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Gerard Manley Hopkins: sadness and wonder

GerardManleyHopkinsGerard Manley Hopkins has been heavily psychoanalysed since his death. Much of this seems to lie on a biographical reading of his poems, in particular the so-called Sonnets of Desolation written in the mid-1880s.They are certainly bleak:

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace/my parting, sword and strife.

England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I weár-
Y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word

Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.
To seem the stranger

There are occasions in his life that present a clear basis for melancholy – his repression of his own homosexuality at university; his alienation from his parents after his conversion to Catholicism and his entering the priesthood; his religious alienation from the material world; and his possible unrequited love for his classmate Digby Mackworth Dolben, with whom he later corresponded and wrote The Beginning of the End for, a poem designated ‘must never be printed’ by his posthumous editor. Whether or not he was rendered a depressive by these events, or as he has been labelled in modern times, a sufferer of bi-polar disorder, is an endless debate. Personally, I find ascribing subjective notions of recently defined illnesses to dead artists fairly boring, especially when they rely on biographical readings of their work.

Clearly, Hopkins certainly had any number of reasons to be depressed – whether he was or not is another matter – but by far the most interesting aspect of his ‘inner being’ is the apparently intense struggle he waged throughout his life to reconcile his conception of himself as a poet with that of a serious religious man.

The fight began with his conversion to Catholicism in 1866. Upon entering the Jesuits, he began to feel that his interest in poetry was antithetical to a serious religious life. He eventually changed his mind after reading Duns Scotus, one of the ‘Big Three’ Medieval religious philosophers along with Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham. He accepted Scotus’ argument that God exists only as an unknowable infinity, whereas the being of everything else is finite and that only the being of these ‘other things’ can be knowable by man. After reading this, Hopkins became convinced of the impossibility of finding a perfect replica of God’s beauty in nature, and began writing again and recording the natural world. However, he didn’t read Duns Scotus until 1872. He hadn’t written a word of poetry since 1866, and had burned everything he ever written up to that date.

Feelings of ambivalence towards and continuous rejection of his own poetry seem to have dogged him throughout his life, reinforced by the fact that he remained mostly unpublished during his lifetime. Later, the acceptance by a Jesuit publication of his The Wreck of the Deutschland, but its later non-publication, particularly hurt him.

In his final years, the old contradiction returned, and he underwent another crisis, coming to believe that the egotism required by an artist in seeking an audience violated his religious vows of humility, and decided not to publish anything. Later, he came to believe that a poet required an audience for criticism and encouragement. This contradiction led him to feel that he had failed both as a poet and as a priest. He died of typhoid fever in 1889, aged 44.

Hopkins produced some of the most experimental poetry of his age, completely contravening established norms. For that, and his experimental use of language – in particular, he taught himself Old English – he is often considered a proto-modernist. It is a shame he is not considered alongside Rimbaud for his revolutionary effect on poetry, who was equally violent in his shaking up of the symbolist movement and French poetry in general. As the inner life of artists can often overshadow their poetry, so can their private lives. The sexy, tragic libertinism of Rimbaud is far more attractive to a modern audience than that of Hopkins’ quiet priest.

But whatever remains, the graceful wonder for the natural world displayed in his poems is amazing:

I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night, in the white and the walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaical fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of dark Maenefa the mountain;

A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, entangled him, not quite utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight, unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, eyelid and eyelid of slumber.

His last words were “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.”


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Emanuel Litvinoff and the nature of TS Eliot’s antisemitism

Emanuel LitvinoffIt completely passed me by that Emanuel Litvinoff had died in 2011.

Unfortunately for a writer who wrote many plays, novels and poems, he seems to be mostly remembered for his incredible poem To T.S. Eliot, an attack on Eliot’s antisemitism, which he amazingly read out in front of Eliot himself at the ICA in 1951. Previously an admirer, he was horrified when poems such as Gerontion and Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar were reprinted in 1948 in his Selected Poems. There is little doubt of the antisemitic content of these poems; they are downright nasty:

“And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner [of my building] / Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp.”
– Gerontion

“The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs.”
Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar

It’s always a shame when a writer is remembered primarily for something he probably wishes he had never had to write in the first place. Especially so since most of his novels seem to be now out of print. His memoir of Jewish East End life, Journeys Through a Small Planet has a Penguin Modern Classics edition that I’ll be making sure to get my hands on.

Looking at the history of Eliot’s antisemitism and political/religious trajectory is interesting in itself. There is no doubt that Eliot was a reactionary in the Tory tradition. You could call him a ‘very English’ reactionary, but I generally hate the self-mythologising ‘very English’ label the English like to apply to anything that paints us in a good light. A Very English Civil war, a Very English General Strike, blah.

Of course, Eliot was not English, but he was desperate to firmly root himself in English society, especially upper-class society. The most obvious expression of this is certainly his conversion from the Unitarianism of his childhood to Anglicanism, identifying not only as a member of the Church of England but as an Anglo-Catholic. Then in its heyday, Anglo-Catholicism is a branch of the Anglican church that retained the most Catholic aspects of worship from the Elizabethan Settlement; sacraments, incense, veneration of Mary, confession, and even Latin Mass in some instances. Traditionally, it disdains the Protestant, or ‘low church’, aspects of the Church of England, and sees itself as part of the continuous church founded by the early Christians. Unsurprisingly, many of the original adherents to Anglo-Catholicism in the mid-19th century, known as the Oxford Movement, converted to Catholicism itself, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, who continued to write poetry as a Jesuit priest. Many High Church Anglicans in recent years have also converted, unhappy with the modest attempts at liberalisation in the CofE.

Devotional image of Charles I, from the Eikon BasilikeHigh Church Anglicanism has always been the embodiment of the traditional English establishment, and none more so than in Eliot’s time, when the aristocracy still existed as a viable economic class. Toryism, the political wing of Anglo-Catholicism and the precursor to modern conservatism, growing out of the Royalist faction of the Civil War, was clearly where Eliot found himself most at home. He stated that he was a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic [sic] in religion”. As if to amplify his reactionary politico-religious credentials, he was a life member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, an Anglo-Catholic devotional society that venerates Charles I.

The essence of the modernism that Eliot portrayed in The Waste Land, that general unease associated with complete collapse of absolutes and the assumed survival of the political and social order, led him to embrace a totally pre-modern form of conservatism. The royalism of the Cavalier and Jacobite tradition, the religious conservatism, and in the vein of all European reactionaries since the French Revolution, the suspicion of materialism, capitalism, liberalism, and democracy. Eliot’s radicalism was one of traditional, authoritarian, paternalistic hierarchies.

In this embrace of the political and religious tastes of the inter-war aristocratic classes, it would almost be surprising if somebody like Emanuel Litvinoff had not had to write a poem denouncing Eliot for his antisemitism, which was hardly a rarity among the pre-war aristocracy.

The British Union of Fascists had many prominent aristocratic patrons, and was flocked to by the sons of Earls and Barons, although many eventually were turned off by the ‘unseemly’ violence endemic at their meetings. David Redesdale, father of the Mitfords, was notorious for his antisemitic views. While sections of the aristocracy were actively sympathetic to fascism, in particular Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the anti-democratic, traditionalist, religious absolutes of High Toryism often expressed themselves in casual, or not so casual, antisemitism during the inter-war years.*

TS EliotThere have been defences of Eliot, which are as predictable as nightfall when any great artist turns out to have held unfavorable opinions, or to have done something that might make them a flawed human being. Terry Eagleton counters this very well:

“Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children? Eliot’s well-earned reputation [as a poet] is established beyond all doubt, and making him out to be as unflawed as the Archangel Gabriel does him no favours.”

Despite having felt ‘nervous’ when he saw Eliot enter, Litvinoff finished reading his poem at the ICA in 1951.

So shall I say it is not eminence chills
but the snigger from behind the covers of history,
the sly words and the cold heart
and footprints made with blood upon a continent?
Let your words
tread lightly on this earth of Europe
lest my people’s bones protest.
To T.S. Eliot

Eliot reportedly said afterwards, “It’s a good poem. It’s a very good poem.”

Having dispatched Eliot, Litvinoff later led high-profile campaigns against official antisemitism in Soviet Russia and, expressing the universality of his belief in human dignity, his last novel, Falls the Shadow, written during the 1982 Lebanon War, was set in contemporary Israel and is critical of Israeli policy towards Palestinians.

Like many obituaries and short biographies of Litvinoff, this post has ended up saying more about Eliot than him. When I’ve got a hold of Journeys From a Small Planet I’ll write something for the man himself.

*check out European Aristocracies and the Radical Right, 1918-1939, by Karina Urbach.


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Shakespeare and conspiracy: the prospect of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous

“What if I told you…that Shakespeare never wrote a single word,” plainly states Derek Jacobi at the beginning of the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s upcoming Shakespeare film, Anonymous. Shakespeare has made surprisingly few appearances on film, the last being 1998’s Shakespeare in Love,  a sort of Notting Hill-era Britcom with codpieces. It is, therefore, a shame Anonymous is not a film about Shakespeare, but takes as its subject the most peculiar aspect of Shakespeare’s legacy, the conspiracy theory that ‘the man from Stratford’ did not write the plays attributed to him.

The ‘anti-Stratfordian’ movement, as it is known, dates back to the mid-19th century, and the reasons behind the claims that somebody else wrote the plays are numerous. They frequently rely on reading the plays as autobiography, denial of evidence, and bizarre codes and ciphers believed to be hidden in the plays themselves, as well as a good dose of snobbery towards Shakespeare’s background. For a comprehensive debunking of the anti-Stratfordian myth, it is worth reading James Shapiro’s excellent book, Contested Will, or alternatively simply viewing the surprisingly clear Wikipedia page.

As for the candidates themselves, there are currently over fifty contenders, including Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, King James, and Elizabeth I. No less eclectic are their supporters over the years, who count among their ranks Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Malcolm X, and Sigmund Freud.

Two prominent contemporary figures in the anti-Stratfordian camp are Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who, in 2007, issued a ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’ that features the signatures of several high-profile doubters, as an attempt to rally the anti-Stratfordian cause. In recent years the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy has gained greater mainstream interest:  the fact that Rylance even served as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre between 1995-2005 reflects this. Jacobi and Rylance will both appear in Anonymous, and director Roland Emmerich’s signature featured on the 2007 declaration.

While favoured candidates for an alternative author swap positions fairly regularly, the current frontrunner is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, an aristocrat, adventurer, playwright, and literary patron. Anonymous intends to fight his corner – with a few embellishments, namely that de Vere was also the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I, and had an incestuous relationship with her. Even in anti-Stratfordian ranks, this is a fringe theory, and one often met with derision.

By showcasing this dramatic and controversial theory, Anonymous could prove to be an own goal for the anti-Stratfordian camp. Oliver Stone’s JFK , released in 1991, is the daddy of conspiracy cinema. It succeeded in cementing the idea of a conspiracy in the public mind; following its release, more people were convinced of a cover-up and the US government even reviewed their records of the assassination. Its success lay in the simplicity of the plot, and the fact that it followed established and prominent theories of the Kennedy assassination, the ‘magic bullet’, the ‘second gunman’ etc. Could it be that Emmerich’s desire for blockbuster success via the most controversial and bizarre plot possible has overridden the anti-Stratfordian desire to maintain an image of legitimacy? Anonymous runs a serious risk of exposing them to ridicule.

In fact, the choice of such a bizarre theory seems so poorly considered that an intriguing, and just as unlikely, conspiracy of its own could be considered. What if Roland Emmerich is in fact a Shakespeare supporter,  is deep undercover in the enemy camp, and has gone to the trouble of shooting a multi-million dollar film that contends that Shakespeare did not write his plays, but with the most preposterous storyline possible – all as some kind of cunning ‘false flag’ operation to discredit the anti-Stratfordians. But, like the conspiracies themselves, this is an unreasonable theory based on zero evidence.

Belief in conspiracy theory in the modern world is widespread, a 2003 poll indicated that 75% of Americans believe in a JFK cover-up, a 2006 poll found that nearly half of all Britons believe the death of Princess Diana was not an accident, and we have only to look at recent conspiracies surrounding the 9/11 attacks and Barack Obama’s citizenship to see that the appetite for conspiracy remains strong. Not to mention the images of ‘Da Vinci Code tours’ that appeared in the wake of the book’s popularity, ferrying hundreds of Dan Brown enthusiasts around the Vatican to conduct their own examinations of the Sistine Chapel for hidden codes.

It is difficult to understand the current widespread appeal of conspiracy theories. In explaining his opposition to the Shakespeare conspiracies in Contested Will, James Shapiro writes, “No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story…I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story.” This can seem a strong statement to make in our tolerant age, in which giving a fair hearing to every argument is highly placed. It is also a refreshing indictment of the very postmodern notion of treating every opinion as equally valid, often rejecting any notion of objective truth, even when such truth is provable.

In an extreme example, the devastating consequencies of this policy were made clear in the UK media’s reporting of the possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The scientific paper that made the link in 1998 was widely discredited by the medical community as ‘fraudulent’ and ‘dishonest’, and the scientific consensus is that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, yet, in its mission to present both sides of the arguement equally, the media rejected the possibility of objective truth and carried on reporting the link as either possible, factual, or at least as important as the other arguement, leading many parents to deny their children the vaccine and thus leaving them exposed to potentially harmful infections.

Recourse to conspiracy theory can also be an act of desperation, or a response of collective hysteria to a profound event for which ready explainations are not forthcoming. They can also be interpreted as a response to what the anthropologist George Marcus termed a ‘crisis of representation’, or the widespread disengagement and disillusionment from political structures in Western society. Here, a direct connection is made between the disappearance of meta-narratives – ‘grand explanatory schemes’ – or the decline of ideology in an postmodern and post-political age (the idea that politics no longer offers positive ideas to improve the world, but merely sound administration through crisis, of which we are almost always in a permenant state of), and the need to seek answers elsewhere, often in conspiracy. The crisis of bureaucratic democracy becomes a crisis of truth. It is an outlet for frustration, where the majority no longer sees any real ‘choice’ in the political process, to quote Slavoj Žižek,

‘The political frustration of the majority is thus understandable: they are called to decide, while, at the same time, receiving the message that they are in no position effectively to decide, i.e. to objectively weigh the pros and cons. The recourse to “conspiracy theories” is a desperate way out of this deadlock, an attempt to regain a minimum of what Fred Jameson calls “cognitive mapping.”‘

Compared to these grand speculations, the world of the Shakespeare question is an almost insignificant one, but suspicion of Shakespeare has followed the general trend of more widespread acceptance of conspiracies, and the alternative theories have recently gained a degree of respectability. At the beginning of the trailer for Anonymous, when we see his ‘Shakespeare never wrote a single word’ speech, Jacobi is not hunched beside a fire in the back room of some dingy pub, but in a packed and professional looking auditorium, minus any kind of tin foil headgear. It is indicative that having once been a mark of eccentricity, the debate has become respectable, and despite the ridiculous storyline, Anonymous has the opportunity to re-energise the debate. And it intends to do this aggressively: in a press conference last year, Rhys Ifans, who will play Edward de Vere, mentioned that the character of Shakespeare will be presented as an ‘illiterate drunk’, a reference to the more snobbish aspect of the conspiracies: that Shakespeare was too poorly educated and un-gentlemanly to have written the plays. The inclusion of the incestuous royal relationship storyline could be a coup for Shakespeare loyalists,  but the real test of the film’s success will be whether it legitimises questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, or marks a return to the days of the tin foil hat.

A shortened version of this post appears at –


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II. James Joyce, the fawning biographer, and the cult of the writer

Having had a few weeks of downtime from Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, and having re-read James Joyce by Edna O’Brien, my attitude towards Lewis’ book has softened. This is despite the fact that I still don’t like it. It doesn’t work as a biography, Lewis’ commitment to providing the story of Burgess’ life and work is minimal and a very distant second to the priority of attacking his subject. As I wrote in my last post, it is messy, unreadable in many places, and by the end the attacks on Burgess are unrelenting and bizarre.

Lewis’ book did, however, make an attempt to humanise its subject and deconstruct the aura of self-mythology that Burgess made a habit of building around himself through romanticisation and fabrication of aspects of his life and work. Cutting through the myth, de-romanticising, noting the fabrications, converting a godlike figure to a fallible human being is all part of writing a critical biography, and this is where Lewis momentarily succeeds. It gives us a clearer view of the subject’s works. The problem was that, given the savageness of his attacks on Burgess, Lewis’ efforts were self-defeating. The figure of Burgess is bought down from his heavenly pedestal to Earth, only the deconstruction is so personal and merciless, that Burgess passes through the zero-point of the earthly human, and is flung down into Hell under the weight of personal attack, unsubstantiated insinuation, and bile. We are left with a Burgess who consists of nothing but negative traits who, having been humanised momentarily, has now been mythologised again at the other end of the spectrum as inhuman. We start with Burgess as God, by his own mythologising, and are left at the end with Burgess as Satan, by Lewis’, and both are as unreachable as the other. But as made as Lewis seems, his book is a refreshing break from the kind of adoring adulation displayed to her subject by Edna O’Brien.

James Joyce is one of the most mythologised writers of the modern age, although, as opposed to Burgess, this can more easily be ascribed to those who write about him than the man himself, although Joyce was by no means a modest man. Confident of his abilities from a young age, he seemed, through years of poverty living in Trieste and Zurich, slowly building the book that was to become Ulysses, to know that one day he would be regarded as one of the greats. O’Brien goes through the motions of describing Joyce’s well-known early life in Dublin, through to his realisation so thoroughly documented in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that he must live a life committed to art. The description of Joyce’s formative years veers between either paint-by-numbers biographical writing, and being sucked into and repeating the mythology of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man itself. What is repeated could easily be a rehashed version of the novel, told through Edna O’Brien’s words.

We have Joyce drinking himself silly in pubs, taking walks along Sandymout, and cavorting with prostitutes in the grubby back streets of Dublin. All acts that were later to find a place in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses, and O’Brien’s descriptions of Joyce’s encounters with prostitutes bear significant resemblance to Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom’s hallucinagenic experience in Bella Cohen’s brothel in Ulysses.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is obviously autobiographical to one degree or another, but the danger here is in letting Joyce’s own works form his biography. Joyce did visit prostitutes in Dublin, and of course drank himself silly in pubs, but O’Brien’s retelling of these stories are told in the same romanticised manner as the books themselves. She is merely playing along with the image of the mythologised artist. She repeatedly describes Joyce as a ‘genius’, something which may not be in doubt, but which always sits uneasily in a work a biography. It shows that there is little critical distance being maintained between writer and subject.

O’Brien’s habit of describing Joyce as a genius may not be so bad in itself, but it gets worse. She quotes Richard Ellman from his biography on Joyce, ‘Joyce had read everything by the time he was twenty’. Obviously not a claim to be taken too literally, Ellman merely means that Joyce was well-read. O’Brien then supplements this with,

‘Who can blame him if in that spate of high-hearted youth and virtuosity he likened himself to Parnell, Hamlet, Dante, Byron, Lucifer, and Jesus Christ? Gravity and despair were for much later on. The Golden Fleece was his. He had snatched it unbeknownst to his literary friends and he himself would be the dragon to guard it against all predators’.

So, from being merely well-read in the eyes of Ellman, to O’Brien he is now (in her words, not Joyce’s) comparable to Jesus Christ. And apparently this is fine. The reference to the ‘Golden Fleece’ is an interesting one, what better way to mythologise the author than through tales of antiquity that are tied with concepts of divine mission and singular greatness.

Joyce leaves Dublin for Zurich in 1904, and after having grappled with a family holding him back, he now must contend with his demanding wife. While not as abusive as Lewis’ descriptions of Burgess’ first wife, Lynne, O’Brien treats Nora Barnacle with just as much animosity, displaying what at times seems like an odd jealousy. When they first leave Ireland, Nora is criticised for being homesick, mopey, inept at learning new languages, and a permanent whinger. All unexceptional emotions for somebody who has left their home country for the first time. Joyce belittles her, and at times treats her rather badly, but this is apparently ‘his way of asking forgiveness’. When she becomes pregnant with their first child, Joyce makes plans to leave her, which are justified on the next page by her irritability and mopiness ‘sapping his natural cheerfulness’. Later it gets more personal,

‘Many have been baffled that a man of Joyce’s daunting intellect chose and remained constant to this peasant woman. It is beyond these letters, it is beyond propriety, in remains inexplicable as the Eleusian mysteries’.

Joyce’s marriage is then ‘beyond propriety’. O’Brien seems to think it offensive to her sensibility that the ‘genius’ of Joyce could have been wasted on a woman that she clearly designates as inferior. This is sucking up to the subject on a different plain, and reading these words you start to long for Roger Lewis to burst onto the page and issue expletive laden insults at Joyce, if only for a bit of variety. It begins to seem like O’Brien is positing herself into the book, as the only person, from a father who didn’t understand him to a stupid wife or a jealous brother, who is capable of understanding his troubled genius.

Of course, O’Brien it not alone in mythologising Joyce. He has a legion of adulators and hangers-on unrivalled compared to the memorialisation of other writers of his time, from the popularity of ‘Bloomsday’ celebrations in Dublin to books positing Lucia Joyce, his troubled daughter who spent most of her life in mental institutions, as an unrecognised genius of modern dance, (see Lucia Joyce: Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Schloss). Joyce’s family has also been instrumental in keeping the mythology of Joyce alive, notably through the bizarre actions of his grandson and literary executor Stephen Joyce, who refuses academics the right to quote from Joyce’s work and vigorously pursues those who do through the courts. Even more shockingly, he apparently burned thousands of Joyce’s letters upon receiving them after the death of Lucia. An excellent essay by DT Max in the New Yorker a few years ago  details Stephen Joyce’s bizarre resistance to Joyce scholars.

Given this, it is not surprising that Joyce has been mythologised to the extent that he has. But James Joyce takes this to a different level, not only is it uncritical, it often seems bordering on adulation. It also makes yet another contribution to the tiresome habit of some writers to mythologise their own work or life. For a recent offender, we can look at the most tediously inept self-mythologising example of James Frey, a man apparently unaware that in an age where privacy is on the wane, if you write a purportedly autobiographical book detailing years of harrowing drug addiction, which is in reality based on being arrested once for drug possession and spending one night in the cells, the truth will come out, you will look stupid, and you will be forced to make a cringing appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show to apologise for it.

O’Brien plays along with this attitude, adulating the profession of writing to that of a superior race, for whom we can excuse everything. She writes, ‘Do writers have to be monsters in order to create? I believe they do’. No, of course they don’t. And as mad as his book is, Roger Lewis’ attitude towards Burgess is at least a break, albeit a disturbing one, from the sycophant biographer, and the boring dynamic of the myth of the writer. And in the same way that it is worth putting up with the existence of the films of Alex Cox to maintain the tradition of a director having control of his films away from the hands of studio executives, maybe it is worth suffering a biography that goes too far, like Anthony Burgess, to maintain a wider critical perspective in biography writing.

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I. Anthony Burgess and the psychopath’s guide to biographical writing

Burgess1In the past year I’ve read a few literary biographies, the strangest of which was Roger Lewis’ attempt to dissect the monstrosity of Anthony Burgess. Over the course of twenty years of researching and writing his book, Lewis grew to hate Burgess. He recounts how he first discovered Burgess in a bookshop while he was on his honeymoon on the island of Gozo, there apparently being little else to do on Gozo, and became an idolator, explaining how he consumed as many of Burgess’ books he could find in second-hand shops with religious fervour. He even began a PhD on Burgess. However, some time later, apparently coinciding with middle age, the break came, and Lewis decided that Burgess’ grandstanding prose was something ‘pathetic’, and that with all his apparent learnedness, the ‘grand old man of letters’ reputation Burgess had was all construction and facade.

Thus begins what is basically a 400 page break-up letter. And at this point I’ll include an observation that continues my (apparent) mission to not write a post that doesn’t mention either Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard – the break was a bitter one, and the caustic recrimination built up over the previous friendship, in Lewis’ case that between reader and writer, has an echo of the bitter 20 page letter Truffaut penned to Godard at the break of their friendship. The comparison is true in two ways; in the same way that Truffaut accused Godard of becoming a radical-chic hypocrite, Lewis’ book is one long accusation of Burgess being the grand old man of intellectual-chic, and for his lack of sincerity as a writer, and apparently, as a human being. The second reason is that both of these accusations against Godard and Burgess are probably valid in one way or another, and Lewis explores this on the level of an attack that takes ‘getting personal’ to an entirely new level.

Burgess was undoubtedly a literary showman, and possibly a literary conman. Recounting their first meeting in the late 80s in the first chapter, the reader really comes away with an impression of Burgess that is as negative as Lewis’. He is completely self-absorbed and uninterested in anybody but himself, and just sits around rattling off obscure literary references and reciting poetry completely out of any context. At first I wasn’t sure if the style of Lewis’ writing is meant to be a parody of Burgess. Each page is filled with diversions and a multitude of literary and cultural references that often verges on name-dropping for the sake of it, much like Burgess himself, and often a single footnote will take up half the page. Not having read anything else by him, I don’t know.

As a biography, it is a complete mess. For anybody looking for a complete biographical picture of Burgess’ life, this is the last place to come. Every now and then we get a reference point, either Burgess is in Gibraltar, Burgess is in Malaya, Burgess is writing A Clockwork Orange or a book about Shakespeare suffering syphilis and penning his best work because of it, but this quick biographical note soon becomes yet another rant over Burgess’ lack of sincerity/faux-intellectual status/treatment of his wife/treatment of co-workers/treatment of family members/general disagreeable nature. At least two-thirds of the book is taken up with this kind of vitriol, often repeating itself and covering the same ground. It could have lost at least a hundred pages in editing.

Lewis’ book has a couple of plus points, firstly for exposing Anthony Burgess as the showman and consummate bullshitter that he was. The habit he had for mythologising his own life, especially that of his early life growing up in Manchester, and his reputation of being something resembling a polymath, which of course he wasn’t. But all this, as with Eric Blair’s transformation into George Orwell, lies within the usual dynamic of the construction of the infallible literary alter-ego. At one point Lewis discusses Burgess’ claims to be able to speak fluent Malay, and then recalls a BBC documentary from the 80s which followed Burgess as he returned to Malaysia, and his being unable to order a drink in a restaurant.

However, by the end of the book you feel as if you’re being beaten round the head with Burgess’ deficiencies, and along with it oddly savage criticism for anybody who apparently ever met Burgess, among others, his second wife, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Amis, and Clive James, who are, in turn – ‘an obscure translator’, ‘piss-poor’, ‘a writer with nothing to say’, and, ‘a prat’. The criticism of his first wife, Lynne, an alcoholic and very troubled woman, is the strangest, and every time she is mentioned she is abused in some way, something usually along the lines of, ‘that nymphomaniacal alcoholic’. And along with Burgess being everything that Lewis hates about him, he is variously accused of racism and xenophobia, homophobia, as well as harbouring paedophilic and incestuous thoughts, at one point Lewis practically tells us that Burgess would have pounced on his daughters, had he had any. He then calls him a ‘complete fucking fool’.

For somebody who was so enamoured with his subject matter, Lewis’s hatred, and it is hatred, for Burgess seems by the end of the book just very strange, and very exhausting. Did Burgess refuse him an autograph? Anthony Burgess was published in 2002, and came in for a pretty savage time in the review columns. The Guardian did an interview with Lewis earlier this year to promote his new book, and at one point he says of Anthony Burgess, ‘I think we sold seven copies last year worldwide’. I can believe it; I picked it up in a discount book shop opposite the British Library for £2.

When Lewis first met Burgess, he was with Richard Ellman, writer of definitive biographies of Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats, and James Joyce. I wanted to read a biography of Joyce, but not quite ready to commit to Ellman’s, which stands at 887 pages, I chose instead to read Edna O’Brien’s James Joyce. And as self-absorbed, weird, and pathological as Roger Lewis’ book may be, it can be quietly applauded for the fact that it is a biography by a writer who is critical of his subject (although, to a mental degree), which Edna O’Brien completely fails to be, and her discussion of James Joyce often verges on the sycophantic. Both Lewis and O’Brien are literary stalkers, but while Lewis would have been sending Anthony Burgess bullets in the post, O’Brien would have been breaking into Joyce’s house and stealing his toothbrush. As a demonstration of two very different attitudes to writing biography, the differences between the two is an interesting one, and I’ll write something about James Joyce soon.


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Waugh, Pound, and political modernism

While undertaking a long voyage – we’re not sure when or where to – Evelyn Waugh was forced, against his better judgement, to enter the second-class restaurant of his ship, and upon entering exclaimed, ‘My God, you can just smell the poverty, can’t you?’

Waugh had been a bully at school, and the writer and diarist James Lees-Milne called him ‘the nastiest-tempered man in Britain’. He was a conservative, both before and after the war, and believed in the ‘natural’ separation of servants and masters. He also saw inequalities in wealth as natural, and attacked the post-war Labour government of Clement Atlee. He believed the Catholic Church to be the last bastion of defense against a ‘Dark Age’ to be ushered in by the burgeoning welfare state. Waugh’s political opinions contributed to his reputation of being a snob, taking any opportunity he could to sneer at the lower classes.

Waugh’s work and political views were informed by an era of aristocracy, a class of English society all but descimated by the Second World War, and a view of society fixed in an Edwardian mindset of unapologetic class dominance, the abolishment of which was neither possible nor desirable. Nowadays, views such as these would rightly be thought unacceptable by most people, but when looked at alongside the political opinions of some of his contemporaries, Waugh’s pale from voraciously reactionary to a comfortable English conservatism based on a sneering elitism not wholly uncommon at the time.

A strangely large proportion of these contemporaries come from the ranks of the English and American expatriate modernists, who seem to have had a particular affinity with the radical right-wing, and often identified with outright fascism. There are a couple of notable exceptions. Ernest Hemingway was associated with the anti-fascist left for much of his life; he reported on the Spanish Civil War from the republican side, narrating and co-writing the screenplay of the loyalist propaganda film The Spanish Earth, and For Whom The Bell Tolls is a sympathetic portrayl of a republican guerrilla group during the war. Virginia Woolf, in keeping with the liberal and pacifist ethos of the Bloomsbury Group, expressed anti-war and anti-militarist views throughout her life, and penned the markedly anti-fascist long essay Three Guineas, asking, among other things, ‘How should war be prevented?’.

On the other side, the story of Ezra Pound is probably the most familiar. Having spent the previous three years in Paris, where his championing of up-and-coming writers such as Hemingway, James Joyce, and T S Eliot cannot be understated,  he and his wife moved to Italy in 1924. While in Italy, Pound quickly became enamoured with fascism. Mussolini had been in power for two years, after the fascists’ successful March on Rome in the autumn of 1922. He became convinced that Jews and ‘international usury’ had been the cause of the the First World War, and became so involved in spreading the ideas of fascism that one biographer was of the opinon that no other American or English poet had been so politically active since William Blake.

He travelled to America as what can only be described as an unofficial emissary for Italian fascism, meeting congressmen  and senators to convince them to foster closer relations with Mussolini’s Italy. He carried this on until the beginning of the war, and even met Mussolini at one point, who seems to have been wary of Pound’s intentions, although he received a copy of Cantos XXX, which he described as ‘entertaining’. He wrote anti-semitic articles for the Italian press, as well as for Action, a newspaper owned by the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley. He wrote that President Roosevelt represented ‘Jewry’, and began a habit of signing off his letters with ‘Heil Hitler’.

With the outbreak of war, he petitioned American politicians to keep America out of the war. Beginning in 1935, after apparent reluctance on the part of the Italian government, Pound was given permission to broadcast on Radio Rome, on which he made his now infamously anti-semitic and pro-Axis tirades throughout the early years of the war. He was in Rome when the Allies invaded Italy, and after fleeing the city was captured by partisans, who handed him over to the Americans.

He was interned in Italy for the rest of the war, and in November 1945 was arraigned in Washington DC on a charge of treason. He was found guilty, and institutionalised until 1958. Upon his release he recanted publicly on his past, while continuing to express anti-semitic beliefs in private. That same year he emigrated again to Italy, giving a fascist salute to photographers on his arrival in Naples.

Another modernist who openly expressed her admiration for fascism, and actively participated in spreading it was Gertrude Stein. She supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and after the outbreak of war in France in 1940 she was involved in translating articles written by Marshal Pétain, leader of the Vichy regime, whom she also compared to George Washington. Some have tried to write off her stance regarding fascism as one of expediency, being a foreigner and a Jew in Nazi-occupied France. This, however, does not explain her bizarre claim prior to the outbreak of the war that Hitler should have won the Nobel Peace Prize, in her words for,

‘removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left element, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace … By suppressing Jews … he was ending struggle in Germany’ (New York Times Magazine, May 6, 1934).

Others held opinions bordering on eugenics, WB Yeats declaring that, ‘Sooner or later, we must limit the families of the unintelligent classes’, a thought echoed by DH Lawrence, “Let all schools be closed at once. The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write”.

DH Lawrence was another titan of the literary right-wing, and although he never become an outright fascist, this could be more down to timing. Lawrence died in 1930, before Hitler, Franco, and Europe’s pre-war fascist heydey. He wrote of his opposition to democracy, liberalism, socialism, and egalitarianism, and in letters he exchanged with Bertrand Russell around 1915 he disparages trade unions, and voices his opposition to enfranchising the working class. He also wrote against the French Revolution; Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity being a ‘three-fanged serpent’, and supported the idea of an absolute dictator to replace democracy.

Although he lived in Mussolini’s Italy and was not overly impressed with fascism there, it wouldn’t exactly have been surprising to see him embrace fascism had he lived another ten years to see it grow in power. The philosophical underpinning of fascism, the hostility to democracy, opposition to any attempts by the working class to assert themselves, and opposition to the ideas of the French Revolution – which all ideas of modern democracy and egalitarianism can be traced back to, as well as a yearning for dictatorship, are all apparent in Lawrence’s views.

In some less extreme examples, TS Eliot termed himself a, ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic [sic] in religion’, and was a life member of the reactionary Society of King Charles The Martyr. And F Scott Fitzgerald had some interesting, if apparently apologetic, views on race, writing in 1921 after an unhappy trip to Europe,

‘The negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race. Already the Italians have the souls of blackamoors. Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter’.

And then, seeming to abhor his own reactions, qualifies this with, ‘My reactions,” he wrote “were all philistine, anti-socialistic, provincial and racially snobbish’.

The views of many of those mentioned above often run parallel to a hostility or fear of the working class, or ‘common man’, and a desire to see him kept out of, or removed from, the cultural and political sphere. Especially in the remarks from WB Yeats and DH Lawrence quoted above regarding ‘limiting’ the families of the ‘unintelligent classes’, which we can clearly take to mean the lower classes, and the closing of schools for the ‘great mass of humanity’ who should ‘never learn to read or write’, we can see an obvious fear of various historical trends which at the time were fairly recent revelations. The schooling of all children, regardless of wealth, increasing literacy rates, self-education by working class people, and on the political side, the rise of European social democratic parties, as well as the spectre of increasingly powerful trade unions, working class unrest and communism across the continent, materialising in the revolutions in Russia (1905, 1917), Germany (1918-19), and Spain (1936), as well as the Biennio Rosso, or Two Red Years, in Italy between 1919 and 1920, after which the Italian bourgeoisie wholeheartedly embraced fascism.

This mistrust of an increasingly powerful working class, who with their increasing prominence in political life would bring with them an increasing prominence in cultural life, could be explained as the root of anti-democratic feelings among many European writers. This fear is apparent in Joseph Conrad, who was oppossed to democracy, ‘I have no taste for democracy’, and made his feelings towards the ‘common man’ obvious in his attitude to socialism, which he characterised as, ‘infernal doctrines born in the continental backslums’.

To Yeats and Lawrence, the working classes were to be kept out of the way, and if forced to confront them, they should be looked down upon, and if necessary, stamped upon. They saw themselves as living in precarious times, which they were, tasked with the protection of a culture of which they saw themselves as the elite, to be barricaded at all costs from the hands of the increasingly powerful ‘unwashed’. If fascism stood for order out of the chaos of unrest and the clamour for political and democratic freedoms, then it would find support among the cultural hierarchy. Modernist literature was particularly susceptible to this, with its emphasis on individualism, the aesthetics of beauty, and opposition to relativism and any ideas of equal value in art, leading to a hierarchical and automatic rejection of the perceived ugliness ugliness of popular, or working class culture. The growth of democracy was seen to be the vehicle for this shift in power, especially apparent in Europe, and it is no surprise that many exponents of this high cultural elite found it necessary to either stand on the right and sneer and laugh at the ‘common man’, as Evelyn Waugh did, or fully embrace politics of a more dangerous, and anti-democratic quality.


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James Joyce; for a reluctant reader

I’m currently on a Joyce bender, and since I’m starting this blog while in the middle of said bender, I’m calling it ‘Soft morning, city!’, a typically arresting Joycean statement from Finnegan’s Wake.

In the last couple of months I’ve gotten through Ulysses, Edna O’Brien’s biography of Joyce, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, none of which I had read before. Although I should confess, I bought Ulysses about ten months ago, and started it not long after that, and not much longer after that it ended up languishing on my book shelf, the introduction and only the first hundred and fifty pages having been read. It’s a daunting book, and maybe more so than most of its other ‘intimidating read’ rivals, although in terms of monumental mindfucks it’s not even on the same planet as Joyce’s later and far more monumental mindfuck, Finnegan’s Wake. But, if you are thinking of reading it and still a little worried, this picture should put you at ease.

And she’s nearly at the end. And even more impressively, according to the photographer, it wasn’t posed and Ms Monroe was genuinely kicking back with a quiet dose of Ulysses.

Ulysses deserves its reputation, it is a very tough book. But, if you read it properly and, though at points you may not know just what the fuck is going on, the wealth of vocabulary and knowledge on the page will astound you. Granted, unless you’re a massive general knowledge crazy with a particular love of the Old Testament and very obscure 19th century poets, you probably won’t recognise a lot of the references that make up the average page of Ulysses, but, (and make sure you get yourself an edition with plenty of additional material for this*), not quite sure what Joyce means when he writes ‘Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother’? Flick to the explanatory notes at the back, which could easily make up a book themselves, and Joyce’s meaning will reveal, you will see that Algy refers to Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), who was a poet and author of ‘The Triumph of Time’ (1866), which includes the line, ‘The great sweet mother…the sea’. And here is Algy;

Ulysses is littered with references like this; ‘Epi oinopa ponton (Homeric epiphet, ‘over the winedark sea’), Thalatta! Thalatta! (Attic Greek, The sea! The sea! From the Greek historian Xenophon’s (428 – 354 BC) Anabasis, chronicle of the expedition of the Ten Thousand Greek mercenaries in siege against the Persians. This was the cry of the Ten Thousand on reaching the sea), Kingstown (former English name for Dun Laoghaire, town on the south shore of Dublin Bay, and, hyperborean (Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), uses the term to describe those who, like the Ubermensch (Superman) were ‘above the crowd’(Der Wille zur Macht, The Will to Dominate) (1896).’ And these make up the footnotes that join Algy on page 5 alone.

The depth of learning and the massive effort of will it took Joyce to undertake this work is monumentally clear on each page. There is a double reason to buy a decent edition of Ulysses however, as well as for the explanatory notes, it is near essential to also be able to reference the schema, mainly so you can follow the at times entirely impenetrable plot. Ulysses is written as a series of episodes taking place over a single day, June 16 1904, during which we follow the actions of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s alter-ego protagonist in A Portrait of the Artist).

Each episode represents either an hour or two of the day, and corresponds to events in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, each episode is also designated an organ of the human body, an art of learning, a colour, a symbol, and a ‘technic’. So for example, the first episode of the second part of the book, named Calypso, takes place at the Bloom household between 8-10am, with the corresponding objects of the kidney, economics, the colour orange, the symbol of the nymph, and a narrative technic.

While this is all very helpful, it may not sound meaningful to the reader. It is. For each episode, a more thorough explanation of what is going on in the scene is given, as well as a decent paragraph referring to the corresponding scene in The Odyssey at the same time.  During my first bout with Ulysses, I failed to reference the explanatory notes at all, and eventually succumbed to an exasperated surrender. You don’t need to look at the notes on some obscure 19th century poet every eight lines or so (sorry Algy), but definitely read the chapter notes at the beginning of each episode, or you may well find yourself at a complete loss as to what is happening and contemplating a good old-fashioned book burning. Ulysses uses each episode to experiment with various English narrative styles, and this can be very confusing, especially as he often goes through several in one episode. In the episode Oxen of the Sun, (probably the most famous and difficult of the book), Joyce begins in mock latinate prose, moving through parodies of Anglo-Saxon prose, Thomas Malory, the King James Bible, John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, Laurence Stern, Edward Gibbon, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Carlyle and then finishing up with a weird concoction of pidgin English and unreadable slang. That’s every major English prose style up to 1900, in about forty pages.

It may not sound like it after all that, but Ulysses is a very enjoyable read once you make your peace with it and accept everything that it throws at you. William Faulkner’s advice is very true, ‘Approach Ulysses as an illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament. With faith’. Usefully, this can also be applied to Faulkner’s work, not exactly written with popular appeal in mind either.

Strangely enough, for a book so notoriously difficult, the subject matter and experiences of the two protagonists are very simple and day-to-day, consisting mostly of eating, drinking, defecating, talking, sex, daydreaming, sleeping and nose picking. Written at a time when there was a much greater emphasis on self-education and intellectual improvement for the common man, Joyce intended Ulysses to be educational, and not a book that allows the reader to switch off their brain after the first chapter.

If you don’t rush it, and read attentively, hopefully you will take a lot out of it, and maybe gain some understanding of its ‘important work’ status. If not, and you give up after a few chapters, maybe you’ll pick it up off the bookshelf ten months later, blow the dust off and give it another go.

*The edition I’m using and referencing notes from is Ulysses – The 1922 Text, published by Oxford World’s Classics, first published in 1993, edited and with notes by Jeri Johnson.


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