923. I wasn't sure where to look first. Through the large windows, I could see into a vast lobby, and I stepped inside, feigning interest in the A.T.M.'s. It was like a kaleidoscope that had been stilled, colored circles and crescents stopped in midwhirl, mosaic on the floor, painted stucco on the ceilings and walls, all of it in blue, red and white, the colors of the Czech flag, except muddier. It made me a little dizzy, as if I were looking down on a room full of swirling folk dancers.

Outside, above the doorways and past tall, vertical windows, a long procession of stout, angular figures stretched across the facade in a relief called ''Return of the Legionnaires,'' the Cubist sculptor Otto Gutfreund's vision of World War I soldiers.

While the building didn't look especially modern, it was certainly unique. As Mr. Templ had explained, Josef Gocar, the architect, wanted to create a National Style, mixing motifs from Moravian folk art with Cubist elements that he softened, creating Rondocubism.

To see Veletrzni Palac, now the state Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, I took a tram over the river. Built as a hall for trade shows when the Czechoslovak economy was booming, the sleek, white structure, its windows outlined in bright blue, filled an entire block in the Holesovice section of town. When it was completed in 1928, nothing of its size or style existed in Europe. Le Corbusier pronounced it ''interesting, but not yet architecture.''

Undeterred by his assessment, I wandered inside, stopping to look at photos taken soon after it opened, when signs in eight languages hung near the entrance. I would have been satisfied just to linger around the oval running-track-shaped space; it was a lot like being on the deck of a ship, one with a skylight stretching above.

A fire destroyed much of the interior in the 1970's, as a small exhibit on the building's history explained, but I wouldn't have known. Nor would I have known that when the Nazis occupied Prague, the building and its grounds were the collection point for Jews being sent to concentration camps. Now, it was filled mainly with 20th-century Czech art and Czech-designed objects from the 20's and 30's: chrome-plated lamps and cabaret posters, a toaster so sleek it seemed it might fly, and a bouquet of silk dresses, my favorite splashed with red beaded roses.

It was exactly the sort of thing to wear to a soiree at the Muller Villa, though perhaps the roses would have been too precious. Designed by Adolf Loos, the villa is considered a Modernist masterpiece, and its white rectangular form, windows edged in bright yellow, is still startling in Stresovice, a neighborhood of traditional houses with red-tiled roofs. Loos argued against any kind of pure decoration -- a lecture topic was ''Ornament and Crime'' -- and the Muller Villa was the culmination of his career. Even he declared it beautiful.

As I joined a few other visitors and put on oversize slippers to tour the house, now owned by the city of Prague and recently restored, I marveled at how much attention had been paid even to the entry hall. Its walls were clad in jade-colored glass tile, its floors a rich terra cotta, its ceiling a luxurious blue. Loos, I remembered, had said that ''through beauty we understand the highest perfection.'' A life here, I thought, would certainly be perfect.

In the open, double-story living room, I understood Loos's Raumplan, his name for a series of interconnected open spaces that flow into each other as breath flows through a body. He specified every detail of the house, insisting that a quarry be reopened to provide the exact type of striated green-gray travertine marble he wanted for the living room; ordering sheer curtains the same yellow as the exterior window frames hung in most rooms; and choosing exotic woods. In 1930, when Dr. Frantisek Muller, the owner of a successful construction firm, and his wife, Milada, moved in, they brought only clothing and a few personal items. Loos had provided everything else.

They lived there uninterrupted until the Communists came to power in 1948, when the house and its occupants became objects of scorn. Mr. Muller died a few years later; until she died, in 1968, Mrs. Muller lived in the villa, hoping the house would be classified as a museum, selling her possessions to collectors and institutions she thought might care for them. As the government took over more and more of her perfect house, she was relegated to less and less space. Eventually, Mrs. Muller slept on a daybed in her boudoir, its walls lined with citrus wood the color of wildflower honey, one end overlooking the marble-walled living room where she had once entertained. Years after she died, the Institute of Marxism-Leninism moved in.

From an upstairs window, I looked toward the silhouettes of the flat-roofed houses of Baba, and then across the way, to the serrated line of tall Communist-era housing blocks. I thought of trekking to Baba, or searching out the funky Cubist lamp post near Wenceslas Square.

Instead, I opted for the House of the Black Madonna, a Cubist building constructed as a department store before World War I and now, on a pedestrian walkway in the Old Town, the Museum of Czech Cubism. Its paintings intrigued me, but I lingered by the settee and the parlor sets, the dressing table and the vases, the sketches for homes and public buildings. Their maze of angles were sometimes bizarre, but endearing, and I was hungry for more.

So I took a tram along the river, toward the residential area of Vysehrad, and got off near the Kovarovic Villa, one of Prague's finest Cubist houses. The light was just right to make the walls and doors seem to collapse into one another, a Cubist painting come to life. I had just seen plans for such buildings, crazy cross-hatches of lines that would make most builders flee. But now, standing across from a house that seemed to be winking at me as the afternoon turned to evening, I realized that the people who had conceived them were hardly mad: they had simply lived in a time when almost anything seemed possible.

Credits:  This article first appeared in 2004 in The New York Times.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Die Weltliteratur, European novelists and modernism

Milan Kundera

Irina Kotova


A European, whether he is nationalist or cosmopolitan, rooted or uprooted, is profoundly conditioned by his relation to his homeland; the national problematic may be more complex, more grave in Europe than elsewhere, but in any case it is different there. Added to that is another particularity: alongside the large nations, Europe contains small nations, several of which have, in the past two centuries, attained or reattained their political independence. Their existence may be what brought me to understand that cultural diversity is the great European value. In the period when the Russian world tried to reshape my small country in its image, I formulated my own ideal of Europe thus: maximum diversity in minimum space. The Russians no longer rule my native land, but that ideal is even more imperiled now.

All the nations of Europe are living out a common destiny, but each is living it out differently, based on its own distinct experience. This is why the history of each European art (painting, the novel, music, and so on) seems like a relay race in which the various nations pass the baton from one to the next. Polyphonic music had its beginnings in France, continued its development in Italy, attained incredible complexity in the Netherlands, and reached its fulfillment in Germany, in the works of Bach; the upwelling of the English novel of the eighteenth century is followed by the era of the French novel, then by the Russian novel, then by the Scandinavian, and so on. The dynamism and long life span of the history of the European arts are inconceivable without the existence of all these nations whose diverse experiences constitute an inexhaustible reservoir of inspiration.

I think of Iceland. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a literary work thousands of pages long was born there: the sagas. At the time, neither the French nor the English had created such a prose work in their national tongue! We should certainly ponder this thoroughly: the first great prose treasure of Europe was created in its smallest nation, which even today numbers fewer than three hundred thousand inhabitants.


The word “Munich” has become the symbol of capitulation to Hitler. But to be more concrete: at Munich, in the autumn of 1938, the four great nations of Europe—Germany, Italy, France, and Great Britain—negotiated the fate of a small country to which they denied the very right to speak. In a room apart, the two Czech diplomats waited all night to be led, in the early morning, down long hallways into a room where Chamberlain and Daladier, weary, blasé, yawning, informed them of the death sentence.

“A faraway country” of which “we know nothing”: Those famous words by which Chamberlain sought to justify the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia were accurate. In Europe, there are the large countries on one side and the small on the other; there are the nations seated in the negotiating chambers and those which wait all night in the antechambers.

What distinguishes the small nations from the large is not the quantitative criterion of the number of their inhabitants; it is something deeper. For the small nations, existence is not a self-evident certainty but always a question, a wager, a risk; they are on the defensive against History, that force which is bigger than they, which does not take them into account, which does not even notice them. (“It is only by opposing History as such that we can oppose today’s history,” Witold Gombrowicz wrote.)

There are almost as many Poles as there are Spaniards. But Spain is an old power whose existence has never been under threat, whereas History has taught the Poles what it means not to exist. Deprived of their state, they lived for more than a century on death row. “Poland has not yet perished” is the poignant first line of their national anthem, and, in a letter to Czeslaw Milosz some fifty years ago, Gombrowicz wrote a phrase that could never have occurred to any Spaniard: “If, in a hundred years, our language still exists . . .”

Let’s suppose that the Icelandic sagas had been written in English: their heroes’ names would be as familiar to us as Tristan or Don Quixote; their singular aesthetic character, oscillating between chronicle and fiction, would have provoked all sorts of theories; people would have argued over whether they should or should not be considered the first European novels. I don’t mean to say that the sagas have been forgotten—after centuries of indifference they are now being studied in universities throughout the world—but they belong to the “archeology of letters,” they do not influence living literature.

Given that the French are unused to distinguishing between nation and state, I often hear Kafka described as a Czech writer. Of course that is nonsense. Although from 1918 on he was, indeed, a citizen of the newly constituted Czechoslovakia, Kafka wrote solely in German, and he considered himself a German writer. But suppose for a moment that he had written his books in Czech. Today, who would know them? It took Max Brod twenty years and enormous effort to force Kafka on the world’s awareness, and that was with the support of the greatest German writers! Even if a Prague editor had managed to publish the books of a hypothetical Czech Kafka, none of his compatriots (that is to say, no Czech) would have had the authority needed to familiarize the world with those extravagant texts written in the language of a “faraway country” of which “we know nothing.” No, believe me, nobody would know Kafka today—nobody—if he had been Czech.

Gombrowicz’s “Ferdydurke” was published in Polish in 1937. It had to wait fifteen years finally to be read, and rejected, by a French publisher. And it took a good many years more for the French to see his work in their bookstores.


There are two basic contexts in which a work of art may be placed: either in the history of its nation (we can call this the small context) or else in the supranational history of its art (the large context). We are accustomed to seeing music quite naturally in the large context: knowing what language Orlando di Lasso or Bach spoke matters little to a musicologist. But because a novel is bound up with its language, in nearly every university in the world it is studied almost exclusively in the small—national—context. Europe has not managed to view its literature as a historical unit, and I continue to insist that this is an irreparable intellectual loss. Because, if we consider only the history of the novel, it was to Rabelais that Laurence Sterne was reacting, it was Sterne who set off Diderot, it was from Cervantes that Fielding drew constant inspiration, it was against Fielding that Stendhal measured himself, it was Flaubert’s tradition living on in Joyce, it was through his reflection on Joyce that Hermann Broch developed his own poetics of the novel, and it was Kafka who showed García Márquez the possibility of departing from tradition to “write another way.”

What I just said Goethe was the first to say: “National literature no longer means much these days, we are entering the era of Weltliteratur”—world literature—“and it is up to each of us to hasten this development.” This is, so to speak, Goethe’s testament. Another testament betrayed. Open any textbook, any anthology: world literature is always presented as a juxtaposition of national literatures . . . as a history of literatures! Literatures in the plural!

And yet Rabelais, ever undervalued by his compatriots, was never better understood than by a Russian, Bakhtin; Dostoyevsky than by a Frenchman, Gide; Ibsen than by an Irishman, Shaw; Joyce than by an Austrian, Broch. The universal importance of the generation of great North Americans—Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos—was first brought to light by the French. (“In France I’m the father of a literary movement,” Faulkner wrote in 1946, complaining of the deaf ear he encountered in his own country.) These few examples are not bizarre exceptions to the rule; no, they are the rule. Geographic distance sets the observer back from the local context and allows him to embrace the large context of world literature—the only approach that can bring out a novel’s aesthetic value—that is to say, the previously unseen aspects of existence that this particular novel has managed to make clear, the novelty of form it has found.

Do I mean by this that to judge a novel one can do without a knowledge of its original language? Indeed, I do mean exactly that! Gide did not know Russian, Shaw did not know Norwegian, Sartre did not read Dos Passos in the original. If the books of Gombrowicz and Danilo Kis had depended solely on the judgment of people who read Polish and Serbo-Croatian, their radical aesthetic newness would never have been discovered.

(And what about the professors of foreign literatures? Is it not their very natural mission to study works in the context of world literature? Not a chance. In order to demonstrate their competence as experts, they make a great point of identifying with the small—national—context of whichever literature they teach. They adopt its opinions, its tastes, its prejudices. It is in foreign universities that a work of art is most intractably mired in its home province.)


How to define “provincialism”? As the inability (or the refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context. There are two kinds of provincialism: that of large nations and that of small ones. The large nations resist the Goethean idea of world literature because their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere. Kazimierz Brandys says, in his “Paris Notebooks: 1985–87,” that the French student has greater gaps in his knowledge of world culture than the Polish student, but he can get away with it, for his own culture contains more or less all the aspects, all the possibilities and phases, of the world’s evolution.

Small nations are reticent toward the large context for exactly the opposite reason: they hold world culture in high esteem but feel it to be something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature. The small nation inculcates in its writer the conviction that he belongs to that place alone. To set his gaze beyond the boundary of the homeland, to join his colleagues in the supranational territory of art, is considered pretentious, disdainful of his own people. And, since the small nations are often in situations where their survival is at stake, they can easily present this attitude as morally justified.

Kafka speaks of this in his “Diaries.” From the standpoint of a “large” literature—in this case, German—he observes Yiddish and Czech literature: a small nation, he says, has great respect for its writers because they provide it with pride “in the face of the hostile surrounding world”; for a small nation, literature is “less a matter of literary history” than “a matter of the people,” and that exceptional osmosis between the literature and its people facilitates “the literature’s diffusion throughout the country, where it binds with political slogans.” From there Kafka arrives at this startling observation: “What in large literatures goes on at a lower level and constitutes a not indispensable basement of the structure, here takes place in bright light; what there provokes a brief flurry of interest, here brings down nothing less than a life-or-death decree.”

These last words remind me of a chorus by the composer Bedrich Smetana (written in Prague in 1864) with the lines “Rejoice, rejoice, voracious raven, you have a treat in store: soon you will feast on a traitor to our country.” How could such a great musician ever offer up such bloodthirsty foolishness? Was it some youthful error? No excuse there—he was forty when he wrote it. And, moreover, what did it even mean at the time, to be “a traitor to our country”? Someone joining a commando band to slit the gullets of his fellow-citizens? Not at all: a “traitor” was any Czech who decided to leave Prague for Vienna and participate peacefully in German life there. As Kafka said, what somewhere else “provokes a brief flurry of interest, here brings down nothing less than a life-or-death decree.”

A nation’s possessiveness toward its artists works as a small-context terrorism that reduces the entire meaning of a work to the role it plays in its homeland. I open an old mimeographed copy of some lectures that the composer Vincent d’Indy gave at the Paris Schola Cantorum, where a whole generation of French musicians were trained in the early twentieth century. There are paragraphs on Smetana and Dvorák, particularly on Smetana’s two string quartets. What are we told? A single assertion, restated several times in different terms: this “folk-style” music was inspired “by national songs and dances.” Nothing else? Nothing. A platitude and a misinterpretation. A platitude because traces of folk music are found everywhere, in Haydn, in Chopin, in Liszt, in Brahms; a misinterpretation because Smetana’s two quartets are actually a highly personal musical confession, written under tragic circumstances—the composer had just lost his hearing, and these (splendid!) quartets are, he said, “the swirling storm of music in the head of a man gone deaf.”

How could Vincent d’Indy have been so deeply mistaken? Very likely he was unfamiliar with those works and was simply repeating what he had heard. His opinion reflected Czech society’s idea of these two composers: to make political use of their fame (to display pride “in the face of the hostile surrounding world”), it had pulled together the scraps of folklore to be found in the music and stitched them into a national banner to fly above the work. The outside world was just accepting politely (or maliciously) the interpretation that was offered.


And what about provincialism in the large nations? The definition is the same: the inability (or the refusal) to imagine one’s own culture in the large context. A few years ago, before the end of the past century, a Paris newspaper polled thirty figures who belonged to a kind of intellectual establishment of the day: journalists, historians, sociologists, publishers, and a few writers. Each was asked to name, in order of importance, the ten most notable books in the whole history of France, and from those combined thirty lists the paper compiled an honor roll of a hundred works. Even though the question as asked (“What are the books that have made France what it is?”) might allow for several interpretations, still the response does give a rather good picture of what today’s French intellectual élite considers important in its country’s literature.

Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” came in first. That surprised one foreign writer. Never having considered the book important, either for himself or for the history of literature, he suddenly saw that the French literature he adores is not the same one the French adore. In eleventh place is de Gaulle’s war memoirs. Such value would almost never be accorded to a book by a statesman, a soldier, outside of France. And yet what is disconcerting is not that but the fact that the greatest masterpieces appear only farther down the list! Rabelais stands in fourteenth place—Rabelais after de Gaulle! I am reminded of an article I read by an eminent French university professor saying that his country’s literature lacks a founding figure equivalent to Dante for the Italians, Shakespeare for the English, and so on. Imagine—in the eyes of his countrymen, Rabelais lacks the aura of a founding figure! Yet in the eyes of nearly every great novelist of our time he is, along with Cervantes, the founder of an entire art, the art of the novel.

And what of the eighteenth- and the nineteenth-century novel, France’s glory? “The Red and the Black” stands twenty-second on the list; “Madame Bovary” is twenty-fifth; “Germinal” thirty-second; “The Human Comedy” only thirty-fourth (Is that possible? “The Human Comedy,” without which European literature is inconceivable!); “Dangerous Liaisons” fiftieth; poor “Bouvard and Pécuchet” come trailing in last, like a couple of breath-less dunces. And some masterworks do not appear at all among the hundred elect: “The Charterhouse of Parma”; “Sentimental Education”; “Jacques the Fatalist” (true, only within the large context of world literature can the incomparable novelty of that book be appreciated).

And what about the twentieth century? Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” seventh place. Camus’s “The Stranger,” tied for twenty-second. And after that? Very little. Very little of what’s called modern literature, nothing at all of modern poetry. As if France’s enormous influence on modern letters had never occurred! As if, for instance, Apollinaire (absent from this honor list) had not inspired a whole era of European poetry!

And there’s something still more astonishing: the absence from the list of Beckett and Ionesco. How many dramatists of the past century have had such power, such influence? One? Two? No more than that. Here’s a recollection: the emancipation of cultural life in Communist Czechoslovakia was bound up with the little theatres that were born at the very start of the sixties. It was there that I first saw a performance of Ionesco, and it was unforgettable: the explosion of an imagination, the irruption of a disrespectful spirit. I’ve often said that the Prague Spring began eight years before 1968, with the Ionesco plays that were staged at the little Theatre on the Balustrade.

One might argue that the honor roll I describe is evidence less of provincialism than of the recent intellectual orientation that gives ever less weight to aesthetic criteria—that the people who voted for “Les Misérables” were thinking not of the book’s importance in the history of the novel but of its great social resonance in France. Of course, but that only demonstrates how indifference to aesthetic value inevitably shifts the whole culture back into provincialism. France is not merely the land where the French live; it is also a country that other people watch and draw inspiration from. And those are the values (aesthetic, philosophical) by which a foreigner appreciates works born outside his own country. Once again, the rule holds: these values are hard to perceive from the viewpoint of the small context, even if it be the prideful small context of a large nation.


In the nineteen-sixties I left my country for France, and there I was astonished to discover that I was “an East European exile.” Indeed, to the French my country was part of the European Orient. I hastened to explain to all and sundry the real scandal of our situation: stripped of its national sovereignty, Czechoslovakia had been annexed not only by another country but by a whole other world, the world of the European East, which, rooted as it is in the ancient past of Byzantium, possesses its own historical problematic, its own architectural look, its own religion (Orthodox), its own alphabet (Cyrillic, derived from Greek writing), and also its own sort of Communism. (No one knows, or ever will know, what Central European Communism would have been without Russia’s domination, but in any case it would not have resembled the Communism we did experience.)

Gradually, I understood that I came from a “faraway country” of which “we know nothing.” The people around me placed great importance on politics but knew almost nothing about geography: they saw us as having been “Communized,” not “taken over.” After all, hadn’t the Czechs always been part of the same “Slavic world” as the Russians? I explained that while there is a linguistic unity among the Slavic nations, there is no Slavic culture, no Slavic world, and that the history of the Czechs, like that of the Poles, the Slovaks, the Croats, or the Slovenes (and, of course, the Hungarians, who are not at all Slavic), is entirely Western: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque; close contact with the Germanic world; the struggle of Catholicism against the Reformation. Never anything to do with Russia, which was far off, another world. Only the Poles lived in direct relation with Russia—a relation much like a death struggle.

But my efforts were useless: the “Slavic world” idea persists as an ineradicable commonplace in world historiography. I open a volume of the “Universal History,” in the prestigious “Pléiade” series: in the chapter called “The Slavic World,” the great Czech theologian Jan Hus is irremediably separated from the Englishman John Wycliffe (whose disciple Hus was) and from the German Martin Luther (who saw Hus as his teacher and precursor). Poor Hus: after being burned at the stake at Constance, now he must suffer through a dreadful eternity in the company of Ivan the Terrible, with whom he would never want to exchange a single word.

Nothing beats an argument from personal experience. In the late nineteen seventies, I was sent the manuscript of a foreword written for one of my novels by an eminent Slavic specialist, who placed me in permanent comparison (flattering, of course; at the time, no one meant me harm) with Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Bunin, Pasternak, Mandelstam, and the Russian dissidents. In alarm, I stopped its publication. Not that I felt any antipathy for those great Russians—on the contrary, I admired them all—but in their company I became a different person. I still recall the strange anguish the piece stirred in me: that displacement into a context that was not mine felt like a deportation.


Between the large context of the world and the small context of the nation, a middle step might be imagined: say, a median context. Between Sweden and the world, that step is Scandinavia. For Colombia, it is Latin America. And for Hungary, for Poland? After emigrating, I tried to work out a response to that question, and the title of a piece I wrote at the time sums it up: “A Kidnapped West, or the Tragedy of Central Europe.”

Central Europe: What is it? The whole collection of small nations between two powers, Russia and Germany. The easternmost edge of the West. All right, but which nations do we mean? Does it include the three Baltic countries? And what about Romania, tugged toward the East by the Orthodox Church, toward the West by its Romance language? Or Austria, which for a long while represented the political center of that ensemble? Austrian writers are studied exclusively in the context of Germany, and would not be pleased (nor would I be, if I were one of them) to find themselves returned to that multilingual hodgepodge that is Central Europe. And, anyhow, have all those nations shown any clear and enduring wish to form a common grouping? Not at all. For a few centuries, most of them did belong to a large state, the Hapsburg Empire, which in the end they wished only to flee.

All these comments relativize the import of the Central Europe notion, demonstrate its vague and approximate nature, but at the same time clarify it. Is it true that the borders of Central Europe are impossible to trace in any exact, lasting way? It is indeed! Those nations have never been masters of either their own destinies or their borders. They have rarely been the subjects of history but almost always its objects. Their unity was unintentional. They were kin to one another not through will, not through fellow-feeling or linguistic proximity, but by reason of similar experience, of common historical situations that brought them together, at different times, in different configurations, and within shifting, never definitive borders.

Central Europe cannot be reduced to “Mitteleuropa” (I never use the term), as it is called, even in non-Germanic tongues, by people who know it only through the window of Vienna; it is polycentric, and looks different seen from Warsaw, from Budapest, or from Zagreb. But from whatever perspective one looks at it a common history emerges: through the Czech window I see, in the mid-fourteenth century, the first Central European university, in Prague; in the fifteenth century I see the Hussite revolution foreshadowing the Reformation; in the seventeenth century I see the Hapsburg Empire gradually constructing itself out of Bohemia, Hungary, Austria; I see the wars that, over two centuries, would defend the West against the Turkish invasion; I see the CounterReformation, with the flowering of Baroque art that would stamp an architectural unity on the whole of that vast territory, right up to the Baltic countries.

The nineteenth century triggered patriotism in all those peoples who refused to let themselves be assimilated; that is to say, Germanized. Even the Austrians, despite their dominant position within the empire, could not avoid having to choose between their Austrian identity and membership in the great German entity in which they would be dissolved. And how can we not mention Zionism, also born in Central Europe of that same refusal to assimilate, that same desire of a people—the Jews—to live as a nation with their own language? One of Europe’s fundamental problems, the problem of the small nations, is nowhere else manifested in so revelatory, so focussed, and so exemplary a way.

In the twentieth century, after the First World War, several independent states rose from the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, and thirty years later all of them but Austria found themselves under Russian domination: a situation utterly unprecedented in all of Central European history! There followed a long period of anti-Soviet revolts: in Poland, in bloodied Hungary, then in Czechoslovakia, and again in Poland, at length and powerfully. To my mind, there is nothing more admirable in the Europe of the second half of the twentieth century than that golden chain of revolts, which, over forty years, eroded the empire of the East, made it ungovernable, and tolled the death knell of its reign.


I don’t believe that universities will ever teach the history of Central Europe as a separate discipline; in the dormitory of the hereafter, Jan Hus will always be breathing the same Slavic exhalations as Ivan the Terrible. In fact, would I myself ever have made use of the notion of Central Europe, and so tenaciously, if I had not been rocked by the political drama of my native land? Surely not. There are words drowsing in the mist that, at the right moment, rush to our aid. Merely by being defined, the concept of Central Europe unmasked the lie of Yalta, that deal-making among the three victors of the war, who shifted the age-old boundary between the European East and West several hundred kilometres over to the west.

The notion of Central Europe came to my aid on another occasion, too, this time for reasons having nothing to do with politics; it happened when I began to marvel at the fact that the terms “novel,” “modern art,” and “modern novel” meant something other for me than for my French friends. It was not a disagreement; it was, quite modestly, the recognition of a difference between the two traditions that had shaped us. Our two cultures rose up before me, in a rapid historical panorama, as nearly symmetrical antitheses. In France: classicism, rationalism, the libertine spirit, and then, in the nineteenth century, the era of the great novel. In Central Europe: the reign of an especially ecstatic strain of Baroque art and then, in the nineteenth century, the moralizing idyllicism of Biedermeier, the great Romantic poetry, and very few great novels. Central Europe’s matchless strength lay in its music, which, from Haydn to Schoenberg, from Liszt to Bartók, over the course of two centuries embraced in itself all the essential trends in European music; Central Europe staggered beneath the glory of its music.

What was “modern art,” that intriguing storm of the first third of the twentieth century? A radical revolt against the aesthetic of the past; that is obvious, of course, except that the pasts were not alike. In France, modern art—anti-rationalist, anti-classicist, anti-realist, anti-naturalist—extended the great lyrical rebellion of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. It found its privileged expression in painting and, above all, in poetry, which was its chosen art. The novel, by contrast, was anathematized (most notably by the Surrealists); it was considered outmoded, forever sealed in its conventional form. In Central Europe, the situation was different: opposition to the ecstatic, romantic, sentimental musical tradition led the modernism of a few geniuses, the most original ones, toward the art that is the privileged sphere of analysis, lucidity, irony; that is, toward the novel.


In Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities” (1930-43), Clarisse and Walter play four-hand piano, “unloosed like two locomotives hurtling along side by side.” “Seated on their small stools, they were irritated, amorous, or sad about nothing, or perhaps each of them about something separate,” and only “the authority of the music joined them together. . . . There was between them a fusion of the kind that occurs in great public panics, where hundreds of people who an instant earlier differed in every way make the same motions, utter the same mindless cries, gape wide their eyes and mouths.” They took “those turbulent seethings, those emotional surges from the innermost being—that is to say, that vague turmoil of the soul’s bodily understructures—to be the language of the eternal by which all men can be united.”

This ironic comment is aimed not only at music; it goes deeper, to music’s lyrical essence, to that bewitchment which feeds festivals and massacres alike and turns individuals into ecstatic mobs. Musil’s exasperation with the lyrical reminds me of Kafka, who, in his novels, abhors any emotional gesticulation (this sets him radically apart from the German Expressionists) and who, as he said himself, wrote “Amerika” in opposition to “style overflowing with feeling”; Kafka thereby reminds me of Broch, who was allergic to “the spirit of opera,” especially to the opera of Wagner (that Wagner so adored by Baudelaire, by Proust), which he called the very model of kitsch (a “genius kitsch,” he said); and Broch thereby reminds me of Gombrowicz, who, in his famous text “Against Poets,” is reacting both to the deep-rooted Romanticism of Polish literature and to the view of poetry as the untouchable goddess of Western modernism.

Kafka, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz . . . Did they make up a group, a school, a movement? No; they were all solitaries. I have often called them “the Pleiades of Central Europe’s great novelists,” and, indeed, like the stars in the constellation, each of them was surrounded by empty space, each of them distant from the others. It seemed all the more remarkable that their work should express a similar aesthetic orientation: they were all poets of the novel, which is to say, people impassioned by the form and by its newness; concerned for the intensity of each word, each phrase; seduced by the imagination seeking to move beyond the borders of “realism” but at the same time impervious to seduction by the lyrical; hostile to the transformation of the novel into personal confession; allergic to the ornamentalization of prose; entirely focussed on the real world. They, all of them, conceived the novel to be a great antilyrical poetry.


The word “kitsch” was born in Munich in the mid-nineteenth century; it describes the syrupy dregs of the great Romantic period. But Broch, who saw the connection between Romanticism and kitsch as one of inverse proportions, may have come closer to the truth: according to him, kitsch was the dominant style of the nineteenth century (in Germany and in Central Europe), with a few great Romantic works standing out from it as phenomena of exception. People who experienced the secular tyranny of kitsch (an opera-tenor kind of tyranny) felt particular irritation at the rosy veil thrown over reality, at the immodest exhibition of hearts forever deeply moved, at the “bread drenched in perfume” that Musil speaks of. Kitsch long ago became a very precise concept in Central Europe, where it represents the supreme aesthetic evil.

I do not suspect the French modernists of having succumbed to the lure of sentimentality and pomp; but, without a long exposure to kitsch, they had not had occasion to develop a hypersensitive aversion to it. Only in 1960, thus a hundred years after it had appeared in Germany, was the word “kitsch” first used in France; yet the French translators of Broch’s essays, in 1966, and of Hannah Arendt, in 1972, both still avoided the term and instead used the translation “art de pacotille” (cheap art), thereby rendering incomprehensible their authors’ thinking.

Rereading Stendhal’s “Lucien Leuwen,” with its fashionable drawing-room conversations, I pause over the key words that capture the various attitudes of the participants: vanité, vulgaire, esprit (wit—“that vitriolic acid eating at everything”), ridicule, politesse (“infinite manners, no feeling”), bien-pensant(right thinking). And I ask myself, What is the French word that expresses the worst aesthetic reprobation the way the notion of kitsch expresses it for me? It finally comes to me: it is the word vulgaire, vulgarité. “M. Du Poirier was a creature of the utmost vulgarity, a man who seemed proud of his crass, overfamiliar ways; thus does a pig wallow in mud with a kind of voluptuous pleasure that is insolent toward the spectator.”

Scorn for the vulgar inhabited the drawing rooms of Stendhal’s time just as it does today’s. To recall its etymology: “vulgar” comes from vulgus, “people”; “vulgar” is what pleases the people. A democrat, a man of the left, a battler for human rights, is obliged to love the people, but he is free to disdain it haughtily for what he finds vulgar.

After Sartre had cast political anathema upon Camus, and after the Nobel Prize had brought jealousy and hatred down on him, Camus felt very uncomfortable among the Paris intellectuals. I am told that he was further distressed by the label of “vulgarity” that was attached to him personally: his lowly origins, his illiterate mother; his situation as a pied noir (a Frenchman from Algeria) sympathetic to other pieds noirs—people so “overfamiliar” (so “crass”); the lightweight philosophy of his essays; and so on. Reading the articles in which such lynching occurred, I note this passage: Camus is “a peasant dressed up in his Sunday best, . . . a man of the people with his gloves in his hand and his hat still on his head, stepping for the first time into the drawing room. The other guests turn away, they know whom they are dealing with.” The metaphor is eloquent. Not only did Camus not know what he was supposed to think (he disparaged progress and sympathized with the Algerian French) but, graver yet, he behaved awkwardly in the drawing room (in the actual or figurative sense): he was vulgar.

In France there is no harsher aesthetic reprobation than this. Reprobation that is sometimes justified but that sometimes also strikes at the best: At Rabelais. And at Flaubert. “The primary characteristic of ‘Sentimental Education,’ ” the famous writer Barbey d’Au-revilly said, on its publication, “is vulgarity, first and foremost. . . . In our view, the world already has enough vulgar folk, vulgar minds, vulgar things, without further adding to the overwhelming number of these disgusting vulgarities.”

I recall the early weeks of my emigration. As Stalinism had already been unanimously condemned, people readily understood the tragedy the Russian occupation meant for my country, and they saw me as wrapped in an aura of respectable sadness. I remember sitting at a bar with a Parisian intellectual who had given me much support and help. It was our first meeting in Paris, and I could see grand words hovering in the air above us: persecution, gulag, freedom, banishment from the homeland, courage, resistance, totalitarianism, police terror. Eager to drive off the kitsch of those solemn spectres, I started describing how the fact of being followed, of having police microphones in our apartments, had taught us the delectable art of the hoax. A friend and I had switched apartments, and names as well; he, a big womanizer who was regally indifferent to the microphones, had pulled off some of his finest exploits in my studio. Given that the trickiest moment in any amorous adventure is the breakup, my emigration worked out perfectly for him: one fine day the girls and the ladies arrived to find the apartment locked and my name gone from the door, while I was sending off little farewell cards from Paris, with my own signature, to seven women I had never seen.

I’d meant to amuse this man, who was dear to me, but his face gradually darkened until finally he said, with the sound of the guillotine blade dropping, “I don’t find that funny.” We remained friendly, but we were never friends. The memory of our first encounter serves as a key to understanding our long-unacknowledged difference. What held us apart was the clash of two aesthetic attitudes: the man allergic to kitsch collides with the man allergic to vulgarity.


“One must be absolutely modern,” Arthur Rimbaud wrote. Some sixty years later, Gombrowicz was not so sure. In “Ferdydurke,” the Youngblood family is dominated by the daughter, a “modern high-school girl.” She is mad for the telephone; she disdains the classical authors; when a gentleman comes to call she “merely looks at him and, sticking a small wrench between her teeth with her right hand, offers him her left with total nonchalance.”

Her mother is modern, too: she works with a “Committee for the Protection of Newborns,” is active against the death penalty and for civil liberties; “ostentatiously offhand, she sets out for the toilet” and emerges from it “prouder than she went in”; as she grows older, modernity becomes the more indispensable to her as the sole “substitute for youth.”

And Papa? He, too, is modern; he thinks nothing but does everything to please his daughter and his wife.

In “Ferdydurke,” Gombrowicz got at the fundamental shift that occurred during the twentieth century: until then, mankind was divided in two—those who defended the status quo and those who sought to change it. Then History began to accelerate: whereas, in the past, man had lived continuously in the same setting, in a society that changed only very slowly, now the moment arrived when he suddenly began to feel History moving beneath his feet, like a rolling sidewalk; the status quo was in motion! All at once, being comfortable with the status quo was the same thing as being comfortable with History on the move! Which meant that a person could be both progressive and conformist, conservative and a rebel, at the same time!

When Camus was attacked as a reactionary by Sartre and his bunch, he got off the famous remark about people who had “merely set down their armchair in the direction of History”; Camus was right, but he did not know that the precious chair was on wheels, and that for some time already everyone had been pushing it forward—the modern high-school girls, their mamas and their papas, as well as all the activists against the death penalty and all the members of the Committee for the Protection of Newborns and, of course, all the politicians, who, as they pushed the chair along, kept their laughing faces turned to the public running along behind them and also laughing, knowing very well that only a person who delights in being modern is genuinely modern.

It was then that a certain number of Rimbaud’s heirs grasped this extraordinary thing: today, the only modernism worthy of the name is antimodern modernism. ♦

(Translated, from the French, by Linda Asher.)

Credits:  This article originally appear in 2007 in The New Yorker.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Getting to the Heart of Spasmodics

Review of Kirstie Blair's Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart by Amanda Mordavsky Caleb

Of all the –ologies discussed in relation to Victorian literature—neurology, psychology, gynecology, and even toxicology—cardiology is strangely absent from the list. Given the unhealthy Victorian interest in disease and death, it is surprising that only in Kirstie Blair’s Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart do we see any extended study of the heart. Here Blair considers medical discourse in relation to Victorian poetry, suggesting that the literal organ was used metaphorically to simultaneously unify and separate a community, demonstrating its multifaceted function as “material and spiritual, public and private, active and passive” (4). This encompassing look at the poetic use of heart and the subsequent culture it created is a refreshingly new consideration of the intertwined relationship between science and literature.

Blair begins by tracing the pathological fascination with heart disease in Victorian culture, citing numerous examples of how heart disease became a mainstream concern relating to one’s “habits, career, and emotional susceptibility,” as well as broader social conditions (67). The infiltration of heart disease into mainstream society can be seen in an early nineteenth-century parlour game which involved the art of pulse-taking. Although seemingly innocuous, this playful pastime reveals the effect of the psychosomatic on the physical, as heartbeats race when a person is mentally excited. It also reveals the public interest in the workings of the cardiovascular system, even if on a very basic level, an interest that reveals itself in the fiction of the period. Critical studies of medicine and the Victorian novel have become almost commonplace; Blair, however, has chosen the most appropriate genre to consider the heart: poetry. Although the connection between the heartbeat and poetic rhythm is an obvious comparison, Blair embraces the cliché of the poem’s heartbeat to demonstrate how Victorian poets rebelled against classic prosody, turning instead to the heartbeat to reveal the fixed yet spasmodic nature of emotion reflected in meter. This leads Blair to a discussion of Spasmodic poetry as dealing with the relationship between structure and meaning through the use of medical notions of bodily movement, which paved the way for the poets of the mid-Victorian period.

The remainder of the book focuses on the 1850s and three major Victorian poets: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The choice of a female poet may seem obvious given the Victorian association with women and the heart, and certainly Blair’s selection of Aurora Leigh is one that has received significant attention. This chapter reiterates some of the notable criticism of this künstleroman, specifically gender politics. Blair focuses her analysis on Aurora Leigh’s attempts to reconcile the female heart with the poet’s heart; although she is specific in her analysis of the representation of the heart, this resembles much of the criticism which addresses the conflict of being female and a poet. That being said, Blair would have been equally criticized had she neglected the most prominent use of the heart by a female Victorian poet. Her critical readings, however, are particularly strong and truly emphasize the emotional and physical nature of the heart, allowing for some forgiveness for the lack of pure originality throughout this chapter.

In contrast, Blair’s treatment of Matthew Arnold embraces a fresh look at the relationship between poetry, religion, and the heart. Arnold’s obsession with his health—and specifically his heart—make him a fitting choice for this book. Beyond this, his poetry allows Blair to move away from the more familiar gender politics of the heart and consider the religiosity. The heart as religious symbol has been ever-present in various faiths, and it is no surprise that Arnold turns to this symbol in his poetry. However, rather than merely representing the heart as the centre of faith in God, Arnold also embraces the diseased heart as the location of the loss of feeling. This loss of feeling is the result of an age that relies solely on the brain, separating itself from the emotional and religious elements of the heart. Through her close reading of Arnold’s poetry of the 1850s and his prose, Blair rightly concludes that the representation of the diseased heart is Arnold’s view of the detached individual—one that has lost the religious faith embedded within the heart—as the product of the modern age.

The effects of the modern age can be seen in Blair final analysis of Tennyson, another fitting choice given his prominence and long-reign as poet-laureate. This chapter is a culmination of what the others were moving towards: a full understanding of the relationship between meter and meaning in relation to medicine and poetry. In this, Blair’s finest chapter, she considers Tennyson’s sympathetic view of the universal heart, questioning whether it represents a healthy or diseased worldview. Within this analysis Blair explores two of Tennyson’s most famous poems, both riddled with heartsickness: "In Memoriam and Maud." Blair argues that in the former the speaker refuses to discuss the heart directly, yet heartsickness is still evident through a meter that, though controlled, is resented by the speaker. As the poem progresses, however, the speaker moves from having a diseased heart (from his loss) to being in good health, a credit to his ability to feel again and perhaps to regain his religious faith. In contrast, the heart is a constant image in "Maud," demonstrating the deranged heart which reflects the unbalanced mind. Blair refuses the obvious psychological reading and instead provides a fresh reading of the poem as representing the culture of the heart through its pathological symbolism, Spasmodic features, and medical references. This chapter captures the importance of the heart to Victorian poetry and demonstrates the strength of this book.

Although Blair does cover some familiar ground at times, the overall focus of this book provides such an important look into an overlooked organ that one is willing to forgive any repetition of previous criticism. The need to consider the heart as a literal and symbolic element of Victorian poetry has been neglected; this book begins to redress this disregard in a fresh and exciting way, suggesting that there is more to the heart than just its beat.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Magic Mountains

Nicholas Lezard

When this edition of the book dropped through the letterbox, I was mildly intrigued. When a reissue of the Penguin Classics edition followed a couple of days later, I took it as a recommendation from providence. This is, after all, one of the great unread ancient European books. Our own national contribution to the genre is the Domesday Book, which is also now published by Penguin; but Polo's Travels offer, unlike Domesday, the conventional pleasures of reading, in spades.

I imagine that more people have read Calvino's Invisible Cities than Polo's Travels. In Calvino's book, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of various imaginary cities he has visited - all of them, if you wish, in some way versions of his own home town, Venice. So in a sense we feel we have "read" Marco Polo already, when all we have done is seen his reflection, an upside-down image in a lagoon. (Which I suspect was precisely Calvino's intent, or one of them.) Here, then, is the original image: and it is just as remarkable.

Here are provinces where, for three hours of the day, the inhabitants immerse themselves up to their chins in water so as to escape the effects of a blistering, suffocating wind. Here are lakes of fire, worshipped by descendants of the Magi; here is the first western mention of the Old Man of the Mountains, who trained his assassins to welcome death by drugging them and then allowing them to experience all the pleasures of Paradise. Here are mountains so high that fires fail to cook food properly; here are eagles trained to kill wolves.

Here, too, is the province of Peyn, where, if the husband is absent from home for 20 days (by no means a rare occurrence in a region where the nearest town was typically five days away), the wife had a right to take another; even more enticingly, here is the district of Kamul, where the men not only are "addicted to pleasure, and attend to little else than playing upon instruments, singing, dancing, reading, writing... and the pursuit, in short, of every kind of amusement", but also offer their wives and all female relations to any strangers seeking accommodation, while they leave the house. When the local ruler, Mangu Kaan, discovered and banned the practice, crops failed, and, with the abrupt cessation of visits from outside, the area's entire income dried up. When the locals begged Kaan to reconsider, he replied: "Since you appear so anxious to persist in your own shame, let it be granted." By the time Marco Polo arrived, things were back to normal. Likewise, ambassadors to the great Khan's court were offered a different courtesan each night. Polo was away from home for 26 years, and stayed with Khan for 17 of them.

I have gone for the much older translation rather than Ronald Latham's 1958 Penguin version. The latter is more complete and, strictly speaking, more useful - Polo's text exists in numerous versions, and it's not always easy to tell what was put in later - but the Norton edition (which is a 1930 scrubbing and polishing of William Marsden's 1818 translation) not only has nice illustrations, it has an excellent introduction by Manuel Komroff, a more colourful and engaging style, and wonderful notes. Example: the people of Kashcar "are a wretched and sordid race, eating badly and drinking worse". Footnote: "Their manners have not improved. See Ancient Khotan, Sir Aurel Stein." Other notes attest to the veracity of some of Polo's more astonishing claims, including tricks that would appear to be beyond any contemporary scientist or magician. (Why should I become a Christian, asked Khan, when Christians "do not possess the faculty of performing anything miraculous"?)

Polo's travels endured so long in the imagination that, 500 years later, Coleridge was inspired to use some of their details in a work of visionary intensity. They coloured all subsequent imaginings of China until 1948 - and may do once again. This is a world of almost inconceivable possibility - and the remarkable thing about it is that so much of it turns out to have been true. Besides, how can you fail to love a travel book which, from time to time, gives up looking for marvels and declares: "Nothing else occurs here that is worthy of remark"?

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 2005 in The Guardian.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Butterfly Trial

Kathryn A. Kopple

Leonora Carrington

A butterfly was tried in a higher court today. 

Attended by court-appointed counsel, the butterfly appeared composed, almost frozen, to the side of the hermetically sealed glass box, where it had been held in solitary, if transparent, confinement since a team of FBI agents in khaki shorts and wielding nets went looking for the alleged suspect in a heavily wooded area in upstate New York. 

The authorities applied old-fashioned crime solving strategies to complex theoretical models involving chaos theory, quantum physics, and optics in their search efforts.  A clairvoyant also weighed in on the case.

The first to take the stand was an aged scientist, well versed in his field, who explained with clinical precision all the ways in which a flutter of a butterfly's wings in Brazil might set off a tornado in Texas.  Outraged, people swarmed the streets denouncing the oppression of Intelligent Design Theory.  The authorities arrested several of the protestors, including a man with a giant blue monarch tattoo on his back, and the trial resumed.   

Throughout, the butterfly showed little remorse.  It appeared utterly indifferent to the harsh words uttered against it, even when the prosecution labeled the creature "evil," "mass murderer," and "sociopath."

In a unanimous decision, the butterfly was sentenced to death, and would have been led out of the courtroom in chains, except that the heavy weight would have crushed it—thus denying the State the opportunity to see that justice was served.  It was decided to keep the butterfly in its glass prison until it could be transferred to death row.

The death penalty would have to be enacted swiftly, since butterflies have short life spans anyway.  Just as the butterfly was about to be taken out of the courtroom, the defense counsel, rising to his feet with a defeated look on his face, knocked his client off the table, whereupon the glass broke, and the prosecution, in an effort avoid the flying shards of glass, crushed the stunned monarch underfoot.

 The butterfly's death was deemed accidental and no charges were brought against the prosecution.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Marguerite Duras, 81, Author Who Explored Love and Sex

Alan Riding

Marguerite Duras, author of the best-selling novel "The Lover" and one of the most widely read French writers of the postwar era, died today [March 4, 1996] at her home in Paris. She was 81.

Miss Duras, who was also a prolific playwright, film maker and screenwriter, was best known for the way she used her early life in French Indochina as the inspiration for many of her works, including "The Lover," the story of her clandestine teen-age romance with a wealthy young Chinese man. Yet perhaps what most characterized her 53-year literary career was her simple, terse writing style, as if language itself were merely a vehicle for conveying passion and desire, pain and despair. The mysteries of love and sex consumed her, but she had no room for sentimentality in her works, or indeed, in her life.

I write about love, yes, but not about tenderness," she said in a 1990 interview. "I don't like tender people. I myself am very harsh. When I love someone, I desire them. But tenderness supposes the exclusion of desire." Ever provocative in her use of language, she always bowed to the supremacy of words. "Acting doesn't bring anything to a text," Miss Duras wrote of her work for cinema and theater. "On the contrary, it detracts from it -- lessens its immediacy and depth, weakens its muscles and dilutes its blood."

In the theater, this seemed to matter little, and her plays continue to be performed regularly in France. However, despite the enormous success of her screenplay for Alain Resnais's 1960 classic, "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," few of the 19 movies she wrote and directed herself did well, not least because words often entirely replaced action. Until her 70th birthday, her novels had a loyal albeit small readership. With the publication of "The Lover" in 1984, however, Miss Duras reached a mass audience in France and abroad. The book sold more than two million copies and was made into a well-received film in 1992 by Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Because she considered her words to be sacrosanct, she often had stormy dealings with movie directors who adapted her novels, among them Peter Brook, Tony Richardson and Jules Dassin. And when Mr. Annaud altered her screenplay for "The Lover," Miss Duras broke with him and turned her text into yet another semi-autobiographical novel, "The Lover From Northern China." She described that book, published in 1991, as a "reappropriation" of "The Lover," yet once again she seemed to be reinventing her life to a point where it became impossible to know whether her original novel, Mr. Annaud's film or her second version of the story was the closest to reality. To Miss Duras, of course, this did not matter.

She was born on April 4, 1914, in Gia Dinh, near Saigon. Her parents, Henri and Marie Donnadieu (she changed her name to Duras in the 1930's), were teachers in France's colonial service. She was only a child when her father died, and her first memories were of economic hardship, above all after her mother invested the family's savings in a disastrous rice-farming venture.

After attending school in Saigon, Miss Duras moved to France at the age of 18 to study law and political science. After graduation, she worked as a secretary in the French Ministry of the Colonies until 1941, but by then Nazi Germany had occupied France. In 1943, she joined the Resistance in a small group that included Francois Mitterrand, who remained a friend until his recent death.

In 1939, Miss Duras married the writer Robert Antelme, who was arrested and deported to Germany during the war. By the time he returned from Dachau concentration camp in 1945 (he was the subject of her 1985 book "La Douleur," later published in the United States as "The War"), she was already involved with Dionys Mascolo, who was to become her second husband and with whom she had a son, Jean.

In the late 1940's, Miss Duras joined the French Communist Party, and though she later resigned, she always described herself a Marxist. Yet perhaps her strongest political stance was her contempt for Gen. Charles de Gaulle. "He never pronounced the word Jew after the war," she said in the 1990 interview. "Many people think I am Jewish, and that always pleases me."

Her first book, "Les Impudents," was published in 1943, and from that time, she lived off her writing, gradually building a body of work that included more than 70 novels, plays, screenplays and adaptations. She eventually acquired a country home in Normandy, but her book-lined Left Bank apartment on the Rue St.-Benoit remained her Paris home from 1942 until her death.

For many years, she struggled with alcoholism -- a subject she frequently addressed in her writings -- and her health was further shattered by emphysema. But in the 1980's, long separated from Mr. Mascolo, she also found love again in an unusual relationship with a young homosexual writer, Yann Andrea Steiner, with whom she shared her final years.

Late last year, struggling again with illness, Miss Duras published "That's All," a tiny 54-page book that seemed intended to be her literary adieu to her readers, to Mr. Steiner and to herself. Written between November 1994 and last August, with each occasional entry carrying a date, it consisted of poetic bursts of love, fear and despair, as if all too aware that her death was near.

The very last entry, on the afternoon of Aug. 1, 1995, read:

"I think it is all over. That my life is finished.

"I am no longer anything.

"I have become an appalling sight.

"I am falling apart.

"Come quickly.

"I no longer have a mouth, no longer a face."

She is survived by her son and Mr. Steiner.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Delightfully Out-of-Control Sentences of a Writer in Love With Ruins

Morgan Meis

A few pages into Robert Harbison’s “Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery,” I had to stop, catch my breath, and laugh. Harbison opens the book by reflecting on a chunk of the Pergamon frieze, which was part of a second-century B.C. altar and which depicts, among other things, the mythical battle between the Greek gods and giants. The chunk somehow ended up in the “decayed industrial town” of Worksop, in Nottinghamshire, England. Meditations on the frieze lead Harbison to Peter Weiss’s “immense historico-political novel ‘The Aesthetics of Resistance,’ ” a book composed of “unwieldy blocks” of prose, not unlike the unwieldy fragments of stone that the Pergamon frieze has become over time. From Weiss we move on to Bernardino de Sahagún and Guaman Poma, “two preservers of the native cultures of Mexico and Peru.” Sahagún’s “General History of the Artifacts of New Spain” (1575-7) interests Harbison primarily because it was suppressed in Spain and “disappeared for two centuries until the hand-coloured original was discovered in the national library of Florence in the eighteenth century.” A paragraph or two about Poma and Sahagún and Harbison is off to a garbage dump in “the vanished Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus,” where fragments of lost plays by Aeschylus have been discovered. We are eight pages into the book.

Robert Harbison is a hard figure to pin down. He’s an expert on architecture—at least, he lectures about architecture here and there, though he doesn’t hold a position at any institution. He wrote a book called “Eccentric Spaces,” which was first published in 1977, and in 2000 was reissued by M.I.T. Press. On its website, M.I.T. Press explains that the book concerns “the mysterious interplay between the imagination and the spaces it has made for itself to live in.” Richard Todd, in a review of the book for the Atlantic Monthly, wrote that “Eccentric Spaces” “awakens the reader to the space around him” and described the book as “a reminder of how much we want from the world.” Reading these descriptions and others, one gets the sense that many smart people like Robert Harbison’s writing and aren’t entirely sure what it’s about.

There are also those, of course, who don’t like it. In 1980 the writer Brigid Brophy dismantled Harbison’s “Deliberate Regression” (subtitle: “The disastrous history of Romantic individualism in thought and art, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to twentieth-century fascism”) in the London Review of Books. Brophy found herself violently annoyed by the following sentence:

The way out of the impasse brought on by the decay of religion available to Wilson was an authorised version of Ruskin’s symbolic correspondence, authorised by duplicated evidence from the distant past excavated by science, and institutionalised by the artist in specific forms, like the Brighton chalice, also a calyx, a flower on its stem, attempting to work a magic which would inhere in a thing not just in one’s method for contemplating it.

“This shock-horror pile-up on the motorway manner of writing makes it hard to sort out what belongs to what,” Brophy wrote. And she has a point. You do tend to smack into such pileups when reading Harbison. This is true of “Ruins and Fragments,” too, though the grammatical traffic accidents have become a bit less dramatic, by and large. Ponder, for instance, this sentence from the prologue: “The story begins with dramatically shorn off ancient fragments, of the Pergamon frieze and Aeschylus’ plays, but we find them stuck to other things that in one sense have nothing to do with them, a grimy location in England or a rubbish dump in Egypt, but their later history is now part of them and makes these ragged scraps more riveting than the others who stayed behind in their proper places.” Not as egregious as the sentence Brophy singled out, granted, but something does go syntactically awry once we get into the first subordinate clause. Harbison seems to find nuances of meaning in the word but that are unavailable to the rest of us.

Still, just as we are about to give up on Harbison and his unfathomable sentences, we come across this line, in which he discusses the often haphazard way Montaigne structured his “Essays”:

The seeming randomness or scatty variety of Montaigne’s titles isn’t actually borne out by the text: the reality is much worse, a writer who when he wants to change the topic is capable of saying ‘And now to change the topic.’ But constant change isn’t irresponsibility or faithlessness, but almost the reverse, a kind of integrity in pursuit of the natural rhythms of consciousness. He becomes increasingly aware that his quarry is the self in all its hideous inconsistency.

Admittedly, Harbison’s now-familiar compulsion to drag the word but into rather odd territory is once again on display. Still, we must give some credit to a thinker who can call Montaigne’s writing “scatty.” More substantively, the description of Montaigne as “in pursuit of the natural rhythms of consciousness” is genuinely illuminating. Also, “the self in all its hideous inconsistency” is a great phrase. Harbison is talking about Montaigne here, but he is also, obviously, talking about himself.

Toward the middle of “Ruins and Fragments,” Harbison gets lost in a rambling but delightful discussion of Laurence Sterne’s impossible-to-categorize eighteenth-century novel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” Harbison is trying to explain the structure of Sterne’snovel, which is largely the deviation from any structure.

As each deviation from regular progress is announced, we may view it as an amusing prank—certainly the Preface finally appearing in volume three reads this way—but with a little distance, or maybe, having built up sufficient stock of such surprises, we begin to see it as an expression of the way reality works. And finally we come to feel that the whole effect is a symphonic version of the ungraspable flux of our consciousness, which moves with a life of its own, essentially out of our control.

As with the meditation on Montaigne, Harbison is clearly doing something autobiographical here. But the passage applies not just to Sterne and Harbison but to the rest of us as well: we are all symphonic fluxes. We grasp, we fumble. We hit on an illusory fragment of stability now and again, but we are not in control.

And this, ultimately, is why Harbison is so interested in ruins and fragments. They are not, in his view, aesthetic amusements to be discovered at the periphery of civilization but clues to “the way reality works.” Fragments can, paradoxically, reveal more than the whole from which they came. They tell a greater truth about fragility and time than perfectly preserved monuments. Harbison regards ruins and fragments so highly that he has written a book about ruins and fragments that reads like a series of ruins and fragments.
Plenty of others before him have written about the power of such objects, and many of those writers have crafted smoother sentences and published better-organized books. But there is a beauty in the symmetry between Harbison’s subject matter and his style. It is possible, of course, to conclude, as Brigid Brophy did, that Harbison’s mind is as jumbled as his sentences sometimes are, and that there is nothing salutary to be found in mental jumbles. One might even invoke the mimetic fallacy. But those of us who love his work love precisely the way those intellectual jumbles reflect an idea about the world.

If you have not read his work before, and wonder in which camp you will find yourself, consider the following pileup from near the end of “Ruins and Fragments”:

Among Homer’s archaisms are certain ruin-words, mainly adjectives, that no one claims securely to understand, which, it has been proposed, he didn’t understand either, but saved into his verses out of respect for their supposed antiquity. One of them—amumon—had usually been translated ‘blameless’ by analogy with a similar known word, until Anne Amory Parry insisted the word couldn’t apply to Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s accomplice in murder, so it is probably better understood as ‘handsome’. Even so it remains a patch of obscurity, like a knot in wood that there is no way to straighten into intelligible, smooth running grain.

You may smile with satisfaction after reading this paragraph, with its unlikely simile that pleasingly gets at the knotty delights of Homeric Greek. Or you may wince at its clauses and commas and general clutter. I am of the former camp. To me, Harbison’s books, difficult as they may sometimes be to understand, consistently provide brief, fragmentary glimmers of hope.

Credits:  This article was originally published in 2015 in The New Yorker

Friday, May 11, 2018

The lasting appeal of Christopher Isherwood

Peter Parker

Otto Dix

On November 29, 1929 Christopher Isherwood packed two suitcases and a rucksack and set off for Berlin on a one-way ticket. “To Christopher, Berlin meant Boys”, he later wrote, and by going to live there he was rejecting both his upper-middle-class background and the social values to which his mother, widowed in the First World War, was still clinging. This ferocious family quarrel had been dramatised in his highly accomplished but heavily remaindered first novel, All the Conspirators, published in 1928.

In Berlin he would work on a second novel, The Memorial, which further explored the gulf between the generations caused by the war and was admired by EM Forster among others. It was, however, the novels he wrote about Berlin, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), that made his reputation as one of the leading writers of his generation, providing an indelible tragic-comic portrait of a city teetering on the brink of catastrophe as Hitler gained in popular support.

While Isherwood, who was born on 26 August 1904, was attracted to Berlin by the ready availability of homosexual partners there, he always had a keen journalist’s instinct for being in the right place at the right time. “Here was the seething brew of history in the making,” he wrote, “a brew which would test the truth of all the political theories, just as actual cooking tests the cookery books. The Berlin brew seethed with unemployment, malnutrition, stock market panic, hatred of the Versailles Treaty and other potent ingredients.”

Isherwood’s Berlin novels portray this history-in-the-making at street level, showing how ordinary people were affected. Isherwood’s sharp eye for physical detail and human oddity means that his characters are never merely representative of their class or condition, but leap off the page and live on in the memory. And in the feckless cabaret singer Sally Bowles (on whose story the stage musical Cabaret was later based) he created one of literature’s immortals.

Isherwood’s lasting attraction as a writer, apart from the unfading crispness and sheer readability of his prose, is that he encompassed a century. Although born into the Edwardian age in 1904, he still seems strikingly modern. He may have effectively left England in 1929, but he took his Englishness with him, becoming, as he put it, “a permanent foreigner”. He recognised that being an outsider wherever he went, both nationally and sexually, gave him an invaluable perspective as a writer.

Having fled Berlin in May 1933, he spent the next few years trailing around Europe with his young German lover Heinz Neddermeyer in search of a country in which they could settle without being harried by immigration officials and the Nazi authorities. Heinz was eventually imprisoned for draft evasion and sexual offences, after which Isherwood travelled to China as a somewhat improbable war reporter with his friend WH Auden. The two emigrated to America in 1939 and Isherwood settled in California. He worked with leading directors in Hollywood, became the disciple of a Hindu guru long before hippies followed in The Beatles’ footsteps to India, and ended up a figurehead of the Gay Liberation movement. He died in 1986.

Every step along the way is recorded in the books he wrote, so that reading Isherwood gives one a real sense of what it was like to live through the 20th century, a century characterised by wars, the clash of ideologies, widespread deracination and massive social change.

Isherwood, who died on 4 January 1986 aged 81, was celebrated in 2011 in Kevin Elyot’s adaptation for BBC "Two of Christopher and His Kind," Isherwood’s memoir of his life in the Thirties, published in 1977. Taking advantage of the new freedoms resulting from gay liberation, Isherwood not only placed his homosexual experiences back at the centre of his Berlin life in this book, but went on to describe his further travels throughout what Auden described as “a low dishonest decade”. As in Goodbye to Berlin, this is a personal story played out against and driven by history. The familiar refugee experience is given a novel twist, however, for it is sexuality rather than race that forces Isherwood to seek another homeland. The book ends hopefully with him setting sail for America, like many European émigrés; and it is here that a whole new chapter of his life and work will open.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 2015 in The Telegraph.

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