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Posts Tagged ‘literature’

21 MARCH, 2014

Salvador Dalí’s Sinister and Sensual Paintings for Dante’s Divine Comedy

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From Heaven to Hell in melting faces and flying bones.

Something magical happens when a prominent artist interprets a literary classic visually, from William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost to Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy to Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses. But the celebrated artist most prolific in illustrating literary classics was undoubtedly Salvador Dalí, who illustrated Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975.

At the height of his fame in 1957, more than a century after William Blake had done the same, Salvador Dalí began working on a series of 100 paintings based on Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, commissioned by the Italian government. He was given eight years to complete the artwork, which was then to be released as limited-edition prints in 1965 to mark the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth. But when word got out that one of Italy’s greatest literary legacies had been entrusted to a Spaniard, the public outcry led the government to pull out. Dalí, however, forged forward on his own to complete the series in 1964, then enlisted two engravers who spent five years hand-carving 3,500 wooden blocks to be used for reproductions of Dalí’s paintings.

Somewhat surprisingly, the series was never published as an official English edition of the classic book, but reproductions of the individual paintings can still be purchased online — often for outrageous amounts — and found in an obscure out-of-print book released by the Park West Gallery in 1993.

From Sordello drawing a line in the sand of Purgatory to demarcate his freedom after nightfall to the outstretched grasping arms of the Wood of Suicides to the gruesomely melted and stretched skulls of The Blasphemers, Dalí’s surrealist tour of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory blends the sinister and the sensual to a haunting effect.

For a curious counterpoint, see William Blake’s take on the Dante classic.

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17 MARCH, 2014

Djuna Barnes Interviews James Joyce in 1922: The Iconic Irishman’s Most Significant Interview

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“He turned to quill and paper, for so he could arrange, in the necessary silence, the abundant inadequacies of life, as a laying-out of jewels — jewels with a will to decay.”

Djuna Barnes might be celebrated as a pioneer of modernist writing, her 1936 novel Nightwood a beacon of both modernist fiction and queer literature. But few know that Barnes was also a formidable journalist — a practitioner of literary journalism decades before Gay Talese pioneered the genre. In 1913, after completing her studies in art, 21-year-old Barnes began interviewing and profiling some of the greatest artists, writers, actors, singers, playwrights and other luminaries of the first half of the twentieth century for a number of prominent magazines. In 1985, three years after Barnes died at the age of ninety, outliving every single person she ever profiled (“It’s terrible to outlive your own generation. I wish I could be dead,” Barnes had remarked a decade earlier), these extraordinary conversations were collected in Interviews by Djuna Barnes (public library), featuring Barnes’s own drawings of her subjects. But what makes them especially compelling is that Barnes, like today’s most masterful interviewers, poured into these conversations an enormous amount of her own heart, mind, and sensibility, so that they invariably reflected as much about her as they did about her subjects.

Among them was none other than James Joyce, whom Barnes interviewed and profiled for Vanity Fair in 1922, months after Ulysses was published. The interview remains the most significant one Joyce gave in his lifetime, at once the most cryptic and the most revealing.

James Joyce

Barnes met Joyce in Paris in 1922. After reading an excerpt of Ulysses in The Little Review, where her own work had appeared, she was so impressed that she proclaimed in despair: “I shall never write another line. Who has the nerve after this!” She soon befriended Joyce and became especially close with his wife, Nora. But the admiration was far from one-sided: Joyce thought highly enough of Barnes to gift her the original, annotated manuscript of Ulysses. He may have been a major influence on her writing, but so was she on his, especially as later evidenced in Finnegans Wake.

It is this admiration that pours into Barnes’s introduction to the interview, where her beautiful prose and expansive mind tickle one another into transcendence:

There are men in Dublin who will tell you that out of Ireland a great voice has gone; and there are a few women, lost to youth, who will add: “One night he was singing and the next he wasn’t, and there’s been no silence the like of it!” For the singing voice of James Joyce … is said to have been second to none.

The thought that Joyce was once a singer may not come as a revelation to the casual reader of his books. One must perhaps have spent one of those strangely aloof evenings with him, or have read passages of his Ulysses as it appeared in The Little Review, to have realized the singing quality of his words. For tradition has it that a singer must have a touch of bravado, a joyous putting-forth of first the right leg and then the left, and a sigh or two this side of the cloister; and Joyce has none of these.

Barnes, who had been “on one or two theatrical committees just long enough to suggest the production of Exiles, his only play,” revels in Joyce’s most beautiful sentences (“So stood they both awhile in wan hope sorrowing one with the other.”) and writes:

I realized Joyce must indeed have begun life as a singer, and a very tender singer. And, because no voice can hold out over the brutalities of life without breaking, he turned to quill and paper, for so he could arrange, in the necessary silence, the abundant inadequacies of life, as a laying-out of jewels — jewels with a will to decay.

(This sentence itself if undoubtedly among the most beautiful prose ever written.)

Before that first meeting with him in Paris, Barnes held great admiration for Joyce the writer but what she knew about Joyce the man was somewhere between hearsay and legend — mostly based on the ludicrous rumors about him in America. (Ezra Pound had famously contributed to the myth by writing, “Joyce is the only man on the continent who continues to produce, in spite of poverty and sickness, working from eight to sixteen hours a day.” Of course, we now know the reality of Joyce’s daily routine was rather different.)

So when Barnes first met Joyce at a little Parisian café across from the church of St. Germain des Près, she found herself transfixed by his odd appearance — a waistcoat too young and too small for him, “partly because he had thrust its gathers behind him, and partly because the belt which circled it lay two full inches above his hips,” a strangely styled red and black beard, which “descended sharply into a scant wedge on an out-thrust chin, and a what appears to be the early-twentieth-century version of an Ugly Christmas Sweater, knitted by Joyce’s own grandmother “for the first hunt of the season” — a purple waistcoat featuring “alternate doe and dog heads, [the does’] tiny scarlet tongues hanging out over blond lower lips, drowned in a light wool.”

Portrait of James Joyce by Djuna Barnes

Joyce’s demeanor was equally unapologetic, beginning with the very first thing he said to Barnes regarding the recent censorship of Ulysses:

The pity is, the public will demand and find a moral in my book — or worse, they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honor of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.

And yet it is quickly revealed that he takes language — and thereby his own writing — rather seriously as a sculptor of culture. He tells Barnes:

All the great talkers have spoken in the language of Sterne, Swift, or the Restoration. Even Oscar Wilde. He studied the restoration through a microscope in the morning and repeated it through a telescope in the evening

[In Ulysses] they are all there, the great talkers, them and the things they forgot. In Ulysses I have recorded, simultaneously, what a man says, sees, thinks, and what such seeing, thinking, saying does to what you Freudians call the subconscious.

He adds a quick sleight against Freud and his craft, which had just reached its cultural height some years earlier:

But as for psychoanalysis, it’s neither more nor less than blackmail.

Once again, Barnes’s own exquisite prose pours in:

People say of him that he looks both sad and tired. He does look sad and he does look tired, but it is the sadness of a man who has procured some medieval permission to sorrow out of time and in no place; it is the weariness of one self-subjected to the creation of an overabundance in the limited.

If I were asked what seemed to be the most characteristic pose of James Joyce, I should say that of the head, turned farther away than disgust and not so far as death.

Barnes, who went on to befriend Joyce over the course of the four months she spent in Paris that year, notes that “one may not ask him questions, one must know him” and recounts their talks, the conduit of knowing:

We have talked of rivers and of religion, of the instinctive genius of the church which chose, for the signing of its hymns, the voice without “overtones” — the voice of the eunuch. We have talked of women;a bout women he seems a bit disinterested. Were I vain, I should say he is afraid of them, but I am certain he is only a little skeptical of their existence…

We have talked of death, of rats, of horses, of the sea; languages, climates and offerings. Of artists and of Ireland.

Joyce told her of the latter:

The Irish are people who will never have leaders, for at the great moment they always desert them…

Barnes remarks on Joyce’s curious customs and routines:

Joyce has few friends, yet he is always willing to leave his writing table and his white coat of an evening, to go to some quiet nearby cafe, there to discuss anything that is not “artistic” or “flashy” or “new.” Callers have often found him writing into the night, or drinking tea with Nora. I myself once came upon him as he lay full length on his stomach poring over a valise full of notes taken in his youth for Ulysses — for as Nora says, “It’s the great fanaticism is on him, and it is coming to no end.” Once he was reading out of the book of saints (he is never without it) and muttering to himself that this particular day’s saint was “a devil of a fellow for bringing on the rain, and we wanting to go for a stroll.”

However it is with him, he will come away for the evening, for he is simple, a scholar, and sees nothing objectionable in human beings if they will only remain in place.

Of course, Barnes knew better than to let the reader mistake Joyce’s outlook for sheepish resignation to the human condition. She quickly counters by relaying Joyce’s iconoclastic tenacity in his own words:

I will not serve that which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church; and I will try to express myself in my art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use: silence, exile, and cunning.

Interviews by Djuna Barnes is a treasure trove in its entirety, with many more rare conversations with cultural icons. Complement this particular one with three poems by James Joyce and his newly revived children’s book.

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04 MARCH, 2014

A Solitary World: A Breathtaking Homage to H.G. Wells from a New Genre of Cinematic Poetry

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“What is this spirit in man that urges him forever to depart from happiness, to toil and to place himself in danger?”

From my friends at PBS Digital Studios and filmmaker James W. Griffiths comes A Solitary World — a breathtaking homage to H.G. Wells, with text adapted from five of his most celebrated works: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The First Men in the Moon (1901), In The Days of the Comet (1906), The World Set Free (1914). Read by Terry Burns and featuring an appropriately haunting score from the young British composer Lennert Busch, the film belongs to — pioneers, perhaps — an emerging creative genre: the cinematic poem.

A horrible feeling of desolation pinched my heart. I listened rigid but heard nothing but the creep of blood in my ears. Great and shadowy and strange was the world and I drifted solitary through its vast mysteries.

A remote faint question, where I might be, drifted and vanished again in my mind. I found myself standing astonished, my emotions penetrated by something I could not understand.

I felt naked. I felt as perhaps a bird may feel in the clear air knowing the hawk wings above and will swoop.

I began to feel the need of fellowship. I wanted to question, wanted to speak, wanted to relate my experience. What is this spirit in man that urges him forever to depart from happiness, to toil and to place himself in danger?

It was this restlessness, this insecurity perhaps that drove me further and further afield in my exploring expedition. As the hush of the evening crept over the world, the sun touched the mountains and became very swiftly a blazing hemisphere of liquid flame, and sank.

Then, slow and soft and wrapping the world in fold after fold of deepening blue, came the night. And then, the splendor of the sight — in the sky, one bright planet shone kindly and steadily like the face of an old friend. The full temerity of my voyage suddenly came upon me. At last I began to feel the pull of the earth upon my being, drawing me back again to the life that is real, for men.

For a wholly different homage to Wells, see Edward Gorey’s vintage illustrations of The War of the Worlds. For a deeper dive into Wells’s own narrative magic, the works used in the film are in the public domain and thus available as free ebooks here, here, here, here and here.

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17 FEBRUARY, 2014

Joseph Brodsky on How to Develop Your Taste in Reading

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“You stand to lose nothing; what you may gain are new associative chains.”

“The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not,” Kurt Vonnegut famously proclaimed. But how is one to develop that discerning taste, especially in determining what is worth reading and what is not?

On May 18, 1988, several months after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and exactly seven months before he delivered the greatest commencement address of all time, the prolific poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky gave the opening keynote at Turin’s very first book fair. His talk, titled “How to Read a Book” and included in the 1997 anthology On Grief and Reason: Essays (public library), is a beautiful and timeless meditation on the value — the purpose, the challenge, the transcendent joy — of the written word. Although it was written with books in mind, it applies just as brilliantly to the question of what is worth engaging in, in any medium — a question all the more pressing amidst our era’s constant influx of information of increasingly questionable quality, delivered with increasingly uncompromising ploys for our attention.

Brodsky begins by contemplating how books address our mortality paradox and serve as assurance against the uncomfortable impermanence of existence:

On the whole, infinity is a fairly palpable aspect of this business of publishing, if only because it extends a dead author’s existence beyond the limits he envisioned, or provides a living author with a future he cannot measure. In other words, this business deals with the future which we all prefer to regard as unending.

On the whole, books are indeed less finite than ourselves. Even the worst among them outlast their authors — mainly because they occupy a smaller amount of physical space than those who penned them. Often they sit on the shelves absorbing dust long after the writer himself has turned into a handful of dust. Yet even this form of the future is better than the memory of a few surviving relatives or friends on which one cannot rely, and often it is precisely the appetite for this posthumous dimension which sets one’s pen in motion.

So as we toss and turn these rectangular objects in our hands — those in octavo, in quarto, in duodecimo, etc., etc. — we won’t be terribly amiss if we surmise that we fondle in our hands, as it were, the actual or potential urns with someone’s rustling ashes.

He then moves on to the spectrum of creative merit in readable material and the value of the books that Susan Sontag didn’t consider part of literature in honing a writer’s taste:

In order to write a good book, a writer must read a great deal of trash — otherwise, he won’t be able to develop the necessary criteria. That’s what may constitute bad literature’s best defense at the Last Judgment. . . .

But despite this potential value of bad books, Brodsky argues that for time-economy reasons, we need a system of separating the good from the bad and points, “some compass in the ocean of available literature.” The formal role of that compass in society is played by the reviewer and literary critic, Brodsky argues, but that is a compass whose needle “oscillates wildly.” He considers the problems with criticism:

The trouble with a reviewer is (minimum) threefold: (A) he can be a hack, and as ignorant as ourselves, (B) he can have strong predilections for a certain kind of writing, or simply be on the take with the publishing industry, and (C) if he is a writer of talent, he will turn his review-writing into an independent art form — Jorge Luis Borges is a case in point — and you may end up by reading reviews rather than the books themselves.

(To that, we might begrudgingly add (D) “he” is, indeed, primarily male — a statistic that bespeaks a whole other set of problems in literature.)

Brodsky continues by exploring the alternative to the flawed system of relying on professional reviewers — or “tastemakers,” as it were — presaging the equally questionable era of Amazon reviews and crowdsourced opinion-homogenization:

In any case, you find yourselves adrift in the ocean, with pages and pages rustling in every direction, clinging to a raft of whose ability to stay afloat you are not so sure. The alternative therefore would be to develop your own taste, to build your own compass, to familiarize yourself, as it were, with particular stars and constellations — dim or bright but always remote. This, however, takes a hell of a lot of time, and you may easily find yourself old and gray, heading for the exit with a lousy volume under your arm. Another alternative — or perhaps just a part of the same — is to rely on hearsay; a friend’s advice, a reference caught in a text that you happen to like. Although not institutionalized in any fashion (which wouldn’t be such a bad idea), this kind of procedure is familiar to all of us from a tender age. Yet this too proves to be poor insurance, for the ocean of available literature swells and widens constantly.

So what is one to do amidst this grim set of options? Brodsky sees only one viable way to cultivate that compass — to learn what Wordsworth believed to be “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge” and to develop what Edward Hirsch so memorably called “a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity,” that special thing that, as James Dickey put it, “makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.” Brodsky writes:

The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry. If you think that I am speaking out of professional partisanship, that I am trying to advance my own guild interests, you are badly mistaken. For, being the supreme form of human locution, poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation — especially one on paper.

The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be that in political or philosophical discourse, be that in history, social studies or the art of fiction. Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed and laconic intensity of poetic diction. A child of epitaph and epigram, conceived indeed as a short cut to any conceivable subject matter, poetry to prose is a great disciplinarian. It teaches the latter not only the value of each word but also the mercurial mental patterns of the species, alternatives to linear composition, the knack of omitting the self-evident, emphasis on detail, the technique of anticlimax. Above all, poetry develops in prose that appetite for metaphysics that distinguishes a work of art from mere belles-lettres. It must be admitted, however, that in this particular regard, prose has proven to be a rather lazy pupil.

Noting that all you need to do is “arm yourselves for a couple of months with the works of poets in your mother tongue, preferably from the first half of [the twentieth] century, he goes on to offer specific reading recommendations for poetry in some of the major world languages:

If your mother tongue is English, I may recommend to you Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. If the language is German, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, Peter Huchel, Ingeborg Bachmann and Gottfried Benn. If it is Spanish, Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Rafael Alberti, Juan Ramon Jimenez and Octavio Paz will do. If the language is Polish — or if you know Polish (which would be to your great advantage, because the most extraordinary poetry of this century is written in that language) — I’d like to mention to you the names of Leopold Staff, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wieslawa Szymborska. If it is French, then of course Apollinaire, Jules Supervielle, Pierre Reverdy, Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, Francis Jammes, Andre Frenaud some of Eluard, a bit of Aragon, Victor Segalen, and Henri Michaux. If it is Greek, then you should read Constantine Cavafy, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos. If it is Dutch, then your must is Martinus Nijhoff, particularly his stunning “Awater.” If it is Portuguese, you should try Fernando Pessoa and perhaps Carlos Drummond de Andrade. If the language is Swedish, read Gunnar Ekelof, Harry Martinson, Werner Aspenstrom, Tomas Transtromer. If it is Russian, it should be, to say the least, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Vladislav Khodasevich, Viktor Khlebnikov, Nikolai Kluyev, Nikolai Zabolotsky. If it is Italian, I don’t presume to submit any name to this audience, and if I still mention Quasimodo, Saba, Ungaretti and Montale, it is simply because I have long wanted to acknowledge my personal, private gratitude and debt to these four great poets whose lines influenced my own life rather crucially, and I am glad to do so while standing on Italian soil.

One of the chief benefits of cultivating such taste, Brodsky suggests, is the confidence of knowing which books are not worth reading, which in turn makes the choice of the worthy all the more meaningful. (“Non-reading, Pierre Bayard wrote in his excellent How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, “is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.”) Brodsky adds:

If after going through the works of any of these, you would drop a book of prose picked from the shelf, it won’t be your fault. If you’d continue to read it, that will be to the author’s credit; that will mean that this author has indeed something to add to the truth about our existence as it was known to these few poets just mentioned; that would prove at least that this author is not redundant, that his language has an independent energy or grace. Or else, that would mean that reading is your incurable addiction. As addictions go, this is not the worst one.

What makes poetry so exceptional at honing literary taste, Brodsky argues, is how little room for hackery it leaves:

Poetry, as Montale once put it, is an incurably semantic art, and the chances for charlatanism in it are extremely low. By the third line a reader will know what sort of thing he holds in his left hand, for poetry makes sense fast and the quality of language in it makes itself felt immediately.

Above all, however, poetry promises to do for the mind what Vannevar Bush presaged the internet would — create a network of associative trails that link up ideas, which is, of course, the foundation of creativity. Brodsky concludes with a beautiful sentiment:

Like the proverbial proletariat, you stand to lose nothing; what you may gain are new associative chains.

On Grief and Reason is a soul-stimulating read in its entirety. Sample it further with Brodsky on how to play the game of life, then see Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, Edward Hirsch on how to read a poem, and James Dickey on how to enjoy poetry.

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