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26. “A Bright But Unsteady Light”

Edgar Allan Poe died 165 years ago today in the early morning of 7 October 1849. Only a few details of the illness that extinguished his “bright but unsteady light” are known because his physician, Dr. John Joseph Moran, used the illness to promote his own celebrity and in the process denied posterity an accurate clinical description. One of his later accounts, one summarized by Charles Scarlett, Jr. in the Maryland Historical Magazine (1978; 73: 360-75) came to my attention shortly after returning to Baltimore after 14 years at the Dallas VA Hospital in 1988. I was so taken by Moran’s fascinating and detailed description of Poe’s final days, I decided to use it as the subject of a clinical conference that has long been my favorite – the Clinical Pathologic Case Conference (CPC) Conference. This would prove to be the first of an ongoing series of historical CPCs devoted to the likes of Alexander, Columbus, Mozart and Lenin, stretching over two decades and spawning too-numerous-to-count articles in the international press, scores of manuscripts published in medical journals, and two books.

The clinicopathological conference is a standard medical conference designed to teach physicians and physicians-in-training basic medical concepts and clinical problem-solving techniques. It is a case-based exercise, in which the featured speaker and the audience struggle together to diagnose a particularly challenging illness of some patient using only the information included in a clinical summary prepared especially for the conference. That clinical summary, distributed well in advance of the conference, typically contains all of the medical information pertaining to the case in question, except for the definitive, diagnostic test result. That result, known only to the conference organizers, is revealed at the very end of the conference as a validation or repudiation of the presenter’s conclusions. To my knowledge, our “Poe Historical CPC” was the first to use an historical, rather than a current, patient as the subject of the conference.

Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe's story "Descent into the Maelstrom" by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), published in 1919. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Descent into the Maelstrom” by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), published in 1919. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1995, during this first Historical CPC at the University of Maryland, Dr. R. Michael Benitez concluded that Poe died of rabies resulting from an unrecorded and most likely unrecognized animal exposure prior to his hospitalization in Baltimore. His diagnosis became a media sensation covered in venues as diverse as Science magazine and the answer to the final Jeopardy question of the TV show of the same name. Benitez based his diagnosis on evidence of autonomic instability (dilating and contracting pupils and an irregular pulse which alternated between rapid and slow), fluctuating delirium, and hydrophobia (suggested by Poe’s adamant refusal of alcohol and difficulty swallowing water) included in Moran’s later descriptions of the terminal illness.

Rabies, in fact, has much in common with Moran’s later description of Poe’s final illness. It is a viral encephalitis (i.e., an infection of the brain) marked by acute onset of confusion, hallucinations, combativeness, muscle spasms and seizures, all of which tend to wax and wane during the course of the illness. Autonomic instability marked by alternating tachycardia (racing pulse) and bradycardia (slow pulse), profuse sweating, lacrymation, and salivation are also characteristic. The infection is virtually always fatal, with a median survival time after the onset of symptoms of four days. Poe died four days after being admitted to the hospital.

Moran gave no such indication of autonomic instability or hydrophobia in the letter he wrote to Mrs. Clemm a month after her son-in-law’s death. Only decades later, most likely relying on memory alone, does he mention a “very low pulse” and that his famous patient’s “pulse which had been as low as fifty was rising rapidly, though still feeble and variable.”

Many diagnoses have since been offered to explain Poe’s death. The earliest and most persistent has been that of alcohol-induced delirium tremens. Moran’s later case summary, one almost certainly written to satisfy his public’s appetite for ever more moving and ironic details of his patient’s final hours, has generated several more. These include homicide, carbon monoxide poisoning, suicide, syphilis, and mercury intoxication, reflecting more an unwillingness on the part of the proposers to accept an ordinary disease as the cause of Poe’s death than any convincing clinical evidence of such disorders.

Given numerous well-documented instances of Poe’s refractory alcohol abuse and its adverse effects on his physical and mental health prior to his departure from Richmond in late September of 1849, and the nature of the illness described by Moran in his letter of 15 November 1849 to Poe’s mother-in-law, one need look no further than delirium tremens as an explanation for his death. Whether his last bout with alcohol was the result of “cooping,” his own inability to control the craving that had for so many years driven him to drink, or a second (successful) attempt at suicide will never be known. However, if one ignores Moran’s later expanded description of Poe’s final illness, which deviates so spectacularly from his initial description in his letter to Maria Clemm a month after his patient’s death, neither rabies, homicide, mercury intoxication, nor, for that matter, any of the myriad other explanations proposed in the century and a half since Poe’s death, offers a better fit than delirium tremens.

Headline image credit: A photograph (taken by C.T. Tatman in 1904) of a daguerreotype (taken by Edwin H. Manchester in 1848) of Edgar Allan Poe. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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27. A Halloween horror story : What was it?

We’re getting ready for Halloween this month by reading the classic horror stories that set the stage for the creepy movies and books we love today. Check in every Friday this October as we tell Fitz-James O’Brien’s tale of an unusual entity in What Was It?, a story from the spine-tingling collection of works in Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson, edited by Darryl Jones.

It is, I confess, with considerable diffidence that I approach the strange narrative which I am about to relate. The events which I purpose detailing are of so extraordinary a character that I am quite prepared to meet with an unusual amount of incredulity and scorn. I accept all such beforehand. I have, I trust, the literary courage to face unbelief. I have, after mature consideration, resolved to narrate, in as simple and straightforward a manner as I can compass, some facts that passed under my observation, in the month of July last, and which, in the annals of the mysteries of physical science, are wholly unparalleled.

I live at No. — Twenty-sixth Street, in New York. The house is in some respects a curious one. It has enjoyed for the last two years the reputation of being haunted. It is a large and stately residence, surrounded by what was once a garden, but which is now only a green enclosure used for bleaching clothes. The dry basin of what has been a fountain, and a few fruit-trees ragged and unpruned, indicate that this spot in past days was a pleasant, shady retreat, filled with fruits and flowers and the sweet murmur of waters.

The house is very spacious. A hall of noble size leads to a large spiral staircase winding through its centre, while the various apartments are of imposing dimensions. It was built some fifteen or twenty years since by Mr A——, the well-known New York merchant, who five years ago threw the commercial world into convulsions by a stupendous bank fraud. Mr A——, as everyone knows, escaped to Europe, and died not long after, of a broken heart. Almost immediately after the news of his decease reached this country and was verified, the report spread in Twenty-sixth Street that No. — was haunted. Legal measures had dispossessed the widow of its former owner, and it was inhabited merely by a care-taker and his wife, placed there by the house-agent into whose hands it had passed for purposes of renting or sale. These people declared that they were troubled with unnatural noises. Doors were opened without any visible agency. The remnants of furniture scattered through the various rooms were, during the night, piled one upon the other by unknown hands. Invisible feet passed up and down the stairs in broad daylight, accompanied by the rustle of unseen silk dresses, and the gliding of viewless hands along the massive balusters. The care-taker and his wife declared they would live there no longer. The house-agent laughed, dismissed them, and put others in their place. The noises and supernatural manifestations continued. The neighborhood caught up the story, and the house remained untenanted for three years. Several persons negotiated for it; but, somehow, always before the bargain was closed they heard the unpleasant rumors and declined to treat any further.

It was in this state of things that my landlady, who at that time kept a boarding-house in Bleecker Street, and who wished to move further up town, conceived the bold idea of renting No. — Twenty-sixth Street. Happening to have in her house rather a plucky and philosophical set of boarders, she laid her scheme before us, stating candidly everything she had heard respecting the ghostly qualities of the establishment to which she wished to remove us. With the exception of two timid persons,—a sea-captain and a returned Californian, who immediately gave notice that they would leave,—all of Mrs Moffat’s guests declared that they would accompany her in her chivalric incursion into the abode of spirits.

Our removal was effected in the month of May, and we were charmed with our new residence. The portion of Twenty-sixth Street where our house is situated, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, is one of the pleasantest localities in New York. The gardens back of the houses, running down nearly to the Hudson, form, in the summer time, a perfect avenue of verdure. The air is pure and invigorating, sweeping, as it does, straight across the river from the Weehawken heights, and even the ragged garden which surrounded the house, although displaying on washing days rather too much clothes-line, still gave us a piece of greensward to look at, and a cool retreat in the summer evenings, where we smoked our cigars in the dusk, and watched the fire-flies flashing their dark-lanterns in the long grass.

Of course we had no sooner established ourselves at No. — than we began to expect the ghosts. We absolutely awaited their advent with eagerness. Our dinner conversation was supernatural. One of the boarders, who had purchased Mrs Crowe’s ‘Night Side of Nature’ for his own private delectation, was regarded as a public enemy by the entire household for not having bought twenty copies. The man led a life of supreme wretchedness while he was reading this volume.

A system of espionage was established, of which he was the victim. If he incautiously laid the book down for an instant and left the room, it was immediately seized and read aloud in secret places to a select few. I found myself a person of immense importance, it having leaked out that I was tolerably well versed in the history of supernaturalism, and had once written a story the foundation of which was a ghost. If a table or a wainscot panel happened to warp when we were assembled in the large drawing-room, there was an instant silence, and everyone was prepared for an immediate clanking of chains and a spectral form.

After a month of psychological excitement, it was with the utmost dissatisfaction that we were forced to acknowledge that nothing in the remotest degree approaching the supernatural had manifested itself. Once the black butler asseverated that his candle had been blown out by some invisible agency while he was undressing himself for the night; but as I had more than once discovered this colored gentleman in a condition when one candle must have appeared to him like two, I thought it possible that, by going a step further in his potations, he might have reversed this phenomenon, and seen no candle at all where he ought to have beheld one.

Things were in this state when an incident took place so awful and inexplicable in its character that my reason fairly reels at the bare memory of the occurrence.

Check back next Friday, 10 October, as the events of the narrator’s night unfolds.

Featured image: Hotel Meade by Nomadic Lass. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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28. “There is no escape.” Horace Walpole and the terrifying rise of the Gothic

This year is the 250th anniversary of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, first published on Christmas Eve 1764 as a seasonal ghost story. The Castle of Otranto is often dubbed the “first Gothic novel” due to Walpole describing it as a “Gothic story,” but for him the Gothic meant very different things from what it might do today. While the Gothic was certainly associated with the supernatural, it was predominantly a theory of English progress rooted in Anglo-Saxon and medieval history — effectively the cultural wing of parliamentarian politics and Protestant theology. The genre of the “Gothic novel,” with all its dire associations of uncanny horror, would not come into being for at least another century. Instead, the writing that followed in the wake of Otranto was known as the German School, the ‘Terrorist System of Writing’, or even hobgobliana.

Reading Otranto today, however, it is almost impossible to forget what 250 years of Gothickry have bequeathed to our culture in literature, architecture, film, music, and fashion: everything from the great Gothic Revival design of the Palace of Westminster to none-more-black clothes for sale on Camden Town High Street and the eerie music of Nick Cave, Jordan Reyne, and Fields of the Nephilim.

And the cinema has been instrumental in spreading this unholy word. Despite being rooted in the history of the barbarian tribes who sacked Rome and the thousand-year epoch of the Dark Ages, the Gothic was also a state-of-the-art movement. Technology drove the Gothic dream, enabling, for instance, the towering spires and colossal naves of medieval cathedrals, or enlisting in nineteenth-century art and literature the latest scientific developments in anatomy and galvanism (Frankenstein), the circulation of the blood and infection (The Vampyre), or drug use and psychology (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).

The moving image on the cinema screen therefore had an immediate and compelling appeal. The very experience of cinema was phantasmagoric — kaleidoscopic images projected in a darkened room, accompanied by often wild, expressionist music. The hallucinatory visions of Henry Fuseli and Gustave Doré arose and, like revenants, came to life.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Public Domain via Wikiart.
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Public Domain via Wikiart.

Camera tricks, special effects, fantastical scenery, and monstrous figures combined in a new visual style, most notably in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror (1922). Murnau’s Nosferatu, the first vampire film, fed parasitically on Bram Stoker’s Dracula; it was rumored that Max Schreck, who played the nightmarish Count Orlok, was indeed a vampire himself. The horror film had arrived.

Cabinet of Dr Caligari 1920 Lobby Card
Cabinet of Dr Caligari Lobby Card (1920). Goldwyn Distributing Company. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Mid-century Hollywood movie stars such as Bela Lugosi, who first played Dracula in 1931, and Boris Karloff, who played Frankenstein’s monster in the same year, made these roles iconic. Lugosi played Dracula as a baleful East European, deliberately melodramatic; Karloff was menacing in a different way: mute, brutal, and alien. Both embodied the threat of the “other”: communist Russia, as conjured up by the cinema. Frankenstein’s monster is animated by the new cinematic energy of electricity and light, while in Dracula the Count’s life and death are endlessly replayed on the screen in an immortal and diabolical loop.

It was in Britain, however, that horror films really took the cinema-going public by the throat. Britain was made for the Gothic cinema: British film-makers such as Hammer House of Horror could draw on the nation’s rich literary heritage, its crumbling ecclesiastical remains and ruins, the dark and stormy weather, and its own homegrown movie stars such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Lee in particular radiated a feral sexuality, enabling Hammer Horror to mix a heady cocktail of sex and violence on the screen. It was irresistible.

The slasher movies that have dominated international cinema since Hammer through franchises such as Hellraiser and Saw are more sensationalist melodrama than Gothic, but Gothic film does thrive and continues to create profound unease in audiences: The Exorcist, the Alien films, Blade Runner, The Blair Witch Project, and more overtly literary pictures such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula are all contemporary classics — as is Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV.

And despite the hi-tech nature of film-making, the profound shift in the meaning of Gothic, and the gulf of 250 years, the pulse of The Castle of Otranto still beats in these films. The action of Otranto takes place predominantly in the dark in a suffocatingly claustrophobic castle and in secret underground passages. Inexplicable events plague the plot, and the dead — embodying the inescapable crimes of the past — haunt the characters like avenging revenants. Otranto is a novel of passion and terror, of human identity at the edge of sanity. In that sense, Horace Walpole did indeed set down the template of the Gothic. The Gothic may have mutated since 1764, it may now go under many different guises, but it is still with us today. And there is no escape.

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29. Excerpt: Roger Grenier’s Palace of Books

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“Private Life”

The expansion of the media has put the writer in the spotlight, even if, nowadays, people who write have lost much of their prestige and their importance in society. Some of them find themselves afflicted with a lack of privacy once reserved for movie stars. Sometimes they ask for it. Michel Contat writes about “this form of media totalitarianism that gives the right to know everything about someone based on the simple fact that he or she has created a public image.” This phenomenon is not so new, if you think about Sartre and Beauvoir, not to mention Musset and George Sand, Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura, or even the self-dramatizing Byron or Chateaubriand. Nowadays we have scribblers who manage to pass themselves off as writers because they’ve already made a name for themselves as celebrities.

Gérard de Nerval was a victim of the public’s need to know, due to conditions that would be unimaginable today. Jules Janin, in the Journal des débats of March 1, 1841; Alexandre Dumas, in Le Mousquetaire of December 10, 1853; Eugène de Mirecourt in a little monograph in his series Les Contemporains in 1854, wrote openly about their friend’s mental illness. Poor Gérard wrote to his father on June 12, 1854, in response to Mirecourt’s pamphlet on “necrological biography,” and said he was being made into “the hero of a novel.” He dedicated Daughters of Fire to Alexandre Dumas: “I dedicate this book to you, my dear master, as I dedicated Lorely to Jules Janin. You have the same claim on my gratitude. A few years ago, I was thought dead, and he wrote my biography. A few days ago, I was thought mad, and you devoted some of your most charming lines to an epitaph for my spirit. That’s a good deal of glory to advance on my due inheritance.”

Is knowing the private life of an author important for understanding his or her work?

The debate was renewed with great panache by Marcel Proust in By Way of Sainte-Beuve. Proust noticed that Sainte-Beuve, a subtle and cultured man, made nothing but bad judgment calls as to the worth of his contemporaries. Why? Jealousy doesn’t explain it. He couldn’t have been jealous of writers like Stendhal or Baudelaire, who were practically unknown. The fault was with his method. Sainte-Beuve wanted to adopt a scientific attitude. “For me,” he wrote, “literature is indistinguishable from the rest of man. As long as you have not asked yourself a certain number of questions about an author and answered them satisfactorily, if only for your private benefit and sotto voce, you cannot be sure of possessing him entirely. And this is true, though these questions may seem to be altogether foreign to the nature of his writings. For example, what were his religious views? How did the sight of nature affect him? What was he like in his dealings with women, and in his feelings about money? Was he rich? Was he poor? What was his regimen? His daily habits? Finally, what was his persistent vice or weakness, for every man has one. Each of these questions is valuable in judging an author or his book.”

Sainte-Beuve decides that he is engaging in literary botany.

Proust finds all this knowledge useless and likely to mislead the reader: “A book is the product of a different self than the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching deep within us and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it. Nothing can exempt us from this effort of the heart.”

Proust also writes: “How does having been a friend of Stendhal’s make you better suited to judge him? It would be more likely to get in the way.” Sainte-Beuve, who knew Stendhal and Stendhal’s friends, found his novels “frankly detestable.”

What Proust holds against Sainte-Beuve is that he made no distinction between conversation and the occupation of writing, “in which, in solitude, quieting the speech which belongs as much to others as to ourselves, we come face to face once more with ourselves, and seek to hear and to render the true sound of our hearts.”

Proust admires Balzac, all while thinking that from what he knew of Balzac’s personal life, his letters to his family and to Madame Hanska, he was a vulgar human being. Stefan Zweig raises the same issue. He admires Balzac the writer and seeks reasons to admire the man. He is infuriated because he can’t find any. He has discovered that genius is incomprehensible.

Gaëtan Picon thinks that if Proust attacks Sainte-Beuve so violently it’s because he needs to believe that genius is based on a secret distinct from intelligence. That a man whose life is frivolous and empty, a failure, can nonetheless create a great work. The question is inevitable, beginning with the case of Proust himself. How did this intolerable social climber, whom Lucien Daudet called “an atrocious insect,” become the author of In Search of Lost Time? Paul Valéry concludes his famous study of Leonardo da Vinci with a line that shows in a striking way how much distance he puts between an artist and his work: “As for the true Leonardo, he was what he was.”

Flaubert would have sided with Proust against his friend Sainte-Beuve. He writes to Ernest Feydeau on August 21, 1859, with his customary truculence, “Life is impossible now! The minute you’re an artist, the gentlemen grocers, the auditors of record, the customs agents, the cobblers and all the rest enjoy themselves at your expense! People inform them as to whether you’re a brunette or a blond, facetious or melancholy, how many moons since your birth, whether you’re given to drink or play the harmonica. I believe that on the contrary, the writer must leave behind nothing but his work. His life doesn’t matter. Wipe it away!”

He doesn’t stop there, but insists: “The artist must arrange things so as to make us believe in a posterity he hasn’t experienced.”

You’d have to put Chekhov in Proust’s camp. From his Notebook: “How pleasant it is to respect people! When I see books, I am not concerned with how the authors loved or played cards; I only see their marvelous works.”

The same is true for Henry James, who writes in his short story “The Real Right Thing”: “[. . .] his friend would at moments have shown himself as holding that the ‘literary’ career might—save in the case of a Johnson or a Scott, with a Boswell and a Lockhart to help—best content itself to be represented. The artist was what he did—he was nothing else.” In this fantasy tale, the ghost of a dead writer appears to prevent his biography from being written.

Proust seems rigid. He is right to say that there is a truth for the writer, especially if he’s a genius, that remains a mystery and cannot be explained by social appearance or private life. But he also presents a counter-argument to his own theory when he writes in Jean Santeuil: “[. . .] our lives are not wholly separated from our works. All the scenes that I have narrated here, I have lived through.”

Most of the time, the characters in Jean Santeuil and the Search are indiscreet, eager to know everything about the artists they encounter. Freud, whose theory is close to Proust’s, doesn’t hold back from delving into the private life of Leonardo da Vinci and a few others. J.-B. Pontalis suggests with a touch of malice that Proust and Freud take the opposite tack to Sainte-Beuve’s because they don’t want their own private lives examined: if Proust’s perversion of torturing rats was discovered. . . . The private lives of others are another story!

Nietzsche also pondered the question, but from a different point of view. He thinks that knowing an author distorts our opinion of his work and his person. “We read the writings of our acquaintances (friends and foes) in a twofold sense, inasmuch as our knowledge continually whispers to us: ‘this is by him, a sign of his inner nature, his experiences, his talent,’ while another kind of knowledge simultaneously seeks to determine what his work is worth in and of itself, what evaluation it deserves apart from its author, what enrichment of knowledge it brings with it. As goes without saying, these two kinds of reading and evaluating confound one another.”

But what to do in cases where the work can only be explained by the life? Why deprive ourselves of this source of knowledge?

In the case of Albert Camus, once you know about his impoverished childhood in an illiterate milieu (he described this in The Wrong Side and the Right Side, his first book, and in The First Man, his last), you understand his attitude of respect and rigor towards literature, and the tenor of his style. In the same way, his youth near the sea and the sun, and the illness that continually threatened him, explain to a large extent the spirit of his work, his thought.

Finally—and Proust is right about this—if the author is not a simple manufacturer, if he puts his interior self in his books, the reader will be attracted by this self. The reader will seek out this personal, private self beneath the sentences.

In 1922, the young Aragon wrote, “My instinct, whenever I read, is to look constantly for the author, and to find him, to imagine him writing, to listen to what he says, not what he tells; so in the end, the usual distinctions among the literary genres— poetry, novel, philosophy, maxims—all strike me as insignificant.”

Freud showed that every child constructs a “family romance” that he will later repress. Whereas the writer continues to manufacture a novel which, if not a family romance, is at least a personal one. Marthe Robert has noted that all novelists relate to some extent their sentimental education, their apprentice years, and their search for lost time. The paradox is that they confess their secrets to a piece of paper. Yet they’re careful to disguise them as fiction.

Revealing a lot about oneself is not the purview only of novelists. It is also what poets do, and not just the elegiac poets. For centuries, and in a variety of civilizations, well before there were novels, the great majority of poems came from the poet’s effusion in speaking about his life, his loves, his torments, his anger, his religious feeling, his exile. Gérard de Nerval asks, “Which is more modest: to portray oneself in a novel disguised as Lélio or Octavio or Arthur, or to betray one’s most intimate emotions in a volume of poetry?” That his life and his illness were made public by his friends gave him an argument: “Forgive us our flights of personality, we who are constantly in the limelight, and who, whether we live in glory or in failure, can no longer hope to obtain the benefits of obscurity.”

You might think that contemporary poetry, tending towards abstraction and situated in a world where the air is rarified, has little to do with private life. This is not always true. Even an erudite poet like Jacques Roubaud, who delves into mathematics, writes about a deeply personal unhappiness in Something Black.

The same is true for the playwright, the filmmaker, even the nonfiction writer. You can sense this clearly in the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes. Descartes was already inserting elements of autobiography in Discourse on Method. In this essential essay, he portrays himself in Holland, seated next to his stove throughout the winter, reflecting. Thus there is a back-and-forth movement, a dialectic, practically a contradiction. One retreats into oneself in order to communicate better with others.

Authors, whenever they delve into their own private lives, even if they embellish or transpose, find themselves confronted with the issue of personal discretion. They go well beyond simple indiscretion when they attempt to bring to light what is hidden in the deepest part of themselves.

With his taste for nonsense, Julio Cortázar describes an “enlarged self-portrait from which the artist has had the elegance to withdraw.” This little joke reveals the aspirations of so many writers: to be at once invisible and present, to say everything about oneself without seeming to.

Offering your essence to nourish what you write is what Scott Fitzgerald called “the price to pay”: “I have asked a lot of my emotions—one hundred and twenty stories. The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was one little drop of something not blood not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these in every story: it was the extra I had.”

Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t write without including his entire history. And even when he lost his creative vein, he dug to the depths of his anguish to write The Crack-Up.

John Dos Passos, another American who is now neglected after having been overrated, made a distinction between a literature of confession and a literature of spectacle. Of course he categorized his own books Manhattan Transfer and the U.S.A. trilogy as literature of spectacle. But I’m pretty sure you can find confession beneath the spectacle.

The young novelist’s first book is often autobiographical. Yet this is the phase when one has lived the least. Other, perhaps better, writers save the most personal, the most intimate in their lives or in the history of their families for much later.

On the other hand, some seem to write primarily to cover up a secret. Paul-Jean Toulet never shows his wounds—neither in his novels, frankly mediocre and marred by the most odious clichés of his era: anti-Semitism, etc.—nor in his poetry, far more charming; nor even in the letters he addressed to himself. His friends knew he had a broken heart. Why broken? And by whom? One of the qualities of his poetry is precisely that you can perceive, beyond the light-hearted fantasy, a floating veil of sadness or perhaps despair. We’ll never know the whole story. That is the claim in the last quatrain of his Contrerimes—a kind of challenge:

If living is a duty, when I will have ruined it,

May I use my shroud as a mystery

You must know how to die, Faustine, how to grow silent,

Die like Gilbert by swallowing the key.

(The allusion is to the strange death at age thirty of the poet Nicolas Gilbert, author of the Le poète malheureux [the unhappy poet] who apparently swallowed his key in a fit of delirium.)

In the life of a man or a woman there are always one or two things that he or she will never consent to speak about, not for anything. Secret gardens. But if that man or woman is a writer, we might find those things hidden deep within a novel.

We know that Dickens lived through some very unhappy times in his childhood. The casual egotism of his parents was to blame.

His father, a loudmouth who was often imprisoned for debt, is in part the model for Mr. Micawber. In chapter eleven of David Copperfield, we find, barely altered, what Dickens experienced at age twelve. For six or seven shillings a week, he packaged shoe polish in a putrid factory, working under unspeakably miserable, humiliating conditions.

While he didn’t hesitate to use this experience for David Copperfield, in life he hid the memory as his most closely guarded secret. He refused to talk about it. He even took detours in London to avoid the place where he had been so unhappy. A fragment of his autobiography was found where he confirmed:

No word of that part of my childhood which I have now gladly brought to a close, has passed my lips to any human being . . . I have never, until I now impart it to this paper, in any burst of confidence with anyone, my own wife not excepted, raised the curtain I then dropped, thank God.

Until old Hungerford Market was pulled down, until old Hungerford Stairs were destroyed, and the very nature of the ground changed, I never had the courage to go back to the place where my servitude began. I never saw it. I could not endure to go near it. For many years, when I came near to Robert Warrens’ in the Strand, I crossed over to the opposite side of the way, to avoid a certain smell of the cement they put upon the blackingcorks, which reminded me of what I was once. It was a very long time before I liked to go up Chandos Street. My old way home by the Borough made me cry, after my eldest child could speak.

Thus Charles Dickens and David Copperfield, C. D. and D. C., meet in the person of a humiliated child. Humiliation is a feeling that very few people can tolerate. But it has inspired many books.

Léon Aréga, a forgotten writer who endured endless ridicule, once said to me about one of my novels in which I put much of myself: “It’s a treatise on humiliation.” Which, coming from him, was a great compliment. It is easy to find the humiliated child in many of Chekhov’s short stories. His remark has been quoted a hundred times: “In my childhood, there was no childhood.”

Confessions are made on purpose in David Copperfield. But in most novels they aren’t. They surface in the form of fantasies, obsessions. With Dostoyevsky it’s impossible not to find an allusion to the rape of a little girl in The Possessed, Crime and Punishment,The Eternal Husband.

One rather strange point of view comes from Joseph Conrad. He thought you needed to be a genius to dare unveil your intimate self and thus move the public. If the effect was ruined you would sink into ridicule:

If it be true that every novel contains an element of autobiography—and this can hardy be denied since the creator can only express himself in his creation—then there are some of us to whom an open display of sentiment is repugnant. I would not unduly praise the virtue of restraint. It is often merely temperamental. But it is not always a sign of coldness. It may be pride. There can be nothing more humiliating than to see the shaft of one’s emotions miss the mark of either laughter or tears. Nothing more humiliating! And that for this reason should the mark be missed, should the open display of emotion fail to move, then it must perish unavoidably in disgust or contempt.

This is what the authors of a fashionable genre, baptized “autofiction” in 1970 by Serge Doubrovsky, seem not to fear, and their works collect like dregs on booksellers’ shelves.

Sometimes the most impersonal work can signify something deeply intimate to the author. This is the case of the great allegorical novel by Melville, Moby Dick. He achieves a fusion of a great myth with his own torment. The dire questioning, the violence of Ahab, are his. The Plague, another book that generates a myth, is also a novel about separation, since Camus wrote part of it isolated by the war, cut off from Algeria, from his wife, from his close friends. Virginia Woolf ’s Orlando seems like a fantastical novel of imagination, when it is really the portrait of Vita Sackville-West, who was so dear to the author. In a fairy tale like Alice in Wonderland, Reverend Dodgson confides his passion for Alice Liddell.

The sole fact of starting to write is motivated by a cause that belongs to what is most intimate for the author. I quoted Flaubert, who talks about the sorrow that launched him into the enterprise of Salammbô.

The critics always remind us that Proust and John Cowper Powys wrote their great novels only after the death of their mothers. You could say they waited for their mothers’ deaths to write.

We mustn’t forget the role of the unconscious. Benjamin Crémieux noticed that “the writer who rereads one of his books discovers, after the fact, secret traits he never suspected having put there, traits he may not even have known he possessed—and whose existence is suddenly revealed to him. In all that we write in our own style, the truest aspect of ourselves is inscribed in filigrain.”

How, without blushing, can we agree to deliver to the public so many confessions and intimate motivations, even those that are disguised or dissimulated? This is the mystery of the quasi-religious value we assign to literature.

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30. The World of Publishing: 1991 vs. 2014

The Diamond Lane, published in May 1991, was my second novel, and what is most striking about the difference between the publishing process 23 years ago and now is not that the book was written on a Kaypro, Xeroxed at Kinko's, and sent overnight in a FedEx box to G. P. Putnam's Sons, but that [...]

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31. A Brief History of Video Games Played by Mayors, Presidents, and Emperors

Brandon Bartlett, the fictional mayor of Portland in my novel Sherwood Nation, is addicted to playing video games. In a city he's all but lost control of, he relishes the little bit of control that can be got by sticking oneself behind the cockpit of a WWII airplane or facing off against a small band [...]

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32. Plagiarism and patriotism

Thou shall not plagiarize. Warnings of this sort are delivered to students each fall, and by spring at least a few have violated this academic commandment. The recent scandal involving Senator John Walsh of Montana, who took his name off the ballot after evidence emerged that he had copied without attribution parts of his master’s thesis, shows how plagiarism can come back to haunt.

But back in the days of 1776, plagiarism did not appear as a sign of ethical weakness or questionable judgment. Indeed, as the example of Mercy Otis Warren suggests, plagiarism was a tactic for spreading Revolutionary sentiments.

An intimate of American propagandists such as Sam Adams, Warren used her rhetorical skill to pillory the corrupt administration of colonial Massachusetts. She excelled at producing newspaper dramas that savaged the governor, Thomas Hutchinson, and his cast of flunkies and bootlickers. Her friend John Adams helped arrange for the anonymous publication of satires so sharp that they might well have given readers paper cuts.

An expanded version soon followed, replete with new scenes in which patriot leaders inspired crowds to resist tyrants. Although the added material uses her characters and echoes her language, they were not written by Warren. As she tells the story, her original drama was “taken up and interlarded with the productions of an unknown hand. The plagiary swelled” her satirical sketch into a pamphlet.

Mercy Otis Warren
Portrait of Mercy Otis Warren, American writer, by John Singleton Copley (1763). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But Warren didn’t seem to mind the trespass all that much. Her goal was to disseminate the critique of colonial government. There’s evidence that she intentionally left gaps in her plays so that readers could turn author and add new scenes to the Revolutionary drama.

Original art was never the point; instead art suitable for copying formed the basis of her public aesthetic. In place of authenticity, imitation allowed others to join the cause and continue the propagation of Revolutionary messages.

Could it be that plagiarism was patriotic?

Thankfully, this justification is not likely to hold up in today’s classroom. There’s no compelling national interest that requires a student to buy and download a paper on Heart of Darkness.

Warren’s standards are woefully out of date. And yet, she does offer a lesson about political communication that still has relevance. Where today we see plagiarism, she saw a form of dissent had been made available to others.

Headline image credit: La balle a frappé son amante, gravé par L. Halbou. Library of Congress.

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33. Secret Doors and Other Wonders

One of the commenters following Mac Barnett’s Ted Talk “Why a good book is a secret door” quoted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from The Little Prince: “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” The essence of this statement is a perfect way […]

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34. Rooms

If ghosts are real, they are probably like these: cantankerous, prone to snits, and deeply curious about the warm bodies living in "their" rooms. Oliver's dysfunctional family reunites in a lost-and-found whirlwind of mystery and secrets, with the housebound spirits as unexpected guests. Books mentioned in this post Rooms Lauren Oliver Used Hardcover $17.95

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35. Ask a Book Buyer: Exploring Europe Through Fiction

At Powell's, our book buyers select all the new books in our vast inventory. If we need a book recommendation, we turn to our team of resident experts. Need a gift idea for a fan of vampire novels? Looking for a guide that will best demonstrate how to knit argyle socks? Need a book for [...]

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36. Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit

An homage to the institute of the fading British holiday centers, Graham Joyce tells an addictive tale here. David, a university student, spends his 1976 summer working at the rundown Skegness resort — a hot, sticky, and ladybug-infested summer — in order to escape home. Something has brought him here, although he's not sure what, [...]

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37. Knowing vs. Knowing

On a hot July evening years ago, my Toyota Tercel overheated on a flat stretch of highway north of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A steam geyser shot up from beneath the hood, and the temperature gauge spiked into the red zone. I pulled onto the shoulder and shut off the engine. Except for my car's gasps [...]

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38. Has My Husband Read It?

My first novel, Love Me Back, was published on September 16. Writing the book took seven years, and along the way three chapters were published in different magazines and anthologies as short stories. Those three chapters are highly representative of the book — meaning there's a lot of sex, drugs, and unhappiness. Marie, the book's [...]

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39. Scots wha play: an English Shakespikedian Scottish independence referendum mashup

THE DATE: 18 September 2014, Fateful Day of Scotland’s Independence Referendum

THE PLACE: A Sceptred Isle

DRAMATIS PERSONAE:
Alexander the Great, First Minister of Scotland
Daveheart, Prime Minister of the Britons
Assorted Other Ministers, Attendant Lords, Lordlings, Politicos, and Camp Followers
Three Witches
A Botnet of Midges
The Internet (A Sprite)
A Helicopter
Dame Scotia
St George of Osborne
Boris de Balliol, Mayor of Londres
UKIP (An Acronym)
Chorus

ACT I: A Blasted Heath.

Enter THREE WITCHES

When shall we three meet again,
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

When the referendum’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

That will be when Salmond’s gone.

Where the place?

Hampstead Heath.

Better Together unto death!

Is that your phone?

Daveheart calls: anon! –
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the plebs and filthy air.

[WITCHES vanish.]

ACT II: The Scottish Camp (Voters at Dawn)

Enter a SMALL FOLKS’ CHORUS, Botnet Midges,
Who flap their wings, and then commence this chant:

See here assembled in the Scottish Camp
The Thane of Yes, Lord Naw-Naw, Doctor Spin.
Old folk forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But we’ll remember, with advantages,
This Referendum Day. Then shall that name
And date, familiar as our household words –
Alex the Great, the eighteenth of September –
And many, many here who cast their votes,
A true sorority, a band of brothers,
Long be remembered — long as “Auld Lang Syne” –
For she or he who votes along with me
Shall be my sibling; be they curt or harsh
This day shall gentle their condition:
Scots students down in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed, they were not here,
Casting their votes in this our referendum.

ACT III: On Arthur’s Seat, a Mount Olympus
Near the Scots’ Parliament at Holyrood

Proud Edward Milibrand, Daveheart, Nicholas Clegg,
And Anthony a Blair perch on the crags
With English Exiles. Now Lord Devomax speaks:

Stands England where it did? Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself, a stateless
Nation, post-imperial, undevolved;
Still sadly lacking its own Parliament,
It commandeers to deal with its affairs
The British Parliament, whose time it wastes
With talk of what pertains to England only,
And so abuses that quaint institution
As if it were its own, not for these islands
Set in a silver sea from Sark to Shetland.

[Exit, pursued by A. Blair]

ACT IV: The Archipelago (High Noon)

Enter THE INTERNET, A Sprite, who sings:

Full fathom five Westminster lies;
Democracy begins to fade;
Stout, undevolved, John Bull still eyes
Imperial power so long mislaid;
England must suffer a sea-change
Into something small and strange,
MPs hourly clang Big Ben:

DING-DONG!

Come, John Bull, and toll Big Ben.

ACT V: South London: top floor of the Shard

Boris de Balliol, St George of Osborne,
Attendant Lords, and Chorus Bankerorum,
Et Nympharum Tamesis et Parliamentorum

Sheet lightnings flash offstage while clashing cymbals
Crescendo in a thunderous night’s farrage.

ST GEORGE: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
Ye exit polls and hurricanoes spout!
Come, Boris, here’s the place. Stand still.

How fearful

And dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs, that wing the midway air
Seem gross as bankers’ apps: here from this Shard
See floors of smug short-sellers, dreadful traders
Inside a giant gherkin, and the City
Fraternity of inegalite
Spread out around us while its denizens
Appear like lice.

ATTENDANT LORDS: Scotia and Boris, hail!

BORIS: O Bella, Bella Caledonia,
Hic Boris Maior, Londinii Imperator,
Ego –

Fanfare of hautboys, bagpipes, and a tucket.

ST GEORGE: A tucket!

BORIS:                             Tempus fugit.

CHORUS:                                                    Fuckaduckit!

Pipers, desist! Your music from this height
Has calmed the storm, and, blithely, while we wait
For the result to come from Holyrood,
So charms the ear that, clad in English tartans –
The Hunting Cholmondesley, the Royal Agincourt,
And chic crisscrosses of the National Trust –
Our city here, ravished by this fair sound
Of tweeted pibroch, YouTubed from the Shard
To Wapping, Westminster, and Heathrow’s tarmac,
While gazing up from bingo and Big Macs,
Brooding upon our disunited kingdom,
Stands all agog to hear Dame Scotia speak.

Scotia descends, ex machina helecopteris

HELICOPTER: Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

SCOTIA: O England, England, your tight cabinet’s
Sly Oxbridge public-schoolboy millionaires
Fight while your country sinks beneath their yoke;
It weeps, it bleeds; and each new day a gash
Is added to those wounds: new Europhiles
Repulsed, the world repelled; England whose riots
Failed to stop students’ fees for your own folk
Or to contain their escalating cost.
Sad, catastrophic, calculating drones
Miscalculating loans, kicking the arts,
England betrayed by Scoto-Anglish Blair
Into wrong wars and then to Gordon Brown,
Jowled lord of loss and light-touch regulation.
O England, England! Rise and be a nation
United under your own Parliament!
Methinks I am a prophet now inspired
And thus, inspiring, do foretell of you:
Your Europhobia must not endure,
For violent fires must soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short.
Learn from the Scots: plant windfarms, make yourself
A Saudi Arabia of tidal power,
Though not of gender; learn, too, from the French,
There is no need to stay a sceptred isle,
Scuffed other Eden, demi-paradise;
No fortress, built by UKIP for themselves,
Against infection in their Brussels wars;
Be happy as a nation on an island
That’s not England’s alone, a little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea,
Which serves to link it now with all the globe,
Or as the front door to a happy home,
Be, still, the envy of less happier lands,
And set up soon an English Parliament,
Maybe in London, Britain’s other eye,
Maybe in Yorkshire, so you may become
A better friend to Scotland whose folk love
This blessed plot, this earth, and independence.

She zooms northwards.

Heading image: Macbeth by John Martin (1789–1854). Scottish National Gallery. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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40. Wolf in White Van

It's hard to know what to expect when a songwriter tackles a full-length novel, but Darnielle has created a complex story that lives and breathes on its own merits, while still retaining the moments of razor-sharp intensity that give his lyrics their acclaim. Books mentioned in this post Wolf in White Van John Darnielle New Hardcover $24.00

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41. Stone Mattress

Peopled by the bewildered, the belittled, the aging, the tales in Stone Mattress follow characters deposited in modern society but haunted by a palpable, insistent past. Atwood is a legend with fiercely devoted fans, but her works are so witty and absorbing that, even if you've never picked up one of her books, you'll immediately [...]

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42. Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel

There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's about Juliet and... her wet nurse. At least, that's what the data junkies at FiveThirtyEight.com claim. As does Jim Carter, aka Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey. What is up with [...]

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43. Why Scotland should get the government it votes for

I want an independent Scotland that is true to the ideals of egalitarianism articulated in some of the best poetry of Robert Burns. I want a pluralist, cosmopolitan Scotland accountable to its own parliament and allied to the European Union. My vote goes to Borgen, not to Braveheart. I want change.

Britain belongs to a past that is sometimes magnificent, but is a relic of empire. Scotland played its sometimes bloody part in that, but now should get out, and have the courage of its own distinctive convictions. It is ready to face up to being a small nation, and to get over its nostalgia for being part of some supposed ‘world power’. No better, no worse than many other nations, it is regaining its self-respect.

Yet the grip of the past is strong. Almost absurdly emblematic of the complicated state of 2014 Scottish politics is Bannockburn: seven hundred years ago Bannockburn, near Stirling in central Scotland, was the site of the greatest medieval Scottish victory against an English army. Today Bannockburn is part of a local government zone controlled by a Labour-Conservative political alliance eager to defeat any aspirations for Scottish independence. In the summer of 2014 Bannockburn was the site of a civilian celebration of that 1314 Scottish victory, and of a large-scale contemporary British military rally. The way the Labour and Conservative parties in Scotland are allied, sometimes uneasily, in the ‘Better Together’ or ‘No’ campaign to preserve the British Union makes Scotland a very different political arena from England where Labour is the opposition party fighting a Conservative Westminster government. England has no parliament of its own. As a result, the so-called ‘British’ Parliament, awash with its Lords, with its cabinet of privately educated millionaires, and with all its braying of privilege, spends much of its time on matters that relate to England, not Britain. This is a manifest abuse of power. The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood looks – and is – very different.

Scottish Parliament Building. © andy2673 via iStock.
Scottish Parliament Building. © andy2673 via iStock.

Like many contemporary Scottish writers and artists, I am nourished by traditions, yet I like the idea of change and dislike the status quo, especially the political status quo. National identity is dynamic, not fixed. Democracy is about vigorous debate, about rocking the boat. Operating in an atmosphere of productive uncertainty is often good for artistic work. Writers enjoy rocking the boat, and can see that as a way of achieving a more egalitarian society. That’s why most writers and artists who have spoken out are on the ‘Yes’ side. If there is a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September 2014, it will be a clear vote for change. If there is a ‘No’ vote, it will be because of a strong innate conservatism in Scottish society – a sense of wanting to play it safe and not rock the boat. Whether Scotland’s Labour voters remain conservative in their allegiances and vote ‘No’, or can be swayed to vote ‘Yes’ because they see the possibility of a more egalitarian future — is a key question.

As we get nearer and nearer to the date of the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September, I expect there will be an audible closing of ranks on the part of the British establishment. Already in July we have had interventions from the First Sea Lord (who gave a Better Togetherish speech at the naming ceremony for an aircraft carrier), and a lot of money from major landowners and bankers has been swelling the coffers of those opposed to independence. In Glasgow it was good to read at an event with Liz Lochhead, Kathleen Jamie, Alasdair Gray, and other poets and novelists in support of independence. This is a very exciting time for Scotland, a time when relationships with all kinds of institutions are coming under intense scrutiny. Whatever happens, the country is likely to emerge stronger, and with an intensified sense of itself as a democratic place.

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44. A First World War reading list from Oxford World’s Classics

As the first year of the World War I centenary continues, here is a selection of classic literature inspired by the conflict. Some of it was written in the years after the war, while some of it was completed as the conflict was in progress. What they all have in common, though, is an unflinchingly expression of the horrors of the First World War for those in the thick of the battles, and those left behind at home.

The Poetry of the First World War, edited by Tim Kendall

The First World War brought forth an extraordinary amount of poetic talent. Their poems have come to express the feelings of a nation about the horrors of war. Some of these poets are widely read and studied to this day, such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, and Ivor Gurney. However, others are less widely read, and this anthology incorporates that writing with work by civilian and woman poets, along with music hall and trench songs.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This, Woolf’s fourth novel, prominently features Septimus Warren Smith, a young man deeply damaged by his time in the First World War. Shellshock causes him to hallucinate – he thinks he hears birds in a park chattering in Greek, for instance – and the psychological toll wrought by war drives him to a profound hatred of himself and the whole human race.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford was in the process of writing The Good Soldier when the First World War broke out in 1914. Inevitably this influenced his work, and this novel brilliantly portrays the destruction of a civilized elite as it anticipates the cataclysm of war. It also invokes contemporary concerns about sexuality, psychoanalysis, and the New Woman.

Greenmantle by John Buchan

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In Greenmantle – published during the First World War, in 1916 – Richard Hannay travels across Europe as it is being torn apart by war. He is in search of a German plot and an Islamic Messiah, and is in the process joined by three more of Buchan’s heroes: old Boer Scout Peter Pienaar; John S. Blenkiron, an American determined to fight the Kaiser; and Sandy Arbuthnot, Greenmantle himself, who was modelled on Lawrence of Arabia. In this rip-roaring tale Buchan shows his mastery of the thriller and of the Stevensonian romance, and also his enormous knowledge of international politics before and during World War I.

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf

This is Virginia Woolf’s third novel, and was published in 1922. It is an experimental portrait of Jacob Flanders, a young man who is both representative and victim of the social values which led Edwardian society into the First World War. Even his very name indicates his position as the archetypal victim of the war: Flanders is an area of Belgium where many British soldiers were killed and injured during the First World War. Jacob’s Room is an experimental novel, cutting back and forth in time, and never quite allowing the reader full sight of its subject. Rather, Jacob’s story is told through the words and memories of the women in his life.

War Stories and Poems by Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling may be most commonly remembered for the Just So Stories and The Jungle Book, but he also wrote extensively about war. His only son, John, was unfortunately killed in action in 1915, and Kipling took many years to accept what had happened. Until his death in 1936, he continued searching for his son’s final resting place but even today John has no known grave. Of the poems Kipling wrote in the aftermath of the First World War, perhaps the best known is his tribute to The Irish Guards (1918), the regiment with which his son was serving at the time of his death.

Headline image credit: World War One soldier’s diary pages. Photo by lawcain via iStockphoto.

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45. The Little Prince

There are always books that we won't read for various reasons. Maybe it has to do with the genre or the author, or the person who recommended it, but for whatever reason, certain books just don't appeal to us. This was true for me when it came to The Little Prince. I am not sure [...]

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46. The Children Act

Ian McEwan's newest is a beautiful exploration of the distance we create between ourselves and other people and the irrevocable damage it causes. How can we move through life, the novel asks, from the unshakeable belief in the rightness of things in adolescence, into the gray areas of adult life, without shutting our gates and [...]

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47. Post 450, descriptive of how the Oxford Etymologist spent part of this past August

Yes, this is Post 450. The present blog was launched on March 1, 2006 and has appeared every Wednesday ever since, rain or shine. Another short year, and the jubilant world will celebrate the great number 500.

In summer, when there are no classes, I put in my bag one thick book in German or Icelandic and one thick book in English (those in Russian are taken for granted). This past August, the German book I picked up (as a matter of fact, I read two) was particularly depressing, in consequence of which I decided to return to The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. So I checked out the original edition and plodded joyfully through all 609 pages of it. Like most linguists, I usually pay attention not only to the plot but also to the writer’s language. Although I read the Pickwick Papers when I was sixteen years old, I remembered fairly well what happened there, but I have learned a good deal about Dickens since I was a schoolboy and therefore noticed a few things that escaped me then. For example, I was amazed to discover the amount of spirits everybody consumed, not excluding Mr. Pickwick. The characters of Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway look rather sober in comparison. It was also curious to observe how true Dickens remained to some of his favorite types and situations (winsome widows entrapping silly men, swooning and weeping ladies, arch maids, henpecked husbands, misfits sent to the colonies to make good, and so forth) and to the mannerisms of his younger days, but I don’t think he ever produced an equal of Sam Weller’s touching oration in which he refused to leave his master.

A few notes on Dickens’s usage may not be wholly uninteresting to our readers, though I realize that 177 years after the appearance of that novel nothing I can say about it will be new.

A few morsels of grammar.

It will be remembered that Peggotty, David Copperfield’s nurse, pronounced the name of her nephew Ham “as a morsel of English grammar” (that is, without an ‘h). Some other morsels are also “worthy of remark,” as Dickens might say.

  • “…and there was a dinner which would have been cheap at half-a-crown a mouth, if any moderate number of mouths could have eat it in that time” (p. 375), and “Here Mr. Sam Weller, who had silently eat his oysters with tranquil smiles, cried ‘Hear!’ in a very loud voice” (590);
  • “…Sam having ladled out, and drank two full glasses of punch in honor of himself, returned thanks in a neat speech” (p. 400).
  • One of the footmen says: “In fact, that’s the only thing between you and I, that makes service worth entering into” (p. 398).
Mr. Pickwick Picnics by Fred Barnard, 1870s. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Mr. Pickwick Picnics by Fred Barnard, 1870s. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Favorite words.

Indefatigable assiduity. Not too long ago, in connection with the phrase indefatigable assiduity that occurs in the opening paragraph of the Pickwick Papers, it was pointed out in our discussion that similar phrases were common in Dickens’s days. So they were, but Dickens used their components with rare assiduity indeed.

  • “…she… would have gone off, had it not been for the indefatigable efforts of the assiduous Goodwin” (p. 183);
  • “…three or four fortunate individuals, who… were staring through it [a grating] with the same indefatigable perseverance with which…” (p. 255);
  • “‘It looks a nice warm exercise that, doesn’t it?’” he inquired of Wardle, when that gentleman was thoroughly out of breath, by reason of the indefatigable manner in which…” (p. 312);
  • “Mr. Weller communicated this secret with great glee, and winked so indefatigably after doing so, that…” (p. 346).
  • “It must not be supposed that any of these people have the least shadow of business in, or the remotest connexion with, the place they so indefatigably attend” (p. 456);
  • “‘No, I don’t, Sir’, replied Mr. Weller, beginning to button with extraordinary assiduity” (p. 474);
  • “…which the fat boy… expressed his perfect understanding of, by smirking, grinning and winking, with redoubled assiduity” (582).

Another favorite word is peremptory, which turns up even more often than indefatigable. Dickens’s characters occasionally “sally forth,” “fall into a violent perspiration,” and have cadaverous faces. Villains, when attacked, already then were in the habit of saying: “You will smart for this” (here Dodson and Fogg, and later Uriah Heep). However, none of those phrases became clichés with him.

Ajar. Mrs. Cluppins testifies: “‘I was there, …when I see Mrs. Bardell’s street on the jar’.” ‘On the what?” exclaimed the little Judge. “‘Partly open, my lord’,” said Sergeant Snubbin. “‘She said on the jar’,” said the little Judge, with a cunning look. “‘It’s all the same, my lord’,” said Sergeant Snubbin. The little Judge looked doubtful, and said he’d make a note of it” (p. 361).

Odds and ends. “The cloth was laid by an occasional chairwoman.…” (p. 408). Chairwoman for charwoman is supposed to have died out by the nineteenth century. Apparently, it did not. Skates is regularly spelled skaits, and visitor appears once as visiter (perhaps a misprint). Badinage, which also occurs only once, was in 1837 still printed in italics, and the most common synonym for exclaim was ejaculate (in grammar books, as late as the end of the nineteenth century, the usual term for interjection was ejaculation). Obviously, no dirty mind objected, for in the preface Dickens expressed his conviction that “throughout the book, no incident or expression occurs which could call a blush into the most delicate cheek.” The attributive use of slang “impertinent, etc.” was not too rare, but Dickens picked it up and ran away with it: “…a man… was performing the most popular steps of a hornpipe with a slang and burlesque caricature of grace and lightness…” (p. 441). Sam Weller’s father was sure that only an alibi could save Mr. Pickwick in the trial, and he, like most of us, had ideas about word origins: “…if your governor don’t prove a alleybi, he’ll be what the Italians call reg’larly flummoxed, and that’s all about it” (p. 345).

On America.

Here is what that gentleman (I mean Mr. Weller) thought of America. He proposed a plan to smuggle Mr. Pickwick out of prison and send him overseas: “The ‘Merrikin’ gov’ment will never give him up, ven vunce they finds as he’s got money, to spend, Sammy. …and then let him come back and write a book about ’Merrikins as’ll pay all his expenses and more, if he blows ’em up enough” (p. 485). Did Dickens remember this advice while writing Martin Chuzzlewit?

Election season.

Finally, now that our election season is coming to a head, we should not ignore the experience of our predecessors. The scene is set in Eatanswill, in which two parties, the Blues and the Buffs, fight. The honorable Mr. Slunkey, a Blue candidate, seems to have greater support, but at the moment the future of the seat is undecided. He is ready to greet the populace and is advised that “nothing has been left undone… there are twenty washed men at the street door for you to shake hands with; and six children in arms that you’re to pat on the head, and inquire the age of; be particular about the children, my dear Sir,—it has always a great effect, that sort of thing.” “…and perhaps, my dear Sir—if you could… manage to kiss one of ’em, it would produce a very great impression on the crowd.” “‘Would it have as good an effect if the proposer or seconder did that?’”… “‘Why, I am afraid it wouldn’t’,” replied the agent” (pp. 128-129). The candidate kissed them all and won. Both crowds were terribly excited, and Mr. Snodgrass did not know with which to shout. “‘Shout with the largest’, replied Mr. Pickwick. “Volumes could not have said more” (p. 122).

This is what I have scribbled for myself while reading the Pickwick Papers. Even if I happened to pursue my subject “with a perseverance worthy of a better cause,” I hope you have read my notes with “unruffled composure” and “unimpaired cheerfulness,” because they were “calculated to afford [you] the highest gratification.” And now that I have divested myself of all I know, I am empty and will have to go hungry, as the Big Bad Wolf said after Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother jumped out of him undigested.

Headline image credit: Mr. Pickwick addresses the club. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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48. Whose muse mews?

The final, quiet days of summer before the turning of the season and the chill of back-to-work autumn are a perfect time to slow down, turn off the electronics, and refresh the soul by reading poetry. On the other hand, what could be more fun than an internet quiz about cats?

We sat down with Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, and fired up the search, looking for cats stalking the pages of literature. We found some lovely stuff, and something more – a literary reflection of the cat’s unstoppable gambol up the social ladder: a mouser and rat-catcher in the seventeenth century, he springs up the stairs in the eighteenth century to become the plaything of smart young ladies and companion of literary lions such as Cowper, Dr Johnson, and Horace Walpole.

cat oseo

Your Score:  

Your Ranking:  

Image credit: Cat with OSEO, © Oxford University Press. Do not re-use without permission.

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49. “Young girl, I declare you are not like most men”: retranslating The Poetic Edda

Not every scholar of medieval English has the privilege of translating a major poetic text, and fewer still have the chance to do it all over again, eighteen years later. My first edition of the Poetic Edda was published in 1996 and about two years ago, I was invited to think about a second edition, one which would expand the number of poems and which could be brought up to date in other ways. But what could have changed as far as this classic work was concerned in the meantime?

Well, unlike a single poem, such as Beowulf or Piers Plowman, the Poetic Edda is a collection of poems. Most of these are to be found in a single manuscript, known as the Codex Regius, kept in the Árnar Magnússonar Manuscript Institute in Reykjavík, Iceland. But, preserved in other Icelandic manuscripts, are a good number of further poems in the same kind of metre, which relate more stories of Norse gods and heroes. Four or five of these poems have always been considered part of the Poetic Edda and I translated them in the first edition. But now there was room for some more.

Peter_Nicolai_Arbo-Hervors_død
“Hervors død” by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Hervor was a shieldmaiden in the cycle of the magic sword Tyrfing, presented in Hervarar saga and of which parts are found in the Poetic Edda). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve added three more eddic poems which I think are interesting in different ways. The first of them is traditionally known as “The Waking of Angantyr.” It tells the story of a warrior-maiden Hervör, who dares to go alone to an eerie island, haunted by her undead father and his eleven brothers. Hervör wants her father’s magical sword Tyrfing, but Angantyr is determined not to give it to her. He’s quite surprised that a girl should dare to come to the uncanny place:

Young girl, I declare you are not like most men,
hanging around by mounds at night
with an engraved spear and in metal of the Goths [armour],
a helmet and corslet before the hall-doors.

At first Angantyr pretends that he doesn’t have the sword, next, he warns (truthfully) that the sword bears a curse, but finally he hands it over to the triumphant Hervör. A bold and determined heroine and an undead corpse — this seemed like a good addition to the new translation. The other additions are “Groa’s Chant” and the “Sayings of Fiolsvinn,” two related poems. A young man called Svipdag has been cursed by his stepmother to go on a quest to find and woo the lovely Menglod, a task fraught with danger: “she has ordered me to go where she knows there’s no going,” Svipdag laments. Wisely, he first visits the grave of his dead mother for advice. Groa is indeed anxious to help and she sings a number of spells over Svipdag. If he crosses rivers or sea, if he’s chained up or assailed by frost, “may no corpse-cold come to ravage your flesh / nor bind your body in its joints.”

Groa chants spells for her son, from The Elder or Poetic Edda, translated by Olive Bray with illustrations by W. G. Collingwood (1908). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Groa’s last spell will help Svipdag if he must “bandy words with the spear-magnificent giant,” and this is exactly what happens. When the hero finally reaches Menglod’s hall, the watchman Fiolsvinn won’t let him in. Entrance is only permitted to the man who can fulfill a whole series of impossible tasks, set up in a circular fashion. Svipdag is about to despair, but wait! No man can come in unless he has carried out this task — or unless his name is Svipdag! And so when Svipdag reveals his name, he gains entry to the hall and is rapturously embraced by Menglod, who chides him lovingly, “A long time I’ve sat on Healing-rock / waiting day after day for you!”

What constitutes a medieval poem? One of the most important poems in the Poetic Edda, “The Seeress’s Prophecy” exists in three different versions in medieval Icelandic manuscripts. Very often editors have combined the texts of all three versions to try to recover what they think might have been the “original” form of the poem. But nowadays scholars tend to think that this is a pointless endeavor. After all, this poem probably existed in oral tradition for a hundred or more years before it was first written down and there was likely never a definitive version. Newer critical thinking argues that it is better to reproduce what actually appears in the medieval manuscripts than to try to find the lost original. And so I’ve provided two versions of this poem, one written down in 1270, and one which was written down about forty years later. In the earlier version, the death of Baldr the Beautiful ushers in the beginning of the end of the world: Ragnarök. Baldr’s mother Frigg had made everything on earth promise not to hurt him, but she did not bother with the mistletoe, for it was so little and frail. Wicked Loki shaped it into a dart and put it in the hands of Baldr’s blind brother Hod when all the gods were amusing themselves by throwing things at Baldr and watching them bounce harmlessly from him. Here Baldr lounges against a wall, while Loki guides the fumbling and hooded Hod:

The Death of Baldr, from The Elder or Poetic Edda, translated by Olive Bray with illustrations by W. G. Collingwood (1908). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the later version, preserved in the Hauksbók manuscript, which was compiled in the first decade of the fourteenth century, Baldr isn’t even mentioned; that seems to be a difference worth recording, and it suggests that the death of Baldr wasn’t necessarily connected to Ragnarök.

And perhaps most importantly, eighteen years ago talking about the reception of the Poetic Edda meant talking about Wagner, William Morris, and Tolkien. Nowadays the influence of these wonderful poems is felt much more widely, in popular culture as well as in the opera house. Hollywood has its Thor films; novelists such as Neil Gaiman in American Gods (2001), young adult authors such as Melvin Burgess and Joanne Harris, even Game of Thrones, with its dragons, ravens, shield-maidens, its endless winter, wolves and giants, have seized on eddic themes and motifs to capture the imaginations of new generations. I hope that this new version of the Poetic Edda, with its additions, updates, and revisions will also find new readers to thrill to these poems, which speak to us in comic, tragic, grandiose, crude, witty, profound, and commonsense tones.

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50. The Scottish referendum: where is Cicero?

In a week’s time, the residents of Scotland (not the Scottish people: Scots resident south of the border are ineligible to vote) will decide whether or not to destroy the UK as currently constituted. The polls are on a knife edge; and Alex Salmond, the leader of the separatists, has a track record as a strong finisher. If he gets his way, the UK will lose 8% of its citizens and a third of its land mass; and Scotland, cut off, at least initially, from every international body (the UN Security Council, NATO, the EU) and every UK institution (the Bank of England, the pound sterling, the BBC, the security services), will face a bleak and uncertain future.

In the first century BC, the Roman republic was collapsing as a result of its systemic inability to curb the ambitions of powerful politicians. Everyone could see that the end was nigh; no one could predict what would follow. The conditions were ideal for the development of political oratory, and Cicero emerged as Rome’s greatest orator, determined to save his country even at the cost of his own life. During his consulship, he suppressed the conspiracy of Catiline, denouncing that man and his deluded supporters in his four Catilinarian Speeches. He pulled no punches: he did not hold back, like the supporters of the Union today, for fear of appearing too “negative”. So he informed the senate:

“A plot has been formed to ensure that, following a universal massacre, there should not be a single person left even to mourn the name of the Roman people or to lament the destruction of so great an empire.”

For Catiline’s supporters, he had nothing but contempt, telling the people:

“Reclining at their banquets, embracing their whores, heavy with wine, stuffed with food, wreathed with flowers, drenched with perfume, and worn out by promiscuous sex, they belch out their plans for the massacre of decent citizens and the burning of Rome.”

Cicero went straight for the jugular. Two decades later he denounced a more powerful adversary, Mark Antony, who was attempting with much greater forces to seize control of the state. Cicero attacked him in a series of speeches, the Philippics; but Antony did a deal with Octavian, got what he wanted, and had Cicero killed. Cicero’s words at the end of the Second Philippic were prophetic:

“I defended this country when I was a young man: I shall not desert it now that I am old. I faced down the swords of Catiline: I shall not flinch before yours. Yes, and I would willingly offer my body, if the freedom of this country could at once be secured by my death. Two things alone I long for: first, that when I die I may leave the Roman people free; and second, that each person’s fate may reflect the way he has behaved towards his country.”

Cicero denounces Catiline, from the Palazzo Madama. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Cicero denounces Catiline, from the Palazzo Madama. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Where is Cicero today when we need him? The debate on the future of Scotland, and hence of the UK, has been conducted in newspapers, in TV interviews and debates, and in social media. Anonymous internet trolls hurl abuse at celebrities who dare to express their affection for Britain. The Westminster Parliament stays silent. One MP, however, is free of the party whips, and has been touring Scotland delivering passionate, hard-hitting and unapologetically negative speeches in defence of the Union. This is George Galloway, and the speech he gave in Edinburgh on 24 June can be read and listened to here.

Like Cicero, Galloway pulls no punches. He compares the current crisis with 1940, the last time the UK faced an existential threat:

“And not one person asked in that summer and autumn of 1940 and into 1941 if the pilots who were spinning above us defending us from invasion from the barbaric horde were from Suffolk or Sutherland. We were people together on a small piece of rock with 300 years of common history.”

Referring to his political differences with the other supporters of the Union, he says, “We have come together but temporarily at a moment of national peril”, declaring:

“There will be havoc if you vote Yes in September. Havoc in Edinburgh and throughout the land and you will break the hearts of many others too.”

This preference for extreme, unambiguous statements, delivered with the greatest possible emotional force, and this recognition of the significance of the historical moment, is pure Cicero. But what is most Ciceronian in Galloway’s speech is the moral dimension. Galloway is not concerned with whether the new Scottish state would have to concentrate its spending on benefits or foreign embassies. Instead, he harks back repeatedly to the Second World War, that conflict of good against evil, contrasting it with Bannockburn, “a battle 700 years ago between two French-speaking kings with Scottish people on both sides”. And, as Cicero would, he judges an issue by the moral character of the people concerned: on the one side, Brian Souter, “the gay-baiting billionaire” and major donor of the SNP, and on the other, the children’s author J. K. Rowling, “one of our highest achieving women in the history of our entire country”, whose moderate and reasoned support for the Union has earned her hate mail from fanatical separatists. Morality runs like a thread all the way through Galloway’s speech.

How come so few women are in favour of independence? Why are Scotland’s women the most resistant of all the demographics in this contest? The reason is that women simply don’t like gambling. And everything in their project is about gambling — for your future, your pension, your children and their children’s future.

“Let it be inscribed on the forehead of every citizen what he thinks about his country”, Cicero told the senate. Next week, the future of the UK will be decided by a secret ballot. If Britain survives in a political and not merely in a geographical sense, part of the credit will be due to the Ciceronian eloquence of Mr Galloway.

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