Saturday, August 28, 2010

Hans Fallada

Rudolf Ditzen, who wrote under the name Hans Fallada, lived a chaotic life. Born in 1893 in Greifswald in north-east Germany, he was the son of a lawyer who was later appointed a judge. At the age of 18 he killed a schoolfriend in a duel, and spent much of his career in psychiatric hospitals and drying-out clinics or in prison for thieving and embezzlement to support his morphine habit. In between, he worked on the land, wrote a couple of novels and held down jobs for a period on newspapers.
Fallada married in 1929, and for a while straightened out. His 1932 novel, Kleiner Mann - was nun? ("Little Man - What Now?") brought him praise from Thomas Mann, international success, a Hollywood film and a small farm. Under the Nazis, Fallada wrote and published a series of gritty novels of the type that German critics call neue Sachlichkeit, or new objectivity. In 1944, he shot at his wife in a quarrel and was confined again to a psychiatric hospital.

At the end of the war, Fallada was embraced by the new East German literary authorities. In 1947, he published with Aufbau-Verlag Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein ("Each dies only for himself") which is here called Alone in Berlin. It was the first novel by a German author to take as its theme the small-scale domestic resistance to the National Socialists. The same year, weakened by years of alcoholism and drug-taking, Fallada died of a heart attack.

Traces of this unruly life are scattered through Alone in Berlin: brawling, delirium tremens, clinics and drying-out establishments, country idylls, theft, blackmail, morphine, and a vivid world of sub-proletarian swindling that exploits and is exploited by the Nazis. It is remarkable that Fallada, just months before his death, could compose a long novel that, after an overcrowded beginning, advances so confidently to its conclusion.

The paragraphs above are the open lines from the Guardian's review of Alone in Berlin [link], which Primo Levi called, The greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis. Those paragraphs are also a neat introduction to the incredible life of Hans Fallada, who was run over by a horse when he was 16 and, during the Second World War, recruited by Goebbels to write an anti-Semitic tract (he never did).  There is also an article about Fallada at Tablet Magazine [link] and a good review of Every Man Dies Alone [link] (the US title) at the New York Times [link], which opens with this line: A signal literary event of 2009 has occurred [...].

Denis Johnson, the publisher at Melville House who rediscovered Fallada [link], did a radio interview recently with Leonard Lopate, for a segment called "Underappreciated Literature" [link]. He speaks well, giving some new and incredible details, about Hans Fallada's life and his republication in English (for example, Hans Fallada changed his name to avoid shaming his father who was a supreme court judge). It's a great interview, the date of which would have coincided with Fallada 117th birthday (he was born the 21st of July 1893).

 Denis Johnson on Hans Fallada:

The "Underappreciated Literature" [link] series includes some brilliant interviews with authors,  critics, scholars, translators etc. about obscure writers. The episodes on Louis Couperus, Henry Green, Robert Musil, Paul von Heyse and Andre Bely are the highlights.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Vladimir Nabokov

On an afternoon not long ago, I read Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov [link]. I suspect that there is no need for me to write anything about the book - the Internet is already saturated with Nabokov criticism [link] - but Pale Fire is so uncannily good, so beautifully intricate that I am compelled to write something brief, in the vague, optimistic hope of understanding this book better or, more precisely, of coming closer to a work of art that is seemingly (and brilliantly) so unknowable. 

Pale Fire impressed me in a way that none of Nabokov's other books ever have before (I haven't read all of his work: a selection of his English novels, a translation of one of his Russian novels, The Luzhin Defense [link], and some of his Lectures on Literature [link]). It is typically clever and verbally inventive, but, formally, it is exceptionally inventive. The form is parodic; the book presents itself as a volume of poetry, published posthumously (the alliteration is unfortunate). Rather than narrowing the scope for the novel, this form - which divides the book into four pieces: Forward, Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos, Notes, and Index - opens up the narrative to an endless sequence of imaginative possibilities, which are hilarious and tragic. A narrator, Charles Kinbote, attends whimsically and ironically to stern, intellectual responsibilities. He is the editor of Pale Fire, a poem by John Shade, a recently deceased friend, and, almost out of nowhere, a story appears, full of thought and personality:
I am choosing these images rather casually. There are purists who maintain that a gentleman should use a brace of pistols, one for each temple, or a bare botkin (note the correct spelling), and that ladies should either swallow a lethal dose or drown with clumsy Ophelia. Humbler humans have preferred sundry forms of suffocation, and minor poets have even tried such fancy releases as vein tapping in the quadruped tub of a drafty boardinghouse bathroom. All this is uncertain and messy. Of the not very many ways known of shedding one's body, falling, falling, falling is the supreme method, but you have to select your stool or ledge very carefully so as not to hurt yourself or others. Jumping from a high bridge is not recommended even if you cannot swim, for wind and water abound in weird contingencies, and tragedy ought not culminate in a record dive or a policeman's promotion. If you rent a cell in the luminous waffle, room 1915 or 1959, in a tall business center hotel browing the star dust, and pull up the window, and gently - not fall, not jump - but roll out as you should for air comfort, there is always the chance of knocking clean through into your own hell a pacific noctambulator walking his dog; in this respect a back room might be safer, especially if giving on the roof of an old tenacious normal house far below where a cat may be trusted to flash out of the way. Another popular take-off is a mountaintop with a sheer drop of say 500 meters but you must find it, because you will be surprised by how easy it is to miscalculate your deflection offset, and have some hidden projection, some fool of a crag, rush forth to catch you, causing you to bounce off it into the brush, thwarted, mangled and unnecessarily alive. The ideal drop is form an aircraft, your muscles relaxed, your pilot puzzled, your pack parachute shuffled off, cast off, shrugged off - farewell shootka (little chute)! Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the eiderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, with the earth's green seesaw now above, now below, and the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord. If I were a poet I would certainly make an ode to the sweet urge to close one's eyes and surrender utterly unto the perfect safety of wooed death. Ecstatically one forefeels the vastness of the Divine Embrace enfolding one's liberated spirit, the warm bath of physical dissolution, the universal unknown engulfing the minuscule unknown that had been the only real part of one's temporary personality.
In an article (well worth reading), entitled The Problem with Nabokov [link], that coincided with the publication of The Original of Laura [link], Martin Amis attempted bravely to describe the essence of Nabokov:
They call it a "shimmer" – a glint, a glitter, a glisten. The Nabokovian essence is a miraculously fertile instability, where without warning the words detach themselves from the everyday and streak off like flares in a night sky, illuminating hidden versts of longing and terror.
Recently, Penguin decided to reissue all of Nabokov's work, including the books he wrote in Russian, living as an exile in Berlin. There is an thorough article by Leslie Chamberlain, called Nabokov in Berlin, on the Standpoint page [link].
And, this is a good excuse to post the well-watched video of Nabokov discussing Lolita with Lionel Trilling (who very nearly steals the show: "We can't trust a creative writer to say what he has done. He can say what he meant to do, but even then, we don't have to believe him!" And: "All great love affairs are tragic"), and a man in a tuxedo with a pencil mustache.  At one of my favourite moments in the video, the three men stand up, simultaneously and spontaneously, and move from the desk to the couches, which I have always interpreted as a homely, comforting gesture. 

It should be mentioned that this video also includes the famous moment when Nabokov revealed his inspiration for Lolita. And then there are the clouds of cigarette smoke...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Frank Kermode


Frank Kermode's essays and criticism have always struck me as shockingly (I use this adverb almost literally) calm, sensible and thoughtful, and, accordingly, I rarely ignore an opportunity to read him. Last week, Kermode, who was often and very eagerly called Britain's greatest literary critic, died. The New York Times ran an obituary [link] (as did many publications: The Guardian [link] and The Washington Post [link]), which included the following remark, made by Kermode, in a recent interview, describing quite neatly what, in my eyes, was so impressive about his writing: 
What I do is despised by some younger critics, who want everything to sound extremely technical. I spent a long time developing an intelligible style. But these critics despise people who don’t use unintelligible jargon.  
Many of Kermode's essays can be read the London Review of Books website [link]. Last year, Kermode reviewed a biography of William Golding for the LRB [link], which included a curious and shadowy story, which I have copied below. I smiled as I read:
Somewhere about 1961 or 1962 there occurred this episode. At the time I was teaching at Manchester University, and I answered an unexpected summons to lunch from two very eminent physicists. These men lived constantly aware of a horrific but ill-defined threat from ‘certain structures’, of the existence of which, they said, their work daily reminded them. They could not understand why there seemed to be no real public awareness of this immediate threat, and had decided that it must be given wide and powerful publicity. To whom should they turn for advice? Naively, they chose the professor of English. Of course they were not asking me to sound the alarm myself, but to nominate for the job a literary personage highly esteemed by both his professional peers and the general public. There was plenty of money available to fund the enterprise, and it seemed that nothing but good could come of it.
Various names were mentioned, but Golding’s easily prevailed. Having agreed, not cheerfully, to give the idea a try he came north and was given a dinner, during which he said almost nothing. The physicists talked and drew sketches and finally remarked that if you threw six dice you can be pretty sure they will not all come to rest with the sixes on top. But if you threw them thousands of times it might well happen at least once, and the odds on the catastrophe that was troubling them were as good as that.
Golding said little and was still silent as we drove back to my place, but when we were settled in he complained a bit about being dragged into a position in which his false reputation for wisdom had betrayed him. After much thought he offered a solution that depended on the availability of copious television advertising time. One of the professors should be shown, live, every half-hour or so, rolling his dice. Perhaps there would be suitable music, a few well-chosen and alarming words, or other inducements to listen and watch. It was a rotten idea, and he knew it, and I was sorry to have let him in for it. It was an odd part of the price he paid for innocently radiating wisdom, for somehow allowing himself to be treated as the sort of sage he had no ambition to be. For, as he wrote in one of the pieces in A Moving Target, he was, when all was said, ‘an ageing novelist, floundering in all the complexities of 20th-century living, all the muddle of part beliefs’. Better still, he was just an artist, that was his job.
And, for a less sympathetic, somewhat ideologically skewed, although convincingly fiery view of Kermode's writing and life, see Joseph Epstein's blood-spilling essay, A Passage to Forster [link], which was published earlier this year, in honour, so to speak, of Kermode's most recent book, Concerning E. M. Forster [link]. Even though I do not agree with the article, I had intended to quote, but it would be so hardhearted; yes, Epstein is merciless.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Tony Judt

I have admired Tony Judt's recent articles, which can be read at the New York Review of Books website [link] A brilliant series of biographical pieces from a writer who knew he was dying. The passage below is from the article Girls! Girls! Girls!:
[...] This story is revealing. When discussing sexually explicit literature—Milan Kundera, to take an obvious case—with European students, I have always found them comfortable debating the topic. Conversely, young Americans of both sexes—usually so forthcoming—fall nervously silent: reluctant to engage the subject lest they transgress boundaries. Yet sex—or, to adopt the term of art, “gender”—is the first thing that comes to mind when they try to explain the behavior of adults in the real world.
Here as in so many other arenas, we have taken the ‘60s altogether too seriously. Sexuality (or gender) is just as distorting when we fixate upon it as when we deny it. Substituting gender (or “race” or “ethnicity” or “me”) for social class or income category could only have occurred to people for whom politics was a recreational avocation, a projection of self onto the world at large.
Why should everything be about “me”? Are my fixations of significance to the Republic? Do my particular needs by definition speak to broader concerns? What on earth does it mean to say that “the personal is political”? If everything is “political,” then nothing is. I am reminded of Gertrude Stein’s Oxford lecture on contemporary literature. “What about the woman question?” someone asked. Stein’s reply should be emblazoned on every college notice board from Boston to Berkeley: “Not everything can be about everything.”[...]
The Guardian has published an obituary [link] and n+1 has published an article entitled On Tony Judt [link].

Charles Baudelaire

That Edvard Munch was commissioned to illustrate Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, whilst living in Paris, in 1896, is, I suspect, quite well known, even if, to me, this moment of Symbolist history is novel.

The events of the day are described superstitiously, pointedly and, at times, excitedly, by Sue Prideaux, in her biography, Behind the Scream [link], which can be browsed, in part, online [link].
[...] It was probably as a result of the contacts he met chez Mallarm√© that Munch received a commission to illustrate Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, which, though first published forty years earlier, remained a seminal work for the Symbolists. Munch was approached with the commission by Monsieur Alfred Piat, the chairman of Les Cent Bibliophiles, an association of book lovers halfway between a publishing house and a private book club. These bibliophilic societies were a phenomenon of the time. They were devoted to the production of ‘the beautiful book’, which had become decidedly less beautiful as a result of the nefarious effects of mass-production since the 1870s, when the cheaper mechanical processes arrived using etched zinc plates. […] Les Cent Bibliophiles specialised in production of Symbolist texts illustrated by contemporary artists. Like Munch, they believed in the synthesis of the arts and they took great care in marrying the artist and the text, convinced that the sum of a text and its sympathetic illustrations could achieve far greater resonance than each taken separately. Very beautiful and very expensive limited editions were produced, after which the plates were broken, and this too was part of the Symbolist principal of the enclosed, inaccessible, hermetic text.

Monsieur Piat died quite soon after approaching Munch, and so the Fleurs du Mal commission was never completed. There remain a few of Munch’s sketches. They have been married up by later hands to the texts whose grave-reek spirit they catch admirably, but one cannot help but suspect that a higher agency had a hand in the timing of Monsieur Piat’s death. The commission was bringing out everything that was self-conscious and over-drawn in Munch, who did not respond well to the stinking-lily quality of decadent Symbolism with its edge of Satanism.