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Thursday, 16 October 2014

WRITERS ON WRITING #56: Joyce Carol Oates


I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.  Or appears to do so.

Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (1989) edited by GEORGE PLIMPTON

 


Click HERE to visit an website devoted to the life and work of US novelist, critic and academic JOYCE CAROL OATES.

You might also enjoy: 
WRITERS ON WRITING #51: Marianne Moore 
WRITERS ON WRITING #42: Anne Fine 
WRITERS ON WRITING #25: Salwa Bakr

Thursday, 9 October 2014

POET OF THE MONTH #21: Kingsley Amis





KINGSLEY AMIS, 1957






A BOOKSHOP IDYLL


Between the Gardening and the Cookery
Comes the brief Poetry shelf;
By the Nonesuch Donne, a thin anthology
Offers itself.


Critical, and with nothing else to do,
I scan the Contents page,
Relieved to find the names are mostly new;
No one my age.


Like all strangers, they divide by sex:
Landscape Near Parma
Interests a man, so does The Double Vortex,
So does Rilke and Buddha.


'I travel, you see', 'I think' and 'I can read'
These titles seem to say;
But I Remember You, Love is my Creed,
Poem for J.,


The ladies’ choice, discountenance my patter
For several seconds;
From somewhere in this (as in any) matter
A moral beckons.


Should poets bicycle-pump the human heart
Or squash it flat?
Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart;
Girls aren’t like that.


We men have got love well weighed up; our stuff
Can get by without it.
Women don’t seem to think that’s good enough;
They write about it.


And the awful way their poems lay them open
Just doesn’t strike them.
Women are really much nicer than men:
No wonder we like them.


Deciding this, we can forget those times
We stayed up half the night
Chock-full of love, crammed with bright thoughts, names, rhymes,
And couldn’t write.




from Collected Poems 1944-1979 (1980)






The Poet:  Kingsley Amis was born in South London in 1922 to lower middle-class parents who could never quite come to terms with the fact that they weren't as genteel as they pretended to be.  He was drafted into the British Army in 1942, interrupting the scholarship he'd won to read English at Oxford University to serve in the Signal Corps in northern France.  He published several poems while at Oxford and also began his friendship with fellow poet Philip Larkin – a friendship that was to endure for the rest of their lives and go on to become one of the most celebrated in all of modern English literature.

Amis married Hilary (known to everyone as ‘Hilly’) Bardwell in 1948 and moved to Swansea with her after receiving his degree, where he worked as a university lecturer for the next few years while writing his first unpublished novel.  His first published novel was the groundbreaking Lucky Jim, which appeared in 1954 and was immediately hailed as a classic by the critics, becoming a bestseller among the young, who had apparently been waiting for a book which poked fun at universities and other previously off-limits symbols of Establishment (with a capital 'E') authority.  The book subsequently became, along with John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, one of the cornerstones of what was known as the ‘Angry Young Man’ movement - a label Amis disliked and hotly disputed whenever critics attempted to apply it to his work. 

Despite producing three children together – Philip, the future prize-winning novelist Martin, and Sally – Amis and the long-suffering Hilly (he was by this time an alcoholic and a serial philanderer who still got upset after learning that she had been having an affair of her own) divorced in 1965 so he could marry fellow novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, who would leave him in 1980 and go on to divorce him three years later, citing ‘unreasonable differences’ as the reason for their split.  Amis proved to be a prolific, funny and increasingly curmudgeonly writer throughout his career, publishing almost one novel per year until his death in 1995, including The Old Devils which won the 1986 Booker Prize for fiction and was later successfully adapted for television. 

In addition to his novels and Collected Short Stories, Amis also published a memoir, several volumes of poetry, non-fiction on subjects ranging from science fiction to his ultimately disastrous love of alcohol, a James Bond novel (titled Colonel Sun and published under the pseudonym 'Robert Markham’) as well as editing two poetry anthologies including the highly regarded The New Oxford Book of Light English Verse.  He was the most famous man of letters of his generation and was knighted for his services to British literature in 1990.  A major biography by Zachary Leader, who also edited his Collected Letters, was published by Johnathon Cape in 2006.



Click HERE to read more poems by KINGSLEY AMIS at the Poemhunter.com website.


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KINGSLEY AMIS That Uncertain Feeling (1955)
POET OF THE MONTH #20: Anna Świrszczyńska
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Thursday, 2 October 2014

IRWIN SHAW The Troubled Air (1951)





Random House first US edition, 1951




'Wait a minute,' Archer said, puzzled.  'I haven't done anything.  Nobody's accused me of anything.'
  'Not yet.'  Hutt came around from his desk and put his hand lightly and in a friendly manner on Archer's elbow.  He seemed dapper and insignificant standing up, away from the cold bulwark of his desk.  'But if you become known as a partisan of an unpopular group - for whatever innocent reasons - you must expect to have the searchlight put on you.  Your reasons will be investigated - everything about you will be investigated.  People you've forgotten for ten years will come up with damaging misquotations, memories, doubtful documents.  Your private life will be scrutinized, your foibles will be presented as sins, your errors as crimes.  Archer, listen to me...'  Hutt's voice sank even lower and it was hard for Archer to hear him even though he was standing next to him.  'Nobody can stand investigation.  Nobody.  If you think you can you must have led your life in deep freeze for the last twenty years.  If there were a saint alive today, two private detectives and a newspaper columnist could damn him to hell if they wanted to, in the space of a month.'  Hutt dropped his hand from Archer's arm and smiled, to show he was through being serious.  'There is a motto,' he said, 'I am thinking of putting up over the doorway here - "When in doubt, disappear." '



The Book:  With the exception of a full head of hair, Clement Archer has everything that a man of forty-five could apparently ever want or need.  A former college history professor and failed playwright turned successful radio director, he's as respected by his number-crunching network bosses as he is by the actors and technicians it's now his task to manage, rehearse and supervise on a daily basis.  He has a charmingly ebullient wife named Kitty who's expecting their second (very late) child and an eighteen year old daughter named Jane who's beginning to attract attention as both a beautiful young woman and an actress of great if as yet untested promise.  University Town, the syndicated program he directs, is a hit and has been for years, with its star Vic Herres - who is also his best friend, a former student who convinced him to abandon his mediocre academic career to try his luck in New York - consistently topping the polls as one of the most popular radio actors of his generation.

But this is 1950, a time in American life when nobody in the arts - indeed, in any industry - can afford to take their success or its trouble-free continuation for granted.  The Cold War is barely five years old and the government's obsession with rooting out and exposing Communists and anyone even remotely suspected of harboring Communist sympathies has already destroyed the lives of several of Archer's longtime colleagues in the entertainment business.  There are Reds lurking everywhere, it seems, and their numbers are growing by the day.  Five of these alleged 'traitors to democracy' even work on University Town, their voices heard by unsuspecting millions when the program is beamed out live across the nation every Thursday night.  Archer is given a list - a list which includes the name Vic Herres - and instructed by Leonard Hutt, the despotic head of the network, to fire them because they've been publicly named as 'Commies' by Blueprint, a reactionary scandal sheet funded and published by a group of wealthy so-called 'patriots.'

Whatever his other faults, Archer is, first and foremost, a man of principle.  Realizing that unemployment and the very real prospect of never working in their respective professions again awaits the actors and the composer who have served him so loyally and well for so many years, he asks for and receives a two week grace period from Hutt's cringing subordinate O'Neill - time he intends to use to do his own checking into the personal and political backgrounds of the people he's now expected to fire.

Instead of resolving the issue, Archer's investigations plunge him into an ever-deepening morass of political, moral and personal confusion.  Frances Motherwell, his leading lady, freely admits to being a Communist, citing the effects of the Depression and a wartime romance with a doomed but idealistic pilot as her motives for joining the party.  His acerbic black comedian, Stanley Atlas, acts cagey with him, refusing to admit to any specific Communist affiliation while refusing to specifically deny one either.  Herres, when confronted with the information the network has uncovered about his past, adopts a stoic attitude to the idea of having his career ruined on the basis of what amounts to not much more than hearsay and a lot of uncorroborated speculation.  

The most pitiable cases, however, are those of Alice Weller, an aging bit-part actress whose only 'act of treason' was to speak at a post-war peace conference, and Manfred Pokorny, an Austrian-born Jewish composer who was a member of his homeland's Communist Party for two weeks in 1922 - an affiliation he subsequently denied in order to gain entry to the United States after fleeing from the Nazis.  It's for these people that Archer feels the most compassion and, in a sense, the greatest sense of personal responsibility.  If the genuinely innocent are to be roped in with the fence-sitters and the self-confessed guilty, then where, if anywhere, can the line truly be drawn between traitor and 'loyal, patriotic American.'  And what of Herres, his wife Nancy and their two young sons?  How will they be affected by this slander and the damage it's bound to do to Herres' artistic reputation and his flourishing career?

Signet Books, c. 1952
Archer is distracted from his brooding by a plea from Pokorny - fat, unhealthy, shy and unfailingly polite - to borrow $200 from him so his lawyer can fly to Chicago and collect an affidavit from a former musical associate which might prevent him being deported back to Austria.  Archer lends him the money, just as he has lent Alice Weller and another disgraced journalist friend named Burke money, motivated as much by guilt as by the desire to see the poor, apparently friendless composer finally clear his name.  But Pokorny's plan, always a gamble, backfires, with the friend in Chicago - fearful for his own future as a fellow immigrant - refusing to sign the affidavit, meaning that Pokorny will almost certainly be stripped of his US citizenship and deported to Europe.  A visit to the Pokorny home, where Archer encounters and is abused by the composer's staunchly Communist wife, only serves to worsen what's now become an intolerable situation for everybody.  

Feeling he must do more to help, Archer returns to the Pokorny apartment after dinner one night only to find the composer dead in his bath from an overdose of sleeping pills.  The next day a weary and depressed Archer finds himself becoming the scapegoat and the focal point of hatred for card-carrying party members like Mrs Pokorny and for patriots like Hutt and Sandler, whose company sponsors University Town and has begun to feel the pinch as its still unproven links to 'the Communist menace' begin to affect its reputation and, even worse, its profits.

At the same time, Archer's personal life begins to unravel.  Kitty challenges him about the money he gave Pokorny and the others - money they can ill afford to lose with the prospect of him losing his own job now a looming possibility - while Jane disappoints him by taking up with Dominic Barbante, the cynical writer of University Town and a well-known ladies' man.  Suddenly, the life Archer has enjoyed and taken for granted for so many years is gone, leaving in its place bitterness, suspicion, recrimination and fear.  Offered the chance to speak at a rally designed to unite the Communists and non-Communists against their common foe the US Government, he's at first reluctant to accept, fearful that doing so might further undermine his already shaky position with the network and the sponsor.  Yet his conscience refuses to allow him to remain silent and - following yet another bitter fight with Kitty during which she accuses him of being the dupe of Vic Herres and of being secretly in love with Vic's wife Nancy - he appears at the rally, speaking to a mostly hostile crowd who either despise him for being too weak to save the helpless Pokorny or too uncooperative for his own good and for that of the entertainment industry and, by implication, the country as a whole.

When Frances Motherwell, now converted back to the 'true path' of capitalism courtesy of Hutt, steps up to the microphone and begins to rattle off a long list of what she claims are undeniable proofs of Archer's Communist sympathies, he can do nothing but get up and leave the auditorium, aware, as a crying Nancy Herres follows him out to the elevator, that the information the self-serving and probably half-insane Motherwell has based her accusations on could have come from one source and one source only - his best friend Vic Herres.

Nancy confirms this belief as they trudge through the wintry New York streets together.  Although she still loves her husband and has resigned herself to staying with him no matter what, this doesn't prevent her from describing him to Archer as a fanatical Communist, somebody perfectly willing to sacrifice 'little things like a friend or a wife for the future of the world.'  He has used Archer in the same callous way he used Motherwell and the dead composer Pokorny - as pawns in a game he's determined his side must win at any cost.  'Forget him,' Nancy urges before she and Archer part for what they both realize, sadly, will be the final time.  'Write him off.  Don't see me.  Wipe us all out.  Please.'  Hurt and disillusioned, Archer arrives home to find his daughter trying to console herself for losing Barbante to an older woman (which shows just how much relationships have changed in half a century) and Kitty sleeping in the spare room to punish him for speaking at the rally and jeopardizing whatever may be left of their far from certain future.

The next day Archer is summoned back to Hutt's office, where he's all but flayed alive by his boss and by the equally irate Sandler for speaking at the rally despite their having expressly forbidden him to do so.  Hutt makes it clear that his failure to cooperate means the end of his career in radio, perhaps the end of his career as anything except a politically unsound 'fellow traveler.'  Archer, fully aware of this and more or less resigned to it after everything he's been subjected to so far, surprises himself by telling them both to go to hell and punching Hutt in his smug, well-fed face - an impulsive act that does nothing to aid his cause and forces a typically apologetic O'Neill to drag him from the room.  It's while he's speaking with O'Neill in the latter's office, listening to O'Neill's attempts to justify his own cowardly behavior as Hutt's hatchet man, that he receives a call from his daughter, telling him that Kitty has unexpectedly gone into labor.  Forgetting his own problems, he races to the hospital, answering O'Neill's offer to call him if he ever needs anything with the intentionally ironic question: 'Just what do you mean by anything?

Archer arrives at the hospital to find his wife in an immense amount of pain and literally fighting for her life.  Their child, a son, is born a few hours later, but Archer is told that the chances of the child surviving are minimal at best.  True to the doctor's word, the boy dies a few hours later - an event which, while tragic in itself, has the positive effect of reuniting him with Kitty and showing the latter how foolish she was to have placed her own selfish needs above those of persecuted individuals like Pokorny, Alice Weller and her own, unfairly maligned husband.  Leaving Kitty to sleep, Archer goes downstairs where he's confronted by Vic Herres, who has sought him out in a vain attempt to explain his reasons for betraying him.  

The two men talk, with Herres making many intelligent points about the irrelevance of ideas like 'treason' and 'betrayal' in a world that refuses to save itself from the atomic bomb and continues to place profit and the economic stimulus that is modern mechanized warfare above the idea of bettering the lot of the common man.  'America is immune to everything,' he zealously tells Archer, 'including Fascism and the common cough, because God loves us so much.  Let me tell you something about America.  We're the most dangerous people in the world because we're mediocre.  Mediocre, hysterical and vain...We can't bear the thought that anybody anywhere else might be more advanced or more intelligent or better organized or be closer to the true faith than we are - and we're ready to knock down a hundred cities in one night to stifle our own doubts.  We're the ruin-bringers.  We lick our chops, waiting for the moment to start the planes off the runways.  All over the world when people hear the word America, they spit.  We call it freedom and we'll stuff it down their throats like hot lead if we have to.'  Archer obligingly listens to these arguments but remains unmoved by them.  He tells Herres they can no longer see each other, but he can't bring himself to hate the man who has been his closest friend since they first encountered each other as teacher and student back in the politically-charged, Depression-ravaged 1930s.  'You represent fifteen years of my life,' he reminds Herres.  'I've got to make myself remember what I believed about you for many years - that you were an extraordinary man - that you were valuable human material.'  Still, this doesn't prevent him from declaring that he'll fight Herres and his kind, just as he intends to fight the Government if necessary, because, at bottom, they're interested in one and the same thing - the acquisition and maintenance of power via fear, blackmail and political intimidation.  After Herres leaves, Archer goes back upstairs to his wife, unsure as ever of his future but realizing that he's survived, and will continue to survive, as long as he doesn't betray himself by turning his back on the struggle and abandoning his principles.

Open Road Integrated Media, 2012
To say that a novel like The Troubled Air is a product of its time seems trite, obvious and, some might say, redundant.  All novels, to a lesser or greater extent, are products and reflections of the time in which they were written, published and originally read (or undeservedly ignored as the case may be).  That said, a book like The Troubled Air seems to fall into a special category, dealing as it does with what was one of the most harrowing, socially destructive periods in modern American history.  It took a brave writer (and a brave publisher) to stand up in 1951 and declare that the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee were morally reprehensible and, in fact, more 'un-American' than the alleged 'Communist menace' the Committee itself had been specifically convened to expose and eliminate.  

Clement Archer's dilemma was a common one during the first, politically turbulent half of the 1950s - to cooperate and 'play ball' with the Government or not cooperate with it, to betray your friends by 'naming names' or keep quiet and lose your livelihood and very possibly end up in jail as a result of exercising your constitutionally guaranteed right to say nothing that might incriminate you and everyone you'd ever been associated with, no matter how fleeting or incidental that association might have been.  Shaw captures the oppressive uncertainty of the period and the ebb and flow of its political rhetoric with remarkable even-handedness but it's on the personal level that the novel makes its greatest moral statements, showing how fanaticism and paranoia - regardless of which political ideology they claimed to be serving - could combine to destroy not only the public reputations of so many talented Americans (the majority of whom had no connections whatsoever to the Communist Party and had never formally joined it) but also the relationships of casual acquaintances, close friends and even husbands and wives.  The investigations carried out by HUAC and, later, by Senator Joseph 'Tailgunner Joe' McCarthy, did far more than exclude innocent men and women from their professions and deny them the means of earning a living.  They also drove wedges between individuals which remained in place for decades and, in some cases, remain ongoing sources of friction and bitterness more than sixty years later.  It's worth noting that of the three hundred writers, directors, actors and producers who were placed on HUAC's Hollywood blacklist, only 10% went on to clear their names and successfully rebuild their compromised careers.  What became of the other 90% is a story still waiting to be told.
  


IRWIN SHAW, c. 1965
The Author: Irwin Shaw was no stranger to HUAC or to the havoc it wreaked upon the careers and reputations of so many of his socially committed countrymen.  In 1951 he was named as a Communist in the right-wing anti-Communist pamphlet Red Channels because he signed a petition calling on the US Congress to review the convictions of fellow screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson - men who had been charged with contempt for refusing to cooperate and 'name names' (ie. inform on their friends) to the Committee, becoming members of what infamously came to be known as 'The Hollywood Ten' as a result of their refusal to be intimidated by their own, allegedly democratic Government.  Already a well-known radio scriptwriter and playwright whose 1936 play Bury The Dead (which he allegedly wrote in just three days) had enjoyed a successful run on Broadway, Shaw's name was placed on the Hollywood blacklist along with that of Trumbo, Lawson and many other 'politically suspicious' writers, directors and actors, prompting him to move to Europe where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life, writing bestselling novel after bestselling novel until his death from prostate cancer on 16 May 1984. 

Shaw was born Irwin Gilbert Shamforoff in the New York City borough of The Bronx on 27 February 1913, the eldest son of an immigrant Jewish couple named William and Rose Shamforoff.  It was Shaw's father, a real estate developer, who chose the family's Anglicized surname, possibly in the belief that a more Gentile-sounding name might help him attract a wealthier, non-Jewish clientele.  This instinct, if this was the case, proved to be the correct one from a financial point of view.  William Shaw's real estate business prospered, allowing the family to move to the slightly more respectable borough of Brooklyn shortly after his son's birth.  (A second son, named David, followed in 1916.  David Shaw would also go on to become a successful writer, winning a Tony Award for his contribution to the 1959 Broadway play Redhead as well as authoring dozens of TV scripts and the 1969 film If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.)  But the Shaws' prosperity did not last long.  By 1932 the business was bankrupt, a victim of the Depression which had forced hundreds if not thousands of small, independently operated businesses just like it to close right across America.  

By 1935 it was Irwin, not his financially ruined father, who was supporting the family, churning out scripts for popular radio serials like Dick Tracy and The Gumps while he wrote plays and stories for The New Yorker and other publications - including authentic classics of the latter genre like The Eighty-Yard Run and The Girls In Their Summer Dresses - that would soon see him establish a reputation as one of the most prolific and gifted writers of short fiction the United States has ever produced.  The following year saw the young author relocate to Hollywood where he wrote his first script, for a film about football called The Big Game, for RKO Pictures.    

The Young Lions, film poster, 1958
Brooklyn was an inseparable part of Shaw's life and served as both the inspiration and the setting for much of his early writing.  He attended its tuition-free local college, graduating from it with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1934 after starring on its varsity football team, and continued to think of it as home until America entered the war and he was drafted into the army, in which he eventually attained the rank of Warrant Officer.  He spent the war years as a member of a Signal Corps unit, often serving in the thick of the fighting in North Africa and Europe while churning out articles for Yank and other military publications and somehow finding time to send dozens of letters home to his wife, the British-born actress Marian Edwards, in which he faithfully recorded everything he was seeing, thinking and feeling as and when it happened.  Much of this material would later find its way into his first novel The Young Lions (1948), which became an instant bestseller and was eventually turned into a prize-winning 1958 film starring Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Dean Martin.  (Shaw was not especially fond of the film, claiming that Brando's portrayal of the Nazi Christian Diestl made the character, and the German people, seem much more sympathetic than they actually had been both prior to and throughout the war.  The film's director, Edward Dmytryk, was one of those who had willingly 'named names' to HUAC in order to salvage their careers.)

Shaw's second novel The Troubled Air appeared in 1951, earning him the approval of the critics and once again sending his name racing to the top of The New York Times bestseller list.  Ironically, his success now began to work against him, with many of the same left-wing critics who had praised Bury The Dead and his powerful early stories accusing him of selling out - a charge that would be repeated ad nauseam throughout the ensuing decades as his reputation as a 'serious novelist' suffered, not as the result of any reduction in the quality of his work, but as a result of the widely-held misconception that anyone who earned large sums of money from their writing automatically forfeited whatever right they may have had to be considered an important 'literary' novelist.  It was an irony that was to plague Shaw for the remainder of his career, placing him in the awkward position of being too talented to be considered an outright hack and too popular to have his work deemed worthy of serious critical comment and academic evaluation.

IRWIN SHAW, c. 1975
His glamorous expatriate lifestyle no doubt contributed to the misleading perception that he was nothing more than a hedonistic playboy who, by the early 1960s, had completely sold out to commercialism.  Originally basing himself in Paris, where he and his wife - and, shortly thereafter, their son Adam - lived in a series of rented apartments, he moved to the Swiss ski resort of Klosters in 1954.  Klosters would remain his home for the next thirty years and see him become its unofficial international mayor, playing host to American friends like actors Deborah Kerr and Gene Kelly, film director Robert Parrish and fellow novelist James Jones and also to 'new' European friends like actress and writer Salka Viertel and Jacques Graubart, hero of the French resistance and a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp.  Most of his later work - beginning with Lucy Crown (1956) and including the blockbusters Rich Man, Poor Man (1970) and its equally popular sequel Beggarman, Thief (1977) - was written in Klosters, either in rented apartments or at the Chalet Mia, the home his wife received as part of her settlement when they finally divorced (for the second time) after thirty, very stormy years of marriage.  Shaw was, by then, an unwell and unhappy man, too old to drink and womanize as he'd done for most of his adult life and visibly affected by arthritis, which made it difficult if not impossible for him to sit at his desk and work each day.  

Sadly, Shaw's literary reputation never recovered during his lifetime, although he's now beginning to be recognized as the uniquely gifted writer he was, one whose lifelong dedication to his craft was unjustly obscured by his earning power and his seemingly effortless command of dialogue, setting and narrative.  His attitude to what he felt to be his deliberate snubbing by the critics remained, for the most part, philosophical.  'Posterity makes the judgments,' he famously remarked in an interview published in The Paris Review in 1979, 'not The Saturday Review of Literature, or The New York Review of Books, or even the Sunday Times Book Review section. There are going to be a lot of surprises in store for everybody.'



Click HERE to visit the official author website of IRWIN SHAW, created and maintained by his son ADAM SHAW.  You can also click HERE to purchase a pay-to-download version of The Troubled Air from US eBOOK publisher Open Road Integrated Media.  To read a free online version of his brilliant, hugely influential short story The Eighty Yard Run please click HERE.


You might also enjoy:
WRITERS ON WRITING #17: Irwin Shaw
JAMES JONES To The End of the War (2011)
RICHARD YATES A Special Providence (1969)

Thursday, 25 September 2014

WRITERS ON WRITING #55: Julian Barnes


Novels tell us the most truth about life:  what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it.  Novels speak to and from the mind, the heart, the eye, the genitals, the skin; the conscious and the subconscious.  What it is to be an individual, what it means to be part of a society.  What it means to be alone.  Alone, and yet in company:  that is the paradoxical position of the reader.  Alone in the company of a writer who speaks in the silence of your mind.  And - a further paradox - it makes no difference whether this writer is alive or dead.  Fiction makes characters who have never existed as real as your friends, and makes dead writers as alive as a television newsreader.

Introduction to Through The Window: Seventeen Essays (and One Short Story) (2012)



Click HERE to visit the website of British author JULIAN BARNES.


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WRITERS ON WRITING #48: Hilary Mantel
WRITERS ON WRITING #44: Georges Simenon
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Thursday, 18 September 2014

POET OF THE MONTH #20: Anna Świrszczyńska


ANNA SWIRSZCZYNSKA, 1938





I'LL OPEN THE WINDOW



Our embrace lasted too long.
We loved right down to the bone.
I hear the bones grind, I see
our two skeletons.


Now I am waiting
till you leave, till
the clatter of your shoes
is heard no more.  Now, silence.


Tonight I am going to sleep alone
on the bedclothes of purity.
Aloneness
is the first hygienic measure.
Aloneness
will enlarge the walls of the room,
I will open the window
and the large, frosty air will enter,
healthy as tragedy.
Human thoughts will enter
and human concerns,
misfortune of others, saintliness of others.
They will converse softly and sternly.


Do not come anymore.
I am an animal
very rarely.



from Talking To My Body (1996)




Translated by
CZESLAW MILOSZ and LEONARD NATHAN




The Poet: Anna Świrszczyńska (pronounced 'Swirsh-tinsht-ka') - whose surname was sometimes abbreviated to 'Swir' in the West - was born in the Polish capital Warsaw in 1909.  Her family was artistically minded but poor, obliging her to go to work at an early age in order to help support it.  She continued to work while attending university, where she studied for and eventually gained a degree in Medieval Polish Literature.


During the 1930s she worked as an editor and as secretary to a teacher's association.  It was during this decade that she also began to publish her first, erotically-charged poems.  She joined the Resistance after the Nazis invaded her homeland in September 1939 and worked as a nurse during the bloody and ultimately unsuccessful Warsaw Uprising of August-October 1944.  During this time she was arrested by the Germans and made to wait an hour while they debated whether or not she should be executed.

After the war she moved to Krakow, where she wrote children's plays and stories and served as director of a local children's theatre until her death from cancer in 1984.  She was the winner of the Krzyz Kawalerski Oderu Odrodzenia Polski (1957), the Medal Komisji Edukacji Narodowej and many other prestigious Polish literary awards.


Click HERE to read more poems (in English) by ANNA SWIRSZCZYNSKA at thepoetryfoundation.org website.

Ci, którzy lubią czytać polskie mogą kliknąć TUTAJ, aby dowiedzieć się więcej o jej pracy w swoim ojczystym języku.


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POET OF THE MONTH #9: Julian Tuwim 
POET OF THE MONTH #7: Esther Granek
POET OF THE MONTH #12: Clementine von Radics

Thursday, 11 September 2014

WRITERS ON WRITING #54: Henry James


To tell the truth, I can't help thinking that we already talk too much about the novel, about and around it, in proportion to the quantity of it having any importance that we produce.  What I should say to the nymphs and swains who propose to converse about it under the great trees of Deerfield is: 'Oh, do something from your point of view; an ounce of example is worth a ton of generalizations; do something with the great art and the great form; do something with life.  Any point of view is interesting that is a direct impression of life.  You each have an impression colored by your individual conditions; make that into a picture, a picture framed by your own personal wisdom, your glimpse of the American world.  The field is vast for freedom, for study, for observation, for satire, for truth.'...Tell the ladies and gentlemen, the ingenious inquirers, to consider life directly and closely, and not to be put off with mean and puerile falsities, and to be conscientious about it.  It is infinitely large, various, and comprehensive.  Every sort of mind will find what it looks for in it, whereby the novel becomes truly multifarious and illustrative.  This is what I mean by liberty; give it its head, and let it range.  If it is in a bad way, and the English novel is, I think, nothing but absolute freedom can refresh it and restore its self-respect.

'Letter to the Deerfield Summer School,' published in The New York Tribune [4 August 1889] 



Click HERE to view a list of the 10 best books by HENRY JAMES as selected by his latest biographer MICHAEL GORRA.

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Thursday, 4 September 2014

ALBERT CAMUS La chute [The Fall] (1956)

Folio France, 2008



C'est si vrai que nous nous confions rarement à ceux qui sont meilleurs que nous.  Nous fuirions plutôt leur société.  Le plus souvent, au contraire, nous nous confessons à ceux qui nous ressemblent et qui partagent nos faiblesses.  Nous ne désirons donc pas nous corriger, ni être améliorés:  il faudrait d'abord que nous fussions jugés de faillants.  Nous souhaitons seulement être plaints et encouragés dans notre voie.  En somme, nous voudrions, en même temps, ne plus être coupables et ne pas faire l'effort de nous purifier...
 

It's so true that we rarely confide in those who are better than us.  Rather, we shun their society.  On the contrary, we confess most often to those who resemble us and support our weaknesses.  We don't want them to correct us, nor to improve us; it's necessary first of all that we be judged as failures.  We only wish to complain and be encouraged to follow the path we've chosen.  Finally, we want, at the same time, not to be guilty anymore and not to have to make the effort to absolve ourselves... 

Translated by BR
  

The Book:  Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a lawyer from Paris living an obscure life of voluntary exile in Amsterdam, recounts to an unnamed listener he meets in a dockside bar how he took pride and even pleasure in aiding the poor, the orphaned and the downtrodden during the course of his now-abandoned legal career, how indulging in supposedly selfless acts like helping a blind man to cross a busy street provided him with his greatest source of contentment if not of actual joy.  He always had an unnatural fondness, he confesses, for all high places - for mountains, for tall buildings, for the upper decks of boats - and viewed himself as being a socially, morally and spiritually superior human being whose sense of worth, he's since discovered, was entirely dependent on the pleasure he derived from feeling that he was looking down on the 'ordinary' mass of humanity from such remote and lofty vantage points.  

But the death of an unknown girl who jumped off a Paris bridge into the Seine - an event Clamence overheard but did not personally witness yet nevertheless made no effort to prevent - triggered a process of self-realization which culminated in him confronting and admitting the truth about himself for the first time in his life.  What he loved, he explains to his perpetually silent confessor over the course of the next five days, was not the act of doing someone a kindness, but the thought of being perceived as having acted kindly towards them by his fellow human beings.  Being perceived as being someone 'kind' and 'good' - rather than the genuine possession of these qualities and the consistent application of them in his everyday life - was what motivated Clamence's actions and caused him to behave, or rather not behave, in the shameful way he did that night.  He was nothing, he admits, but an actor playing a familiar, conscientiously rehearsed role which allowed him to create and project the image of himself he wanted others to validate by accepting him for what he pretended to be rather than the charlatan he always secretly knew himself to be.  The splash he heard as the girl's body hit the water signified more than the beginning of her death by drowning.  It also signified the beginning of his own fall from his former state of self-deceiving naiveté to one of bitter if clear-eyed self-contempt.

Stripped of his illusions, Clamence has now become a non-active non-participant in life, a self-appointed 'judge-penitent' whose efforts to lose himself in debauchery have proven as futile as his previous efforts to portray himself as an altruistic, noble-minded individual ultimately proved to be.  His decision to exile himself to the 'hell' that is the red-light district and former Jewish quarter of the Dutch capital was a conscious act of self-negation, his way of avowing and simultaneously disassociating himself from his former life of careless, socially-condoned hypocrisy.  Complacency has now replaced altruism as his new 'religion,' while his desire to hide from those who dared to question his formerly sacrosanct image of himself as a worthy and compassionate man - the girl on the bridge, the motorcyclist he argued with before leaving Paris who punched him on the street and publicly humiliated him - is surpassed only by his desire to avoid the memory of his other moral failures:  his unacted-upon plan to join the French Resistance during World War Two, his eventual decision to escape the war in Europe by fleeing to North Africa, the time he spent in a concentration camp where he was chosen to act as spokesman - their 'Pope' as he describes it - by his fellow inmates, only to betray their trust by snatching the last cupful of water from the hand of a dying man. 
 

Clamence's tale ends with him wondering aloud to his unnamed confessor - or, in other words, the reader - how he might react if another young woman threw herself off a bridge while he was nearby, thereby offering him the chance to redeem himself by saving her as he so clearly failed to save her predecessor.  ' "O jeune fille, jette-toi encore dans l'eau pour que j'aie une seconde fois la chance de nous sauver tous les deux!"  Une seconde fois, hein, quelle imprudence!  Suppose, cher maître, qu'on nous prenne au mot?  Il faudrait s'exécuter.  Brr, l'eau est si froide!  Mais rassurons-nous!  Il est trop tard, maintenant, il sera toujours trop tard.  Heuresement!'  [' "O, young girl, throw yourself into the water again so that one might have the chance to rescue both of us!"  A second chance, eh, how ridiculous!  Imagine, dear master, that they took us at our word?  We'd have to go through with it.  Brr‚ the water's so cold!  But we can reassure ourselves!  It's too late, now, it will always be too late.  Fortunately!']
 

Vintage Books UK, 2009
Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus' fellow writer and friend and later his critic and outspoken ideological enemy, called La chute 'perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood' of all of his books.  Sartre was right.  La chute is a beautiful book but in no sense is it a pretentious or difficult one in terms of its language or the simple (but never simplistic) humanistic message it conveys.  (Camus was a great writer and the mark of a legitimately great writer, as opposed to a merely clever or fashionable one, is the clarity of their prose.  Like his English contemporary George Orwell, Camus had something very specific to say and generally found a way to say it with enviable precision.)  It's been described as an attempt to re-tell the Christian myth of the 'fall' of mankind - from the state of innocence to that of sin - in secular terms, an allegory of World War Two and how it and the various atrocities it inspired were permitted to occur and even, by some critics, as a post-modernist update of Dante's Inferno.  (Nine evenly spaced streets ring the port of Amsterdam, just as nine concentric circles surround hell in Dante's famous fourteenth century poem.)  

La chute may or may not be any or all of these things but what it remains, first and foremost, is a fascinating study in human psychology which raises fundamental questions about the nature of identity and what motivates us to act in the way we choose to act or, more significantly, in the way we may choose not to act.  Are we what our actions reveal us to be or are we what we pretend to be in order to maintain our self-esteem and discourage others from viewing us in a negative light and damning us for our complacency?  If Clamence's honesty condemns him to live out the rest of his days as a tormented 'judge penitent,' his own accuser and perhaps his own redeemer then, Camus implies, the rest of us are surely condemned to share the same unhappy fate.  

Or are we?  If God is dead, as Clamence himself suggests throughout the novel, and mankind is truly alone in a cold uncaring universe, then who besides ourselves is ultimately capable of judging us?  This, I believe, was what Camus strove all his life to make us realize as individuals and act upon as a society.  Civilizations, after all, are only as fair, tolerant and compassionate as the human beings who collectively comprise them.  To end hypocrisy and the evils it inspires - complacency, selfishness, greed, famine, war and destruction - it's first of all necessary for all of us, whoever we are, to possess the honesty, and the intractable moral courage, to recognize this same hypocrisy in ourselves and do whatever we can to eradicate it.
  



ALBERT CAMUS, c. 1954
The Author:  Albert Camus once said that 'Men are convinced of your arguments, your sincerity and the seriousness of your efforts only by your death.'  His life was, in a sense, a testimony to this belief, a philosophical work-in-progress which elevated him, by the time he died in a car accident in January 1960, to the level of an intellectual cult figure and one of the world's most read and still most widely admired writers.

Camus was born on 7 November 1913 in the town of Mondovi (now known as Dréan) in El Taref, the northernmost province of what was then the French-speaking colony of Algeria.  His father Lucien, a farm worker and cellarman who only knew his second son for eight months before being called up to serve in an African Zouave regiment, was killed in 1914 at the Battle of the Marne, leaving his sons to be raised by his wife - a poor, half-deaf woman of mixed Algerian/Spanish heritage named Catherine who scratched out a meager living for herself and her children as a cleaner.  Like her dead husband, Catherine Camus was a pied-noir [black foot, as in 'treader on black soil'] - a French-speaking ancestor of Algeria's original French colonizers who considered Africa, rather than Europe, to be their true ancestral home.  Ironically, the pieds-noirs would find themselves double exiles, as unwelcome in their adopted homeland as they were in France after Algeria was finally granted independence in 1962.  The idea of exile, social as well as emotional, was to become a dominant theme of Camus' writing.  When Civil War broke out in Algeria in 1954 he found himself caught between his genuinely sympathetic understanding of Arab grievances and the desire to see the civil and property rights of pieds-noirs like his mother recognized and protected - a moral dilemma as profound, for him, as any he examined in his work. 

ALBERT CAMUS, c. 1920
Catherine raised her sons in Belcourt, a working class suburb of Algiers, in a three room apartment without electricity or running water which they were obliged, due to their extreme poverty, to share with her own tyrannical mother and her two brothers.  Camus, who was by nature a bright and curious child, did not attend school until the age of ten.  A diligent student who was already passionate about reading and football, he was encouraged in his studies by his teacher Louis Germain - a man he would publicly thank for the positive influence he'd had upon his life in the acceptance speech he gave after winning the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature.  It was Germain who persuaded Camus' grandmother to allow the boy to apply for the scholarship that permitted him to finish school and gain admittance, in 1933, to the University of Algiers.  Unfortunately, his academic career was interrupted - as was his by-now promising career as a footballer - by his contracting of what was, at that time, the usually fatal lung disease tuberculosis.  

The disease, which is highly infectious, forced Camus to leave the family home and move to the childless home of his aunt and uncle, Antoinette and Gustave Acault.  His uncle, a self-educated butcher who owned complete editions of Balzac and Zola, described himself to his customers as an Anarchist - a label his nephew, who adored the work of André Gide and André Malraux and enjoyed dressing like a dandy courtesy of the small allowance his uncle provided while he was recuperating, would eagerly apply to himself in a few more years.  The relationship between nephew and uncle soured, however, after they argued about Camus' habit of bringing girls home and 'entertaining' them in his room with the door shut.  Camus moved out of the Acault household for good when he was twenty-one and, by June 1934, found himself married to Simone Hié, the flirtatious, morphine-addicted former sweetheart of a friend.  He had, by this time, found a new, more useful mentor in Jean Grenier, a philosophy professor who helped him get a few articles published in the Algerian literary magazine Sud.  It would be Grenier who would encourage his young protégé to join the Algerian Communist Party and become, for a time, one of its most devoted and hardest-working members.

Camus earned his licence de philosophie (what in English-speaking countries would be called his BA) in 1935, following it a year later with his diplôme d'études supérieures (his MA) for a thesis titled Néo-Platonisme et Pensée Chrétienne [Neo-Platonism and Christian Thought].  He planned to become a teacher but was prevented from doing so by the condition of his lungs, which had stabilized to some degree without showing any significant signs of improvement.  (The disease would continue to plague him all his life.)  His marriage was also in trouble by this time, with Simone refusing to seek treatment for her addiction while she continued to take lovers (as did her husband, a habit he never abandoned).  They split for good in 1936, freeing Camus to pursue his interests in politics, philosophy and writing.  Under Grenier's guidance, he began writing propaganda plays for the party and delivering pro-Communist lectures - activities he felt uncomfortable recalling after being expelled from the party in 1937 and eventually disavowing Communism and the totalitarianism he felt to be inseparable from it.  He would spend the rest of his life looking for a non-tyrannical, Socialistic alternative to Communism that was as tolerant and non-partisan as Communism itself had originally and falsely claimed to be.  In time, he would develop his own philosophical response to the problems of politics, morality and existence, a system which favored individual action over collective inaction and the abandonment of any form of doctrinaire approach which obliged human beings to deny their individuality.  As he once put it:  'The only real progress lies in learning to be wrong all alone.'

After returning from a trip to France, Camus, denied access to the Communist-run theater group he'd been writing plays for prior to his ejection from the party, decided to seek work  as a journalist.  He was unhappy about this, viewing journalism as hack work rather than as a true vocation, but was left with little other choice after abandoning the novel he'd been working on for several months and needing to earn some sort of steady income.  (This abandoned novel, titled Un mort heureuse [A Happy Death], was an early version of his debut novel L'étranger [The Stranger] and remained unpublished until 1971.)  He worked as a court reporter, political correspondent and occasional book reviewer for the newspaper Algiers Républicain while continuing to work on his own projects, which by now included L'étranger, his full length play Caligula and a long essay on the absurdity of the human situation that would eventually appear, in 1942, under the title Le mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus].  

By the time this essay was published Camus' name was already reasonably well-known in Paris, where he had worked for Paris-Soir following the closure of the pacifist Algiers Républicain by the reactionary Algerian government.  He was in Paris when the Germans began bombarding the city in the spring of 1940 and, despite several attempts to enlist in the French army which saw him rejected for service on medical grounds, was relocated along with the rest of the newspaper's staff to Clermont before the Germans gained full control of France in May.  The war did not hamper his sex life in any way and saw him conduct relationships with several different women including Francine Faure, who had become his second wife in December 1940.  It was with Francine that he returned to Algiers in early 1941, where he soon began to complain to friends of feeling bored and suffocated.  He was to remain in this dejected mood until April of that year, when he sent the completed manuscripts of L'etranger and Caligula to his Paris friends Pascal Pia and Jean Grenier.  They arranged to send on his manuscripts to his childhood hero André Malraux, who in turn arranged to have them published by the prestigious firm of Gallimard.   

L'étranger appeared in 1942 and was immediately hailed as a work of genius by Jean-Paul Sartre and other left-wing intellectuals.  Camus, however, was not there to enjoy the acclaim his work now began to earn him.  Back in France but sick again, he was advised to remain with Francine's family near Lyon while she returned to Algeria and the job she had waiting for her there.  The Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 effectively severed all links between Algeria and the Continent, separating Camus from his wife until France was finally liberated in June 1944.  Francine wasn't with him, therefore, when he had returned to Paris in December 1942 to be hailed by Sartre and others as a major new literary talent.

ALBERT CAMUS and JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (seated), c. 1950
In 1943 Camus joined the staff of Combat, a French resistance newspaper for which he wrote articles under the pseudonym of 'Beauchard.'  He soon became editor of the newspaper and finally met Sartre in June of that year.  Their friendship was never as close as it has often been portrayed as being and broke down completely after the war when Camus publicly attacked Communism in the pages of Combat and then again during a US lecture tour.  The 1951 publication of L'Homme Révolté [The Rebel], his book length study of rebellion and revolution which was highly critical of Communist doctrine, turned him and Sartre into ideological enemies and saw both Camus and his work reviled by many other left-wing intellectuals as well.  From then until his death Camus remained a firm opponent of Communism, protesting in the pages of Combat, and later in L'Express which he began writing for in 1955, against the USSR's crushing of a worker's strike in East Berlin and its efforts to crush similar uprisings in Poland and Hungary.  

He was equally outspoken in his condemnation of capital punishment and the problem of Algerian independence, which he believed could only be resolved by the adoption of tolerant, non-violent attitudes by both sides.  He remained emotionally and morally divided on the subject of Algeria, with his failure to take the expected, politically-correct public stance on the question further isolating him from Sartre and many other French intellectuals, some of whom even went as far as accusing him of being a closet imperialist.  Camus responded by accusing Sartre and his friends of being nothing more than 'armchair revolutionaries.'

Although Camus became the father of twins in 1945, his new role did not prevent him from conducting numerous affairs with women like the actress Maria Casarés and the young American writer Patricia Blake - a habit which, in time, led to his wife's emotional breakdown and a failed suicide attempt.  (Francine attempted to throw herself off a balcony - an event which found its way, with the balcony substituted for a bridge, into the pages of La chute.)  Depressed by his inability to help his wife and feeling alienated from and even despised by many of his former friends and political colleagues, he continued to be plagued by ill health and disturbed by his financial and critical success, once stating that 'What makes my books a success is the same thing that makes them a lie for me.'  As the war in Algeria escalated he also found himself coming increasingly under attack for remaining silent on the issue of Algerian independence, with a student he encountered at one meeting angrily accusing him of cowardice - an accusation that went unanswered and quickly reduced him to tears.  His winning of the 1957 Nobel Prize only added to what were now his almost continuous fears and anxieties, reminding him that his time on earth was limited due to his lung problems and that he had yet to write what he considered to be his masterpiece.  Later works like his story collection Exil et le Royaume [Exile and the Kingdom] (1957) were greeted coolly by the critics who expected him to follow the unexpected return to form of La chute with another major novel.  

ALBERT CAMUS, c. 1958
Camus was working on this new novel, based on his childhood and tentatively titled Le premier homme [The First Man], when he died in a car accident in the Burgundy village of Villeblevin on 4 January 1960.  He'd originally planned to take the train to Paris but was persuaded by his publisher, Michel Gallimard, to accompany him there by car.  (Gallimard also lost his life in the accident.)  His unused train ticket was found in his pocket, while his briefcase was found to contain drafts of the early chapters of his incomplete final novel which was published, under the supervision of his daughter Catherine, in 2009.



Click HERE to visit the homepage of THE ALBERT CAMUS SOCIETY, where you will find a wealth of information about his life, work and philosophy.  To read some interesting (but unfortunately unreferenced) quotes by ALBERT CAMUS, please click HERE.  There are several biographies available, the most recent of which is Albert Camus: Elements of a Life by ROBERT ZARETSKY, published by The Cornell University Press in September 2013.  It should be easily obtainable via your local bookstore or favorite online retailer, as should the less scholarly Albert Camus: A Life by OLIVIER TODD, published in a new edition by Vintage/Random House in 1998.

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