Category Archives: Literature

Surviving Modernity

Surviving Modernity

 

 

 

David Brown, Paradise Lost:

A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald

(Belknap Press/Harvard University Press) 

                A half century ago, most American college students had read at least one F. Scott Fitzgerald novel by the time they graduated, most likely The Great Gatsby.  Fitzgerald may not be found so readily in college and secondary school curricula these days; he was, after all, a white male and, since 1940, a dead one.  But Fitzgerald remains one of the most written about American writers of the 20th century, on par with his sometimes pal Ernest Hemmingway.  With many general readers, especially those of my generation, more than vaguely familiar with the contours of Fitzgerald’s  life, and with several Fitzgerald biographies available, a biographer faces a challenge in bringing a fresh perspective to any portrait of the intense and often unruly novelist.  In Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Brown, Professor of History at Elizabethtown College, seeks to find that perspective by emphasizing Fitzgerald’s credentials less as a novelist and more as a social and cultural commentator – “one of the more important cultural commentators America has produced”  (p.5-6), Brown writes. 

               In a handful of novels, but also in an abundance of notes, letters, essays and short stories, Fitzgerald produced “penetrating descriptions of the Western world’s leap from feudalism to capitalism, from faith to secularism, and from the tradition oriented to the flux oriented” (p.5).  Fitzgerald’s historical sensibilities “leaned toward the aristocratic, the pre-modern, and the romantic” (p.2).  Brown identifies affinities between Fitzgerald’s social thought and that of numerous other thinkers, among them Thorstein Veblen, Frederick Jackson Turner, and H.L. Mencken.  But he finds historians Henry Adams and the German Oswald Spengler to be Fitzgerald’s “truest intellectual contemporaries.”  Like Adams and Spengler, Fitzgerald “doubted whether older, pre-Enlightenment notions of art, creativity, paternalism, and worship would survive the onset of what we have since come to call ‘modernity’” (p.6). 

              The Fitzgerald who opined on the perils of modernity was very much an “America first” social commentator.  Although he spent limited but highly publicized time in Europe, the Old World entered into Fitzgerald’s commentary primarily as a gauge for measuring America.  Fitzgerald saw in America a “continent of possibilities, a place to escape the Old World’s rigidly enforced class structures and adopt new identities” (p.6), yet he shared the pessimism of Spengler and Adams.  In Fitzgerald’s view, the virtues he ascribed to America had all but expired during the so-called Gilded Age, the last three decades of the 19th century following the American Civil War.  The industrialization of the Gilded Age brought the “rise of vast industrial fortunes that blotted out an earlier idealism,” replaced by a “soulless materialism” (p.6).  Depicting an America “unusually thick with fallen heroes, martyrs to a powerful social-mobility mythology,” Fitzgerald’s writings were fused with the “disquieting notion that we have drifted far from our inheritance as the children of pioneers to fashion a culture that teaches its young to love too much the privileges and protections of wealth” (p.344).

              Although Fitzgerald considered himself politically on the left – he self-identified as a socialist in the 1921 Who’s Who in America — his critique of capitalism was conservative and sentimental, Brown contends, based on nostalgia for a bygone agrarian and small town era.  Much like Mencken, Fitzgerald refused to vest much faith in “the people.”  Brown also sees a linking of common concerns between Fitzgerald and the historian Frederick Jackson Turner.  A generation older than Fitzgerald, Turner became famous for his thesis that the closing of the American frontier around 1890 had indelibly shaped American democracy.  Both men, Brown writes, were “motivated by romantic impulses, and each observed the settlement of once-open territory as an enclosure of imagination as well as property” (p.176).  Fitzgerald asked in his own way the same question that Turner had raised: if the unsettled lands of the American frontier had created a “‘democratic’ personality type – independent, inventive, egalitarian – then what was the future of an America without frontiers?” (p.176).   

            Brown deftly weaves Fitzgerald’s social commentary into an erudite, chronologically arranged biography, situating Fitzgerald in three historical periods, each a separate section: 1) “Beginnings,” 1896 -1920, his early years and youth, ending with his famous  — perhaps infamous — marriage to Zelda Sayre in 1920; 2) “Building Up,” 1920-1925, the “Jazz Age” (a term that Fitzgerald is credited with coining) that was his  triumphant period; and 3) “Breaking Down,” 1925-1940, when Fitzgerald’s world began to fall apart prior to and during the global economic collapse of the 1930s, up to his death in 1940.  Brown finishes with a final section, “Ghosts and Legends,” addressing Zelda’s life after Fitzgerald, up to her own tragic death in a fire in 1948, and the rise of a Fitzgerald legend which began unexpectedly after World War II. 

* * *

             Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the upper Mid-West, and spent his earliest years there.  His mother Mollie, of Irish immigrant stock, was the daughter of a successful immigrant wholesale grocer.  His father Edward, also of Irish descent, came from an entrenched landowning family that counted Francis Scott Key as an ancestor; Scott’s birth name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.  Edward had grown up in Maryland, a border state during the American Civil War.  But his  family’s loyalties were unreservedly with the Confederacy during the war.  As an adult, Edward failed in many businesses.  Mollie and Edward, Brown writes, embodied “distinct sides of the American experience – the rising immigrant in Mollie’s case, the vanishing southern aristocracy in Edward’s,” all the while sharing a tendentious marital life “burdened by an inexorable slide into polite poverty” (p.9).

            The young Fitzgerald absorbed from his father much of the ethos and mythology of the Confederate “lost cause” and “doomed nobility,” retaining vaguely southern sympathies throughout his adult life.  But as Brown points out, Fitzgerald entertained an idealized notion of “Dixie,” chivalric, refined, and cavalier.  Like most white Americans of his day, Fitzgerald “never really considered the question of slavery and its aftermath as anything more than an abstraction, and thus he never wrestled with its deep ethical implications.  Consequently, he handled somewhat clumsily the few black Americans and Europeans who turn up in his novels and stories” (p.190).

            Bland St. Paul offered Fitzgerald a “wide avenue of exploration into the American character and its relationship to place and tradition” (p.26).  Fitzgerald’s St. Paul embodied “solidity and stability, a city of neighborhood hardware stores, spruced up Main Streets, and a few first families to establish tone” (p.26).  But Fitzgerald left St. Paul as an adolescent to attend the Newman School, a boarding school outside Hackensack, New Jersey, which styled itself as the “Catholic Andover.”   The young man played football, a rough contact sport that was relatively new at the time.  Although a mediocre player, he wrote about football frequently in future novels and short stories.  Despite poor grades and his share of fistfights, Fitzgerald manifested a talent for writing while at Newman.  When his maternal grandmother died and left his mother a small fortune, Fitzgerald determined that Princeton University, also in New Jersey, was the next place for him. 

              Princeton’s proximity to New York, its opportunities for literary output, and its aristocratic mien attracted Fitzgerald.  But he twice failed the entrance exam, after which he scheduled an appointment with the Admissions Committee.  Somehow the 17-year-old lad sold himself to the Committee (what a pity there is no record for posterity of that meeting), and he entered Princeton in the fall of 1913.  Then known as the Ivy League school for Southern gentlemen, Princeton was a place where callow, wealthy young men “basked in the superiority of their superiority” (p.44), as Brown puts it.  At best a mediocre student at Princeton, Fitzgerald never graduated. 

               Yet, Princeton shaped Fitzgerald profoundly.  He befriended future literary critic Edmund Wilson as an undergraduate and showed considerable promise as a writer.   Many of Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories, Brown notes, “bear the indelible impress of the Princeton years and more broadly his experiences within the privileged world of the Ivy elite” (p.48).  From Princeton onward, wealth became a subject of intense interest to Fitzgerald “primarily as an entry to experiences otherwise denied.” (p.43).  His “complex reactions to the leisure class,” dating from his undergraduate years, can be bluntly reduced to his view that “wealth was wasted on the rich”  (p.44).   

              Fitzgerald drank a lot as a Princeton undergraduate, but so did many of his schoolmates.  Excessive drinking was written off as “nothing more than a rite of passage, part of the collegiate experience as much as athletics, course work, and clubs” (p.49).  From his Princeton days onward, however, Fitzgerald was a “functional alcoholic” in an era when alcoholism was considered a character defect or a matter of personal weakness rather than an illness.  Fitzgerald came to view drinking as an “almost indispensable part of the writer’s world.  Occasions on which to discuss books, publishing, and composing were invariably occasions to drink” (p.116-17).  Hard spirits for Fitzgerald were the “due of an Irish novelist,” with excessive drinking serving as a “necessary precondition to composition” (p.228).

              Halfway through his sophomore year at Princeton, Fitzgerald fell head over heels for Ginevra King, a debutante from a prominent Chicago banking family.  Brown characterizes Scott’s courtship of Ginevra as a “fool’s errand, a case of begging for inevitable disappointment” (p.59).  But Ginevra proved to be a model for many female characters in his forthcoming novels, a “composite of flapper, flirt, and baby-vamp, the temptress who stands for wealth and irresponsibility in relation to a man situated precariously between his work and his woman” (p.59).  Fitzgerald’s courtship of Ginevra, Brown continues, “tells us something important about his mixed attitude toward women.  Even a cursory perusal of his published writing reveals a penchant for dividing the genders between female realism and male romance.  In the Fitzgerald canon, women are often wreckers of men, taking their dignity, extracting their vitality, and dulling their work habits” (p.63). 

               Fitzgerald left Princeton for the military after the United States entered World War I, but was never sent into combat.  While stationed at Camp Sheridan, Alabama, near Montgomery, he met Zelda Sayre.  An Alabama Belle, as Brown repeatedly terms her, Zelda was four years younger than Fitzgerald.  Her father, then serving as a justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, traced his family’s roots to the planter class of the Old South.  Zelda thus spoke to the side of Fitzgerald enamored of the “lost cause” and taken in by ostensible Southern gentility.  Scott’s interest in Zelda intensified after he learned of Ginevra’s engagement to another man.  But Zelda had doubts whether the aspiring writer had the means to support her.  By November 1919, however, he had proven himself to be a sufficient money-maker after he sold his first short story to the Saturday Evening Post, and the couple married the following April in a small, rushed ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

              Eight days prior to the wedding ceremony, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, was published.   The novel, which he had worked on while stationed in Alabama, “touched on the social permissiveness of the era, increasingly candid attitudes toward sexuality, and the general coming down of prewar cultural taboos” (p.5).  A coming-of-age novel in which the main character “achieves a hard-earned insight . . . no love goes unpunished, no creed escapes unscathed” (p.85), This Side of Paradise established Fitzgerald’s reputation as an authoritative cultural commentator.  The novel in Brown’s interpretation demonstrated Fitzgerald’s particular affinity to radical economist Thorstein Veblen, offering a “penetrating commentary on the American failure to transcend the cash nexus that sustained, as Veblen had put it, the country’s peculiar loyalty to its glittering if rapacious ‘leisure class”” (p.86).

              The Fitzgeralds’ earliest days as a married couple coincided with Scott’s rising celebrity, due primarily to the early success of This Side of Paradise.   Despite strains that were evident early in the marriage, Scott and Zelda formed what Brown terms a “productive if one-sided partnership” (p.78).  But rather than simply enjoy the moment, they seemed “determined to push it forward, prolonging its intensity and exhausting its possibilities.  As if performing, they played up several personalities (the writer, the belle, the flapper, the moralist, the drunkard . .  . ) before attentive audiences.  What they lacked was a stretch of time off the society pages to develop a deeper rapport, though in fact neither seemed to want this” (p.77). 

              The nomadic couple was famous for living in Paris and the French Riviera (where Scott befriended fellow novelist Ernest Hemmingway, who never got along with Zelda); and in Manhattan and Great Neck, on Long Island.  But they also had stints in Connecticut, Delaware, Alabama and a return period in St. Paul.  Wherever they went, they rented.   Whenever they could, they rang up high hotel bills, kept cooks and nannies, and threw lavish parties.  Their only child, daughter Frances, always called “Scottie,” was born in 1921.  Fitzgerald also formed a long-standing relationship during this high-visibility period with Scribner, the distinguished New York publishing firm, and he earned steady money by selling imaginative short stories to the Saturday Evening Post. 

              Then, in 1925 and not yet 30 years old, Fitzgerald saw the publication of The Great Gatsby.  Written primarily while in France, The Great Gatsby brought Fitzgerald to the “summit of American letters” (p.11).  The novel takes place in the fictional Long Island towns of East and West Egg and portrays the mysterious Jay Gatsby and his obsessive passion for Daisy Buchanan (whose father was modeled after Ginevra’s father).  Gatsby, Brown writes,  “stands in a long line of Fitzgerald types – flawed heroes, poor boys – who smash against the collective might of their well-to-do tormentors” (p.125).  

              Fitzgerald’s portrait of Gatsby presented what Brown terms a “stunning interpretation of historical progression, commencing with the age of European discovery and concluding with the closing of the American frontier.  In place of the virgin land that once attracted European settlers stood a nation whose grandest dreams had run to a dull materialism” (p.172).  In his ruminations on the “restless nature of the human spirit in tension with a taming ‘civilization’” (p.179-80), Fitzgerald echoed the thought of Frederick Jackson Turner.  Brown also finds The Great Gatsby to be in line with Sinclair Lewis’ satiric Babbitt, and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, with their “sharp and unsparing” criticism of the “strong association of success with materialism” (p.169).

              Writing The Great Gatsby “marked the high point of Fitzgerald’s restive years abroad” (p.183).  In the years following their return to the United States,  Scott’s increasing alcohol abuse and recurrent financial difficulties coincided with Zelda’s hospitalization for what was diagnosed as schizophrenia.  She spent time in institutions in Switzerland, Maryland and North Carolina, and never fully recovered.  Scott, “once the embodiment of twenties excess,” (p.12) seemed to be wrestling in the disorderly 1930s with what Brown describes as the “loss of a romantic idealism that had once served as the rock on which he rested – both emotionally and artistically” (p.281).  He came to recognize the cultural consequences of modernity:  the “volatile merging of capitalism, secularism, rationalism, and industrialism that had become the dominant impulse propelling Western civilization” (p.282).  Brown emphasizes affinities between Fitzgerald’s thinking and that of contemporaries also questioning the efficacy of modernism, among them philosopher George Santayana, poet James Russell Lowell, and art critic Bernhard Berenson.

             After The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald did not publish another novel until 1934, when Tender is the Night — in Brown’s view Fitzgerald’s finest novel — appeared.  Within the narrative framework of a dying marriage, Tender is the Night analyzes the “collapse of the old Victorian universe and its replacement by a brave new world dominated by hardened ‘survivors’ who had managed to pass through the carnage of the Great War seemingly without regret or reflection,” only to inherit a “diminished social order bereft of compassion, sentimentality, or even the comforting consistency of . . . ‘middle class love’” (p.11).  In its criticism of a capitalist system in which money was the arbiter of power, prestige, and morality, Tender is the Night captured Fitzgerald’s historical vision “more completely than anything else he ever wrote” (p.263). 

              With Zelda hospitalized, Fitzgerald ventured to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter.  Hollywood seemed like an ideal location for Fitzgerald, a modern place with a special role in portraying and shaping American culture, as well as the geographic end point of the American frontier.  Fitzgerald had an intimate relationship in Hollywood with Sheilah Graham, a British-born gossip columnist.  Decidedly more stable than Zelda, Graham “may well have constituted a relationship of atonement for Fitzgerald.  Accordingly, he both loved and begrudged her as the devoted caregiver whose mere presence affirmed his fallen star” (p.301).  Fitzgerald “never liked living in California and found it impossible to mute his deeply ingrained aversion to the business-first mentality of the studio bosses,” contributing further to a “sense of alienation on the West Coast” (p.12).     

              In the last portion of the book, Brown brings into focus Fitzgerald’s relationship with his daughter Scottie.  We don’t learn much about Scottie’s youth, but she must have had an exceedingly difficult childhood, given her mother’s mental health problems, her father’s alcoholism, and the tumultuous existence her parents lived together.  While not discounting these factors in shaping Scottie’s life, Brown emphasizes the depth of affection between father and daughter (he spends little time on the mother-daughter relationship).  In passages from several letters which Brown quotes, Scottie shows an awareness of the degree to which she was denied a normal childhood.  Yet, love plainly bound her to her father.  Fitzgerald, for his part, was determined that Scottie be “self-sufficient, an equal partner, and to carry her share – all the things he had wished for in Zelda” (p.312).

               Fitzgerald suffered a heart attack in late November 1940, as he was seeking to finish what would be his last novel, The Last Tycoon. He died amidst little fanfare on December 21, 1940, with The Last Tycoon appearing the following year.  Zelda died in a fire in 1948 at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where she was institutionalized. 

               Surprisingly, Fitzgerald’s works sold far better after World War II than they had during his lifetime.   His friend Edmund Wilson wrote that a cult had grown up around Fitzgerald after his death, which had “gone beyond mere admiration for the author of some excellent books.  He had taken on the aspect of a martyr, a sacrificial victim, a semi-divine personage” (p.337).  Several biographies on Fitzgerald appeared in the post-World War II period.   In 1958, however, Sheilah Graham came out with Beloved Infidel, which disparaged all prior works on Fitzgerald.  “This is not the Scott I knew” (p.343), she wrote.  Approaching Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and other demons with compassion, Graham emphasized his humor, humanity, and efforts to finish his last novel while ill.   Wilson found her book to be by far the best on Fitzgerald.  In Graham, he wrote, Fitzgerald had found an “effective advocate, just as the debate over the ‘meaning’ of his life was beginning to take shape” (p.344).   

* * *

               In this complex yet highly readable biography, Brown shines intriguing light upon Fitzgerald as a social commentator and cultural historian, the “annalist as novelist who recorded the wildly fluctuating fortunes of America in the boom twenties and bust thirties” (p.1).  Fitzgerald was able to write as powerfully as he did about historical change in America because, as Brown ably  demonstrates, he identified with the country in an intensely personal way. 

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

August 13, 2019

Advertisements

9 Comments

Filed under American Society, Biography, Literature

Imprisonment and Exile as Liberation

 

Nicholas Frankel, Oscar Wilde:

The Unrepentant Years (Harvard University Press)

            In February 1895, Dublin-born Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), then 40 years old, was at the top of his game as a poet, playwright and critic, known throughout the English-speaking literary world for his brilliant wit, glittering conversational skills and charming if flamboyant appearance.   Two of his plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, were playing to packed houses in London’s West End, with the latter about to open in New York.  Wilde was married to wealthy Englishwoman Constance Lloyd and the couple had two sons whom Wilde adored, ten-year-old Cyril and nine-year-old Vyvan.

            Wilde’s marriage to Constance was by then more than a bit shaky, in no small part because Wilde had fallen passionately and recklessly in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, a brash, unpredictable, and frequently imprudent aristocrat, sixteen years younger than Wilde.  Douglas’s father, the Marquis of Queensbury, heartily disapproved of the relationship between the two men, threatening at one point to “make a public scandal in a way you little dream of” if Douglas did not end it.   This included showing up at Wilde’s house accompanied by a boxer, and almost disrupting the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, before Wilde got wind of his intentions and barred him from the performance.  Then, on February 18, 1895, the Marquis left a calling card at Wilde’s home addressed to “Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite,” misspelling “sodomite.”  Against the advice of nearly everyone, including George Bernard Shaw, Wilde decided to sue the Marquis for criminal libel in an effort to put an end to the harassment, once and for all.  It was not a good decision. 

            Douglas’ father employed spies to dig up evidence that Wilde was in reality a “sodomite,” a term frequently used in late Victorian England as a synonym for homosexual.  His lawyers introduced romantic and suggestive letters from Wilde to the Marquis’s son.  The court found the Marquis’s description of Wilde as a “posing sodomite” to be legally justified, and Wilde withdrew his suit.  He was then arrested on charges of “gross indecency” under a loosely worded and subjective statute that made almost any private and consensual action potentially subject to criminal prosecution.  After a sensational trial that aroused much interest in England and abroad, he was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison. 

               In Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years, Nicholas Frankel, Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, focuses upon Wilde’s last years, both his imprisonment, from May 1895 to May 1897, and the remaining three and a half years of his life, which he spent in exile in Dieppe, in Northern France, Naples, Sicily, and above all Paris, where he died in November 1900.  Unlike more comprehensive Wilde biographies, Frankel argues that his “represents the first sustained effort to understand Wilde’s imagination through the prism of his final years” (p.16).  Frankel provides a perceptive account of the unforgiving prison conditions that prevailed in late Victorian England, and much insight into the surprisingly open environment available to homosexuals on parts of the European continent as the 19th century came to a close. 

                 But the sturdiest thread tying together Frankel’s biographical narrative is Wilde’s relationship with Douglas, the “defining love affair of his life. . . [which] lasted well beyond his imprisonment,” an affair that was “at times intense, passionate, petty, rhapsodic, tender, ill-tempered, and vituperative” (p.31).  Wilde spent only limited time with Douglas after his release from prison, the rest seemingly in an endless pursuit of a variety of men – mostly younger men and boys.  But even when the two were not together, Douglas dominated Wilde’s psyche.

                Wilde fled Britain immediately upon his release from prison in May 1897, never to return.  He realized then that he needed to “reinvent himself as someone who could live and write unapologetically in spite of the poverty, ostracism, and isolation that he already knew he would face upon release” (p.77).  He never regained his full literary aplomb after his release from prison.  But to emphasize this, Frankel argues,  is to miss  the import of Wilde’s post-prison years.  Paradoxically, Frankel writes, imprisonment and exile liberated Wilde to “pursue an uninhibited life, and the pleasure he received in consequence could be enjoyed more fully, as a total experience of heart, mind, soul and body, with conversation as its medium and laughter its index . .  . Wilde’s greatest achievement in exile was himself” (p.303).

* * *

                Wilde served his prison term in several jails (“gaols” in the British spelling).  The prison system in Britain in Wilde’s day was known for being “harshly punitive,” centered on  “hard labor, hard board, and hard fare” (p.36).  The prison population included children as well as seasoned criminals.  Almost every prisoner was held in solitary confinement, with one hour out per day, and no talking among prisoners allowed.  There was little sense that prisoners could be reformed or rehabilitated. 

                Shortly after his release, Wilde wrote a long letter to the Daily Chronicle, a paper interested in prison reform, documenting the “brutality of the current British prison system and the terrible cruelty that it inflicted on child prisoners especially” (p.97).  He had kind words for the other prisoners, the “only really humanizing influence in prison.”  By contrast, prison authorities were “obliged to execute some of the most inhumane regulations” and were the “source of mindless cruelty” (p.98).  The letter, which Frankel describes as a  “masterpiece of plain rhetoric” (p.99), had a clear effect on the 1898 Prisons Act, marking the beginnings of modern penal reform in Great Britain by setting the stage for the subsequent abolition of hard labor and the establishment of separate institutions for young offenders. 

                Wilde’s prison experience also produced “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a lengthy poem still today considered one of the most cogent analyses of prison conditions, an “indictment not merely of the late-Victorian prison system but of the society that convicted and imprisoned Wilde” and, indirectly, a “moving and unapologetic reassertion of Wilde’s sexual orientation” (p.169-70).   The poem was based on the execution of fellow prisoner Charles Thomas Wooldridge, which had a “lasting effect on Wilde’s sense of himself and other prisoners as victims of a cruel, inhuman machine” (p.62).  The Ballad of Reading Gaol ends with Wilde’s “personal views on the justice system and its antithetical character to Christianity” (p.179).  The poem turned out to be the best selling of Wilde’s published writings in his lifetime and has never since been out of print.

                Although Wilde had begun his prison sentence vowing undying love for Lord Douglas, thoughts of Douglas rendered him angry, alienated and depressed as his prison term progressed.  At one point, he considered reconciliation with his wife Constance, who had officially barred him from seeing his children, in exchange for a small allowance upon his release.  During the prison term, Constance temporarily put her divorce plans on hold, but shortly thereafter reversed herself, changed her name, and took her sons to Genoa, Italy, where she died prematurely in 1898.  Wilde never saw his sons again,  “arguably the most tragic element of his final years” (p.103), Frankel suggests.

               In Frankel’s view, Wilde’s changing affections for Douglas were a reflection of his isolation and depression.  Wilde wrote a lengthy letter to Douglas while in prison (toward the end of his term, he was accorded special writing and reading privileges).  The letter has come to be known a De Profundis, much of which was Wilde’s expression of how he wanted to live and what he wanted to do upon release from prison.  But the first third was full of vitriolic recriminations against Douglas.   Prison regulations prohibited Wilde from sending the letter during his incarceration and Douglas claimed he never received a copy.   Frankel sees the intensity of Wilde’s attack on Douglas as a “clue that Wilde still loved him and intended some kind of reconciliation with him upon release,” (p.77), but that he wanted to set the terms for that reconciliation.   

                Shortly after Wilde’s release in May 1897, the pair met in Rouen, Normandy, but it was a fleeting encounter.  They met up again six weeks later in Naples, where they tried over the course of three months to reestablish their relationship.   Naples in the last decade of the 19th century was a city to which Northern European homosexuals naturally gravitated.  “Homosexuality was not a crime in Italy: Italian police, politicians, and prosecutors made little attempt to ban homosexual behavior, expel homosexuals expatriates, or otherwise harass them, and . . . Southern Italy provided an especially appealing destination for Northern homosexuals in flight from strict homophobic laws in their home countries” (p.129). 

            Wilde and Douglas rented a villa in Naples, and had four house servants.  Wilde took Italian lessons from an Italian poet and translator.   They both turned their attentions to writing, with Wilde completing the Ballad of Reading Gaol.  Although they were happy together, the English community in Naples ostracized them. A representative of the British Embassy in Rome traveled to Naples to tell Douglas “discretely” that his cohabitation with Wilde was causing a scandal back home and pressured Douglas to “eject Wilde from the house”  (p.153).  Moreover, both men had extravagant tastes and money was a never-ending problem, one that put an end altogether to the sojourn in Naples.  

               Douglas received money from his mother, Lady Queensbury, now divorced from the Marquis, and Wilde had an allowance as part of his settlement with Constance.   But Lady Queensbury threatened to cut off her son’s allowance if he continued to cohabit with Wilde.   Douglas concluded that he had no choice but to leave Wilde, while demanding that his mother send Wilde £200.   She did so, but only after receiving Wilde’s pledge that he would never again live under the same roof as her son.   Although both Douglas and Wilde expected their relationship to continue in some form thereafter, in fact their time as a couple ended in Naples.

               Wilde arrived in Paris in February 1898 and, with the exception of a two-month return visit to Italy from March to May 1900, remained there up to his death.  Paris for Wilde represented the “glittering capital of the World Republic of Letters, and he had always enjoyed a greater sense of intellectual freedom and recognition in the city. . . [I]t was above all the contrast between English public condemnation and French acceptance of his most controversial works that led Wilde to feel more at home among the French” (p.194-95). 

                  With a thriving and extensive homosexual subculture, centered on cafés and bars near the Champs Elysées, Paris had “long possessed a reputation for openness and toleration, especially in the eyes of the British” (p.193).  Homosexuals bonded socially as well as sexually in late 19th century Paris, Frankel writes, “relatively untroubled by any fear of police repression and scrutiny” (p.207).  Many of the active homosexuals were quite young, between 14 and 20.  Wilde called meeting with these young men “feasting with panthers,” and made no effort to hide his determination to continue such “feasting,” now that he lived singly, with no social standing to protect and hence little reason to be furtive.  “Within days of his arrival in Paris, Wilde began a series of open, public liaisons with young men offering him personal and sexual companionship” (p.207).

                 Frankel gives particular attention to a friendship of another sort which Wilde struck up in Paris, with Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the man later determined to have framed Captain Alfred Dreyfus.  L’Affaire Dreyfus, with its clear anti-Semitic overtones, was at its height when Wilde arrived in Paris in mid-February 1898 (I reviewed three books on the Dreyfus affair here in February 2012).  Esterhazy’s combination of “charm, bravura, and obvious criminal guilt fascinated Wilde” (p.12).  Although his friendship with Esterhazy has since elicited “severe moral disapproval,” Frankel sees it as “perfectly consistent with much that Wilde had written and done at the height of his social and literary success” (p.231).  Esterhazy, with his “frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind,” represented the “true liar” (p.231) whom Wilde had celebrated in his writings.  But the friendship ended suddenly when the proof against Esterhazy became irrefutable and he fled France – for England. 

               Paris provided opportunities for Douglas and Wilde to see one another “without attracting the disapproving attentions of English journalists”  (p.212).  They met frequently, often dining out together, although Frankel finds it unlikely that they had a sexual relationship during this time.  Both were pursuing younger men; they often shared partners.  And they continued to quarrel over money, with Wilde pressing the case that Douglas should be supporting him financially.  Douglas initially rejected Wilde’s entreaties, but he sent Wilde about £125 in the last months of 1900.  In August of that year, Wilde and Douglas dined together for the last time, at the Café de la Paix near the Opéra, their preferred dining site. 

               The saddest element of Wilde’s final year in Frankel’s view was that he “could no longer write.  For at least two years after his release, he had remained determined to prove that he still possessed literary genius and that prison had not killed his creative spirit”  (p.261).  Although his arrival in Paris in February 1898 had coincided with the publication in England of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, with significant critical and commercial success, Wilde came to the realization in Paris that there would be no “artistic resurrection.”  He would “never again recover the social and literary standing he had lost” (p.205).  

                 By 1900, Wilde had become increasingly unable to “step out of the wreckage his life had become: he could no longer write creatively, his health was declining, and he was rapidly losing the confidence of some of his most loyal friends and supporters” (p.258). He succumbed to “fits of lassitude and self-pity” (p.205), with depression, sadness and drinking to excess dominating his last year.  Wilde by then was a “physically altered person” who had “put on weight, and his once luxurious hair was thinning and turning grey.  He had grown distinctly deaf . . . and he now often spoke with his hand in front of his mouth to hide his bad teeth” (p.257).  But if he could no longer write, he could still tell beautiful stories to anyone willing to listen, talking with a  “brilliance and fertility of tongue and imagination that nobody could match” (p.262).     

                In early September 1900, Wilde suffered a fatal relapse of an ear infection that had afflicted him while in prison and went untreated. The only solution was a radical operation with a high risk of permanent hearing loss.  Wilde submitted to such an operation on October 10, 1900, creating an open wound that left him in constant pain and required daily dressing and cavity packing.   Although he realized some improvement toward the end of October, in November the infection spread to his brain.  He died on November 30,1900, in his Paris hotel room, six weeks short of his 46th birthday, alone and with little fanfare.   Douglas paid about £20 in funeral costs.

* * *

                 Queen Victoria died less than two months after Wilde. Their deaths together, Frankel contends, marked the end of the Victorianism with which Wilde had always been at odds.  Frankel concludes his thoughtful biography by noting that Wilde had served as the “harbinger of new attitudes that would eventually come to replace the repressive Victorian laws and morality surrounding matters of sex and gender” (p.294-95).   His imprisonment and exile may have liberated future generations more than they liberated Wilde himself.     

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C., USA

June 26, 2019

2 Comments

Filed under English History, History, Literature

Exploring Joseph Conrad’s World

Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch:

Joseph Conrad in a Global World (Penguin Press) 

               Joseph Conrad, born Konrad Kurzeniowski in 1857 to Polish parents in present-day Ukraine, spent most of his adult life either at sea or writing novels in his adopted homeland, England.   Conrad is one of a handful of authors in the last two centuries who have made their mark writing in an acquired rather than their native language (others include Vladimir Nabokov and Arthur Koestler; I reviewed a biography of Koestler here in 2012).   In The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Maya Jasonoff aims, as she puts it, to explore Conrad’s world “with the compass of an historian, the chart of a biographer, and the navigational sextant of a fiction reader” (p.9).  Jasonoff, a professor of history at Harvard University,  skillfully uses each of these tools to produce a masterful account of the late 19th and early 20th century world that shaped Conrad’s personal life and literary output.

Conrad set his novels in the late Victorian period, a time when the British Empire was at its height and Europe’s powers were scrambling for territory in Africa and Asia.  He offered stories about places that his English-speaking readers considered exotic, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  But they were discomforting stories that in different ways highlighted the darker side of imperialist adventures.  His most famous work, Heart of Darkness, detailed a boat trip into what was then known as the Congo Free State, a trip in which the lines between savagery and civilization, madness and sanity, seemed to blur.   Conrad developed similar themes in The Secret Agent and Nostrodomo, novels about Asia and a fictional Latin American country that resembled Paraguay.  Jasonoff concentrates her study on these works, along with The Secret Agent, a novel about Russian anarchists operating in London.

Jasonoff recognizes a form of international connectivity — globalization — emerging in Conrad’s lifetime.  By the first decade of the 20th century, she writes, there had “never been such global interconnection – and never such manifest division” (p.285).  Democracy advanced, as liberal revolutions challenged autocrats and women stormed for the vote.  “But imperialism intensified as a handful of Western powers consolidated their rule over the majority of the world’s people. Rising prosperity went with increasing inequality. More conversations across cultures came with more elaborate theories of racial difference” (p.285).  Conrad grasped this interconnectedness and elevated it to a central motif for his writings.  Wherever he set his novels, Jasonoff writes, Conrad “grappled with the ramifications of living in a global world: the moral and material impact of dislocation, the tension and opportunity of multi-ethnic societies, the disruption brought by technological change” (p.11).

Jasonoff, who took her own tour down the Congo River as part of her preparations for this book, divides the work into four parts: “Nation,” focusing on Conrad’s youth; “Ocean,” his years at sea; “Civilization,” an ironic reference to Conrad’s trip to the Congo in 1890 and writing Heart of Darkness nearly a decade later; and “Empire,” how Nostrodomo reflected Conrad’s late life views about a globalized world of empires and competitive nation-states.  Throughout, she shows her stripes as an historian with concise,  ingeniously detailed treatment of the times and places depicted in Conrad’s novels, juxtaposed with her analyses of the novels themselves.  As an able biographer, moreover, she does not neglect her subject’s enigmatic personal life.

* * *

               Konrad Kurzeniowski’s father Apollo was a member of the Polish landed nobility, the szlachita. But Apollo was also a fervent Polish nationalist, a political activist who dedicated his life to the cause of independence for Poland, which had been partitioned between Austria, Russia and Prussia in 1795.  The young Konrad’s mother Ewa died when the boy was eight and Apollo passed away when he was 12, leaving the task of raising the orphaned lad to his uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski. To Tadeusz, Apollo had been “feckless, quixotic, and fatally incapable of supporting his family” (p.45). Tadeusz hoped to shape the young Konrad into a “pragmatic Bobrowski, not a dreamy Korzeniowski like his father” (p.45). Uncle Tadeusz continued to support Konrad financially until the young man was well into his adult years (throughout much of the book, Jasonoff uses the birthname “Konrad” interchangeably with “Conrad”).

As Konrad neared twenty, he felt a need to get away from from Kraków, where he was living with his uncle, and especially from the ruling Russians, who were looking to conscript him into military service.  He had grown up “obsessed with the idea of becoming a sailor.”  Sailing may have seemed a “completely fantastical notion for a young man who’d been raised hundreds of miles from the ocean.”  But Konrad had been “adrift his whole life. Going to sea just made it official” (p.49). Surprisingly, Uncle Tadeusz allowed him to leave for Marseille, where Tadeusz had connections with the extensive Polish diaspora there, including a cousin who owned a shipping company.

Bureaucratic hurdles prevented Konrad from working on French ships, and the young man experienced one of the lowest points in his life.  He ran out of money, tried unsuccessfully to get it back in casinos, and even attempted suicide.  Uncle Tadeusz went to Marseille and tried to convince Konrad to return to Kraków.  When the young man refused, he and his uncle decided that he should try to join the English Merchant Marine. Konrad had a bad experience on one ship, the Mavis, left it and departed for London, never writing again about Marseille or this part of his life.

The young man arrived in London in 1878 without a firm command of the English language.  His initial impressions upon arriving in London were “as if he’d wandered into a novel by Charles Dickens. Everything he knew about London he’d learned from Dickens” (p.62).  His Dickensian vision “lit the way from Konrad Korzeniowski, the bookish son of a Polish writer, to Joseph Conrad, a critically acclaimed English novelist . . . On the rare occasions that Conrad wrote about his early life, it was these first years in London that he most often recalled” (p.62).  In an insightful passage, Jasonoff shows how London at the time of Conrad’s arrival was already the center of a globalized empire and a melting pot offering many freedoms that distinguished it from Eastern Europe.  Conrad never lived more than an hour or two from London again. But he spent most of the next decade and a half, to 1894, in various capacities as a professional mariner.

More than in London, it was at sea that Konrad Korzeniowski “turned into Joseph Conrad” (p.93), Jasonoff argues.  For over fifteen years, Conrad sailed to the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Africa on some of the longest routes that sailing ships regularly plied.  He learned to speak English on British ships, where native-born Britons were usually in the minority.  For Conrad, a sailing ship represented a “distinctive – and distinctively British – sense of ethics” that called for “experience, training, courage, perception, creativity, adaptability, and judgment” (p.109).  Conrad “transformed the British sailing ship into a gold standard for moral conduct.  It became for him what Poland had been for his parents, a romantic ideal that served as a guide for life” (p.94).  Sometime toward the end of the 1880s, Conrad started to write fiction – “the beginning of a lifetime of writing about sailors, ships, and the sea” (p.94).  But Conrad resisted the label of “sea writer.”  Stories about the sea were, for him, “stories about life” (p.108).

* * *

                    Conrad’s most famous story about life, Heart of Darkness, was based on his own trip in 1890 down the Congo River as captain of a Belgian steamer.  Conrad kept an extensive journal of what he observed, most of which worked its way into the story he started to write in December 1898.  None of Conrad’s other works of fiction, Jasonoff notes, could be “so closely pegged to contemporary records of his experience” (p.205).  The novel was published in 1898.  Its narrator, Charles Marlow, tells the story to friends aboard a boat anchored on the Thames in London of his effort to locate Kurtz, an ivory trader in the Congo.  Marlow discovered that Kurtz, a “prophet of civilization” who “promised civilization while snatching ivory,” had become a “savage lord” (p.204).

On its face, Heart of Darkness appeared to be what Jasonoff describes as the “quintessential river story, running from here to there: a journey from Europe to Africa, overlaid by metaphorical journeys from present to past, light to dark, civilization to savagery, sanity to madness” (p.205).  But by nesting Marlow’s experience in Africa inside the telling of his story in England, Conrad warned his readers against the complacent notion that “savagery” was far from “civilization.” “What happened there and what happened here were fundamentally connected. Anyone could be savage. Everywhere could go dark” (p.237).

The extent to which Conrad’s fictional portrait of the Congo accurately depicted its actual conditions did not become fully known until years later.  But Jasonoff captures well the “appalling greed, violence, and hypocrisy” (p.3-4) of the regime of Leopold II, King of the Belgians.  She colorfully describes Leopold as an “outsized man, usually the tallest man in the room, with a nose like a mountain slope and a beard like a waterfall foaming over his chest” (p.173-74).  Determined to be a geo-political player on par with those from the larger European powers, Leopold sought to “open up to civilization the only part of the globe which it [had] not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness in which entire populations are enveloped” (p.173-74).

From 1885 to 1908, Leopold privately controlled and owned what was known as the Congo Free State, about 75 times larger than Belgium.   He used his personal control to strip the county of vast amounts of wealth, especially ivory and rubber.  These labor-intensive industries were serviced by locals who were forced to work through torture, imprisonment, maiming and terror.  Beneath a veneer of idealistic principles, the Congo Free State was, in Jasonoff’s words, the “most nakedly abusive colonial regime in the world” (p.205).

                 Lord Jim, published in serial form in 1899-1900 and in hardcover in 1900 was based loosely on the scandal of the S.S. Jeddah, a British-flagged, Singapore-owned steamship that perished at sea in 1880, carrying Muslims from Singapore to Mecca.  The story revolves around the abandonment of a ship by its British crew, including a young British seaman named Jim.   Jasonoff likens Jim to the main character of Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel, The Red Badge of Courage, a man who had “‘dreamed of battles all his life’ only to run away from the field the very first time he fought” (p.145).  Lord Jim remained Conrad’s most popular work for so long that, twenty years later, he “complained about critics who measure his new books against it” (p.144).  The novel appeared at a time “when Europe and the United States had colonized virtually all of Africa and Asia” (p.144-45).  It told of Europeans in Asia “not from the veranda of a British colonial bungalow, still less an armchair in a London club – but as Conrad had seen them, from the steamer’s deck” (p.145).

Although Nostromo was Conrad’s only major work about a place he had never been, Jasonoff prefers that we look at it as a “novel about every place he’d been” (p.283).  The novel came out in book form in October 1904, with the sub-title, “A Tale of the Seaboard,” a tale of the coast (the novel started out being about Italian immigrants in Argentina; the title is a clumsy translation of  “our man,” nostro unomo, in Italian).   A coast was something new in Conrad’s work, Jasonoff writes. The “border of land and sea, a coast could be both barrier and meeting place – a voyager’s point of departure, the place where an invader lands.”  In Nostromo “outsiders, conspiracies, and families” met the “themes of honor, community, and isolation he had [previously] set at sea” (p.278).

                  Nostromo takes place in Costaguana, a New World creation that Conrad made up, based primarily upon what he had read about Paraguay. The main storyline concerned the poisoning impact of the San Tomé silver mine on individuals and corporations, particularly British and American. Charles Gould, a native of Castaguano of English ancestry, believed the mine could bring peace to a war torn country.  But the extraction of silver only heightened the country’s unrest.

The secret to Nostromo’s “extraordinary prescience,” Jasonoff argues, was that Conrad “folded between its covers his own ‘theory of the world’s future’” (p.283). In Nostrodomo, Conrad anticipated the “ascent of an American-led consortium of ‘material interests,’” which would “dictate the fortunes of new nations” and “make imperialism continue to thrive whether or not it had the word ‘empire’ attached to it” (p.283).  Jasonoff finds it “ironic if not surprising” that Costaguana, a place Conrad had fabricated, “felt so stunningly real to readers.  Conrad had fashioned his ideas of Latin America from precisely the same kinds of books and newspapers his audiences might have read.  Nostromo thus confirmed their stereotypes” (p.279). Readers and reviewers in the United States in particular read Nostromo as a “vindication of all their prejudices about Latin America” (p.279).

                    The Secret Agent was set in London and dealt with anarchists, the only major Conrad novel not set at sea. Based loosely on the plot to kill Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881, The Secret Agent was Conrad’s “tribute to his beloved Dickens” (p.70-71).  More than anything else Conrad wrote, The Secret Agent “mapped the contours of his early life” (p.81) – the novelist Joseph Conrad writing about Konrad Kurzeniowski, as Jasonoff puts it.  Some critics characterized The Secret Agent as a novel written by a “foreigner,” criticism that stung Conrad badly.  The Secret Agent captured an irony of Conrad’s life: he couldn’t go back to Poland, yet he worried that he didn’t really fit into his adopted country either.

* * *

                   Conrad’s major novels conspicuously lack meaningful roles for women. There are no contemporary clues, moreover, whether he had sexual relationships with any women during his sailing days, in Europe or beyond, Jasonoff indicates.  He had one odd attachment to Marguerite Poradowska, a widow living in Brussels whose recently-deceased husband was a distant cousin of the Kurzeniowski family.   Their relationship appears to have been primarily on paper, in “effusive, emotionally charged correspondence between the two” (p.165).   Eight years older than Conrad, and in a way part of the family, the new widow was a “‘safe’ repository for Konrad’s intimate confessions, and in the coming years he poured them out in sometimes dozens of letters per year.  Marguerite became the first woman with whom the adult Konrad formed a sustained emotional relationship” (p.165).

Then, suddenly, their correspondence ended and, seemingly out of nowhere, Conrad announced “solemnly” (p.227) in a letter in 1896 to another woman he had had his eye on that he was about to marry Jessie George, an 18 year old working class girl from Peckham, nearly twenty years younger than her future husband.  In a letter to a cousin in Poland, Conrad described George as “small, not at all striking-looking person (to tell the truth alas – rather plain!) who nevertheless is very dear to me” (p.228). Marriage did not frighten him, he indicated, because he was “accustomed to an adventurous life and to facing terrible dangers” (p.227).

Conrad’s friends “couldn’t believe he had married such an uneducated, unrefined person” (p.230).  But the marriage worked.  George had qualities that Conrad “needed and craved: an even temper, good humor, patience, an impulse to nurture” (p.230).  The couple had two sons, Borys, born in 1898, and John, born in 1906.  During Conrad’s peak years as a writer, the family lived together in genteel poverty in rural locations outside London (Conrad had long since spent the inheritance he received from his Uncle Tadeusz, who died in 1893).

In the summer of 1914, Conrad took his family of four back to Poland, at precisely the moment when European-wide war broke out.  His son Borys later served in the war.  He was gassed and shell-shocked in the last weeks of the conflict and came home to convalescence.  As an expatriate living in Britain, Conrad became increasingly involved in Polish affairs during the war years and their aftermath.  Following in his father’s footsteps, Conrad sought to protect Poland from what he termed “Russian barbarism” and Germany’s “superficial, grinding civilization” (p.292). He wrote a formal note to the Foreign Office in 1917, advocating “an Anglo-French protectorate” as the “ideal form of moral and material support” (p.297) to defend Poland from its more powerful neighbors.

In April 1923, Conrad arrived in New York for his first visit to the United States, where he was surprised to learn what a celebrity he was. Despite his concerns about American imperial overreach, he enjoyed the visit and appreciated the Americans whom he met.  He died in August 1924 at his home near Canterbury, at a time when the entire family, including his first grandchild, had fortuitously gathered for Bank Holiday weekend.

* * *

               Jasonoff sees many similarities between today’s globalization and the iteration Conrad wrote about.  Ships and sailing remain central to the world’s economy.  Today, “Internet cables run along the seafloor beside the old telegraph wires.  Conrad’s characters whisper in the ears of new generations of anti-globalization protesters and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists” (p.7-9).   Conrad’s world thus “shimmers beneath the surface of our own” (p.7), she writes.  Conrad’s world may have been  one where cynicism, hypocrisy and cruelty too often prevailed.  But through her formidable use of the tools of the historian, biographer and fiction reader, Jasonoff manages to cast much light on the darkness of that world.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 20, 2019

7 Comments

Filed under British History, History, Literature, World History

Searching for Kafka’s Soul in the Courts of Israel

 

Benjamin Balint, Kafka’s Last Trial:

The Case of a Literary Legacy (W.W. Norton & Co.)

          Franz Kafka is today known for his terrifying vision of faceless bureaucracies and irrational state power.  Some see in Kafka’s most famous works an eerie foreshadow of the totalitarian horrors of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  The English poet W.H. Auden once remarked that Kafka was to his age what Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe had been to theirs.  But when he died of tuberculosis in 1924, just short of his 41st birthday, Kafka, German-speaking, Jewish and Czech, was a writer of no particular acclaim.  He had yet to complete a single novel and the little he had published had failed to attract significant attention. 

           As he approached death, Kafka instructed Max Brod, his long time friend and literary companion, to burn his remaining papers, including manuscripts, diaries and letters.  This was typical of Kafka, who was plagued with deep-rooted anxiety and feelings of inadequacy throughout his life, feelings that animated his unfinished novels and other works.  Fortunately, Brod ignored Kafka’s directive and not only preserved but also edited significantly the Kafka papers.  Many went on to be published, including The Trial and The Castle, now considered among the 20th century’s most consequential novels.

          Brod, also German-speaking, Jewish and Czech, fled his native Prague with his wife Elsa in 1939 while carrying the Kafka papers in a suitcase, barely a step ahead of the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia.  He wound up in Tel Aviv, where he became a close friend of Ilse Hoffe, another German-speaking Jew from Prague, along with her husband Otto and their two young daughters, Eva and Ruth.  Ilse, who at Brod’s suggestion changed her first name to the Hebrew Esther, became Brod’s personal secretary, albeit without a regular salary.  Rather, Brod, during his lifetime, as a form of compensation bequeathed the Kafka papers still in his possession to Esther as a gift.  After Brod’s death in 1968, Esther in turn bequeathed the papers to her two daughters, Eva and Ruth, with the proviso that during her lifetime, she retained the right to publish and sell the papers. 

          When Esther died in 2007 at age 101, Eva and Ruth sought to probate their mother’s will.  But before the court acted on what Eva and Ruth thought would be a routine request, the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem intervened to assert a proprietary interest in the Kafka papers. To further complicate the proceeding, the Literature Archive in Marbach, the German counterpart to the Israeli National Library, also intervened. Each contended that it was the appropriate repository for the papers.  The case continued in Tel Aviv Family Court for five years, after which it progressed through higher levels within the Israeli judicial systems, up to the Israeli Supreme Court.  Not until 2016 did the case become final.

            At the heart of these proceedings was a single, perplexing question: to whom did the Kafka papers belong?  From one angle, the question was narrowly legal, involving Brod’s intent in bequeathing the Kafka papers to Esther as a gift in her lifetime; Esther’s intent in making a subsequent lifetime conveyance to her daughters; and the legal effects of both conveyances (Kafka’s intent was both clear and irrelevant).  These issues will be attractive to present and former law students, familiar with the exercise of teasing the intent of dead people out of complex and ambiguous factual situations.  But the courts also approached the question from a broader angle, one likely to be more engrossing to more readers: with the presence in the litigation of the Israeli National Library and the German Marbach Archive, the courts found themselves with little choice but to embark upon a search for Kafka’s literary soul and determine whether that soul might be considered either Israeli or German.

           Neither the Israeli National Library nor the Marbach Academy presented an overly compelling case that it was the appropriate repository for the Kafka papers.  Kafka never set foot in Palestine, the predecessor to Israel, and Judaism played no evident role in his writings.  Nor was Kafka a German national.  He only wrote in that language, like an American or Australian writing in English, a Belgian or Québécois in French, or a Peruvian or Bolivian in Spanish, but with the hardly insignificant qualification that Germany had both invaded and annexed his native country and was responsible for the deaths of his three sisters and other family members in the Holocaust.

           The fate of  the Kafka papers in the Israeli courts makes for a story that their  deceased author would likely have found suitable for a novel – a story for which the adjective “Kafkaesque” seems unavoidable (“having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality,” according to Merriam-Webster, “often applied to bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening”).  Benjamin Balint’s aptly titled Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy tells that story with aplomb, skillfully moving back and forth between the 21st century litigation and its 20th century predicates: Kafka’s own life, his relationship with Brod up to his death, Brod’s efforts to keep the Kafka flame alive before his flight from Prague, and his new life in Tel Aviv with Esther and the Hoffe family. 

          The story involves a three-person chain of custody for the Kafka manuscripts. After having “so vitally linked Brod to his former heyday in Prague,” by the 1950s the manuscripts “began to link Brod with Esther – the currency of their relationship” (p.195).  Then, when Brod, who had been like a second father to Esther’s daughters Eva and Ruth, died in 1968, the manuscripts became a part of the relationship between Esther and her two daughters.  Ruth died during the litigation, in 2012, making Balint’s story as much about Brod, Esther and Eva as it is about Kafka.  But the competing claims of the Israeli National Library and he Marbach Archive highlighted the fraught relationship between Germany and Israel in the aftermath of World War II.  

           These competing claims, Balint writes, “threw into stark relief the very different ways Israel and Germany remain freighted by their ruptured pasts and by the noble lies on which their healing depended” (p.223-24).  Both brought to the judicial proceedings a “concern about their respective national pasts. . . [B]oth sought to use Kafka as a trophy to honor those pasts, as though the writer was an instrument of national prestige” (p.8).  The litigation offered a lesson in “how Germany’s claim on a writer whose family was decimated in the Holocaust is entangled with the country’s postwar attempt to overcome its shameful past,” while reawakening in Israel a long-standing debate about Kafka’s “ambivalence toward Judaism and the prospects of a Jewish state – and about Israel’s ambivalence toward Kafka and toward Diaspora culture” (p.223-24).

* * *

               Max Brod, born in 1884 in Prague, met Kafka when both were students at Charles University in Prague.  Brod, Balint observes, was as exuberant and outgoing as Kafka was inward looking.  With his “joie de vivre, alive with surplus energies,” Brod “radiated a verve, vitality and communion with human life lacking in Kafka” (p.20).  Of a “sunnier temperament, less divided against himself,” Brod appeared  “free of the kind of self-doubt that accompanied Kafka’s pitiless self-scrutiny” (p.20).  Whereas Kafka seemed to care little about worldly success, Brod was “consumed with his own ambition” (p.20).

         During Kafka’s lifetime, Brod was by far the more successful writer, producing poetry, treatises, 20 novels and a variety of “polemical broadsides” (p.25).  Unlike Kafka, Brod was a staunch Zionist whose novels were “suffused with Jews and Jewishness” (p.86).  Early in their relationship, Brod perceived Kafka’s potential literary genius and “obsessively collected anything that Kafka put his hand to.  Kafka, in contrast felt the impulse to shed everything” (p.25-27).  Acknowledging Kafka’s incapacity for self-promotion, Brod “came to serve as his friend’s advocate, herald, and literary agent” (p.28).

         Rather than obey Kafka’s directive that all his papers be burned, Brod in the decade following Kafka’s death in 1924 dedicated himself with a “singular passion to saving the manuscripts and rescuing Kafka from oblivion,” transforming himself into the “greatest posthumous editor of the twentieth century” (p.132).  Brod twice rescued Kafka’s legacy: “first from physical destruction, and then from obscurity” (p.133). The Kafka we know today is almost entirely the creation of Brod.  Without Brod, “there would be no Kafka,” Balint writes. “We cannot help but hear Kafka’s voice through Brod” (p.133).  But without Kafka, he emphasizes, Brod, the “curator of Kafka’s posthumous fame,” would have “long since faded from public memory” (p.135).  

           Not long after he arrived in Tel Aviv, Brod met the Hoffe family, Otto and Ilse (Esther) and their two daughters, Eva and Ruth.  In the early 1940s, Otto and Esther had taken their daughters out of Prague “on a holiday,” as they told them, never to return.  After a stop in Vichy France, the family of four ended up in Tel Aviv.  Brod was then grieving from his wife’s recent death, and became close to the Hoffe couple and their children.  All felt like outsiders in Tel Aviv.  Brod at one point suggested that Esther help him inventory the papers he had carried from Prague in his suitcase.  Esther went on to work regularly at Brod’s apartment, becoming, in Brod’s words, his “creative partner,” “stringent critic,” and “rescuing angel” (p.195). 

* * *

             On two separate occasions, in 1947 and 1952, Brod noted in writing that he had gifted to Esther “all the Kafka manuscripts and letters in my possession” (p.195).  He added in the 1952 note that he and Esther had “jointly” deposited this material in a safe in 1948.  Esther acknowledged the gift by a writing in the margins of the 1952 note.  Brod also executed two wills, in 1948 and 1961, both of which named Esther as his sole heir and executor, bequeathing to her all his possessions. In the 1961 instrument, Brod instructed that after her death his literary estate – not the Kafka papers — should be deposited in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the municipal public library of Tel Aviv, or another public archive in Israel or abroad, with Esther to determine which institution and under what conditions.  Neither instrument mentioned the Kafka papers, indicating that Brod did not consider them part of his estate, having already been gifted to Esther.

          In April 1969, a half year after Brod’s death, Tel Aviv District Court granted probate to Brod’s last will and appointed Esther as executor of his estate.  In 1970, Esther in turn formally bequeathed the Kafka manuscripts to daughters Eva and Ruth as gifts, in equal portions, but retained substantial rights over the papers, including the right to dispose of them as she, Esther, saw fit.  So the matter stood until 1973, when the State of Israel, concerned that Esther might seek to sell Kafka’s manuscripts abroad, sued Esther for possession of the Kafka papers.  

          Under applicable Israeli law, the State’s Archivist was empowered to prevent the removal from Israel of privately owned records that are of “national” value and which, “irrespective of where they are found, are deemed relevant to the study of the nation’s history, its people, the state, and society” (p.200).  The court rejected Israel’s claim, ruling in January 1974 that Brod’s last will “allows Mrs. Hoffe to do with his estate as she pleases during her lifetime” (p.10).   Esther then auctioned off some Kafka letters and postcards in 1974.  In 1988, she put the 316 page original of Kafka’s 1914 draft of The Trial up for auction at Sotheby’s in London.  It sold for £1,000,000, at the time the highest price ever paid for a modern manuscript.   The sale precipitated no reaction from Israeli state authorities.

          After Esther’s death at age 101 in 2007, Eva and Ruth went to Tel Aviv Family Court to  seek probate of their mother’s will, which had been executed in 1988.  The will noted that Esther had already given the Kafka manuscripts to her daughters as gifts.  Anticipating a routine proceeding, Eva was stunned when a lawyer for the National Library appeared, contending that Brod’s will had been misconstrued in the 1974 decision (the Library challenged the 1974 ruling under an article of the Israeli succession code that allows an interested party to ask for the amendment of a probate order on the basis of facts that have come to light since the original order, even if the party did not participate in the original proceeding).  The Library argued that Brod had left the papers to Esther as an executor, not as a beneficiary.  Brod intended Esther to have them only in his lifetime; when he died, he intended that they go to a public archive.  The manuscripts were therefore never Esther’s to give, and she could not now pass them on to her daughters — essentially a repeat of the arguments the court had rejected a third of a century earlier.  Esther had betrayed Brod’s will, the lawyer contended, “much as the Brod had betrayed Kafka’s” (p.34).

* * *

         The German Literature Archive in Marbach, the world’s largest archive of modern German literature, is a state-of-the-art facility for cataloging and preserving papers.  It houses the papers of several writers who had been persecuted by the Nazis.  It entered the litigation when it was negotiating with Esther to buy at least some of the papers, hiring a top Israeli lawyer who contended that the proceedings were a pretext for an Israeli seizure of private property.  If Israel were acting in good faith, he argued, it would negotiate with Eva rather than try to expropriate the papers through litigation. 

            In support of its claim to be the natural home of Kafka’s papers, the Marbach Archive reminded the court that German literature, not the Jewish tradition, “indisputably constituted Kafka’s cultural canon” (p.156).  Even Kafka’s austere writing style was “inseparable from – and made possible by – the German language” (p.157).  Kafka wrote in what Balint terms a “merciless German that pares away superfluity and slack” (p.157; Brod once described Kafka’s prose as “fire” which “leaves no soot behind” (p.157)).  Germany’s claim to the papers, moreover, was an outgrowth of the critical role which literature had played in forging German cultural identity.  Long before the birth of the unified German state in 1871, German language and literature acted “not just as a vehicle of communication but as a crucible of national cohesion.”  To a degree unthinkable elsewhere, “literature has played – and continues to play – a consolidating role in helping Germans come to terms with their Volkgeist”  (p.160).

         The Israeli National Library’s attorney argued that there was “something obscene in the argument that the papers ‘belong’ in Germany, the country of the genocidal perpetrators, the country that gave unprecedented mechanized form to man’s inhumanity to man” (p.79).  But the library still had to support its somewhat amorphous contention that Kafka was a “touchstone of ‘Jewish culture’” (p.90).  It was able to point to some affinities to Zionism that Kafka had manifested as a young man, and demonstrate that he was not indifferent to Judaism so much as confounded by it.

         Before World War I, Kafka attended Zionist activities in Prague, as well the 11th World Zionist Congress in Vienna in 1913.  He took courses on the Talmud and was able to speak and write in Hebrew.  He once wrote to one of his earliest loves, Felice Bauer (a distant cousin of Brod) about the “dark complexity of Judaism, which contains so many impenetrable mysteries” (p.62).  Among the items that Brod found in Kafka’s papers after his death was an unsent 100-page letter to his father on how Judaism, rather than bringing the two together, had actually driven them further apart.  While we “might have found one another in Judaism,” Kafka was prepared to tell his father, the flimsy vestiges passed along to him were an “insufficient scrap. . . a mere nothing, a joke . . . It all dribbled away while you were passing it on” (p.93).

           But several factors undermined Israel’s cultural claim on Kafka.  In all of Kafka’s fiction, there is “no direct reference to Judaism.  One searches in vain for Jews, or Jewish patterns of speech, in Kafka’s placeless fiction” (p.86).  There was never a Kafka “cult” in Israel comparable to that in Germany, France or the United States.  In marked contrast to Germany, there are no streets in Israel named after Kafka. Israel was one of last countries to translate Kafka into its national language. To this day, there is no Hebrew edition of Kafka’s complete works.  For many years, there were no German language or literature courses at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Even today, Germany funds these departments.   

            While Kafka’s cool reception in the Jewish state might be explained as a generalized resistance toward German language and literature, associated with Nazi barbarity, the better view for Balint lies in a widespread aversion to Diaspora culture in Israel.  The underpinnings of Kafka’s work — humiliation and powerlessness, anomie and alienation, debilitating guilt and self-condemnation — were the “very pre-occupations Israel’s founding generation sought to overcome” (p.112).  Balint surmises that Kafka exemplified to Israelis the “political impotence and passivity – the pessimism that flows from a sense of one’s powerlessness – that Zionists so vehemently rejected” (p.110-11).

* * *

            It was not until 2012, a half year after Eva’s sister Ruth died, that the Tel Aviv Family Court issued a 59 page opinion, which began by noting that a “simple request filed by the plaintiffs, the daughters of the late Mrs. Esther Hoffe, to execute her will” had “opened a portal onto the lives, desires, frustrations – indeed the souls – of two of the twentieth century’s great sprits” (p.74).  The court’s decision was appealed to the Tel Aviv District Court, where it remained until June 2015.  The Israeli Supreme Court then heard the case and rendered its decision in 2016.

          Among its many ironies, the litigation had exposed a proprietary attitude over the legacy of a writer whom Balint describes as “bound up in the refusal to belong to a fixed abode”  — a writer who “untethered both himself and his writing from the comforting anchors of national or religious belonging” (p. 226-27).  Balint concludes his cogent analysis by noting that although the Israeli judges had reached a verdict in this irony-riddled case, the “symbolic trial over Kafka’s legacy has yet to adjourn” (p.219). 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 27, 2019

5 Comments

Filed under German History, Israeli History, Literature

Inside the Mind and Time of Victor Hugo

 

 

 

David Bellos, The Novel of the Century:

The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables 

            When first published on April 4, 1862, Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables was an immediate best seller – in today’s parlance, a “blockbuster” but also, at 1,900 pages in the original French, a “doorstopper” (the English translation was a mere 1,500 pages).  Hugo in 1862 was among France’s most revered writers, but was then living in exile on the Channel Island of Guernsey, having fled several years earlier from what he considered the dictatorial regime of Louis-Napoléon, better known as Napoléon III.  Hugo intended Les Misérables, his epic tale of reconciliation and redemption, with its searing portraits of the poor and those at society’s margins, to be the culmination of his already illustrious career as a novelist, poet and playwright.  It didn’t take long after Les Misérables’ initial publication for Hugo to conclude that his novel would easily meet his lofty aspirations.

             Over a century and half later, Hugo’s Les Misérables remains in the forefront of literary classics, still read in the original French and in countless translations in all the world’s major languages.  Within weeks of its publication, moreover, Les Misérables was turned into a play, and in the 20th century became the subject of more adaptations for radio, stage and screen than any just about any other literary work.  But David Bellos, professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton University, worries that Les Misérables’ extraordinary staying power and its enduring mass market appeal has led too many to dismiss the novel as a work that falls below the level of great art.

            In The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables, Bellos seeks to dispel such notions by getting inside Victor Hugo’s mind and his time as he pieced together Les Misérables.   Much like Alice Kaplan’s Looking For “The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, reviewed here in April, Bellos’ work could be considered a “biography of a book.”  In an introductory chapter, “The Journey of Les Misérables,” Bellos provides an overview to the novel, its setting and its multiple twists and improbable turns, all highly useful for readers who have not read the novel for several years if at all.

       Here he introduces the novel’s principal characters: Jean Valjean, famously sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, whose twenty-year quest to rehabilitate himself constitutes the novel’s “narrative backbone” (p.xviii); Fantine, an abandoned single mother who loses her job, falls into prostitution and meets an early death; her illegitimate daughter Cosette, entrusted to Valjean’s care after her mother’s death; Javert, the policeman who pursues Valjean relentlessly throughout the novel; the inn-keeping couple the Thénardiers, and their urchin children, Éponine and Gavroche; and Marius, a student and budding political activist who falls in love with Cosette.

              Les Misérables consists of five parts, with 48 “books” (Bellos too has divided his work into five parts, surely not coincidentally).  Hugo’s Part I is entitled “Fantine;” Part II, “Cosette,” in which the young girl is saved by Valjean from cruel foster parents after her mother’s death; Part III, “Marius,” focusing on the student’s life on the barricades in his fight to overcome the monarchy; Part IV, “The Idyll of Rue Plumer and the Epic of Rue Saint Denis,” two Parisian streets, the first where the love affair of Cosette and Marius blossomed, the second where Marius fought in a political barricade; and Part V, simply “Jean Valjean.”  Each of the 48 books has chapters, 365 in all.  With many of the chapters quite short, Bellos suggests a chapter per day over the course of a year for those who want to read or reread the novel.

               The individuals who surrounded Hugo as he wrote Les Misérables loom as large in Bellos’ work as the characters in the novel itself.   Hugo and his wife Adèle Foucher had five children, the first of whom died in infancy.  Their oldest daughter Léopoldine died in a boating accident at age 19, the “gravest emotional wound in Hugo’s life “ (p.98). Their last child, daughter Adèle, kept a diary from an early age that provides a major portion of the record about the evolution of Les Misérables,.  Adèle was in the forefront of an innovative campaign to market the novel across Europe (her unrequited love for a British military officer was the subject of the 1975 François Trauffaut film, The Story of Adèle H).  Hugo’s older son Charles also played a major role in arranging for publication of Les Misérables, while younger son François-Victor became a literary heavyweight in his own right through his translations into French of the major works of Shakespeare.

           An additional presence throughout Bellos’ account is Hugo’s long-term  mistress, Juliette Drout, an aspiring actress who followed Hugo into exile.  While living in quarters separate from the Hugo family, Juliette became Hugo’s regular traveling companion and served informally as his secretary and confidante (Juliette was traveling with Hugo when he learned of daughter Léopoldine’s death).  But Bellos adds that Hugo was a “serial philanderer” (p.30), with ample supplements to his on-going extra-marital liaison with Juliette and his legal attachment to wife Adèle.

          Les Misérables begins in 1815 and extends to 1835.  Hugo wrote the novel in fits and starts between 1845 and 1862.  The period between 1815 and 1862 encompasses some of the most dramatic upheavals of France’s turbulent and often violent 19th century.  The final defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo and the “Bourbon restoration” of Louis XVIII as a constitutional monarch took place in the fateful year 1815.  By 1862, France was in the midst of the “Second Empire” of Louis-Napoléon (Napoléon III), the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, who in a coup d’etat in 1851 had ended France’s Second Republic, the event that sent Hugo into exile.  In addition to the 1851 coup, the first half of the century witnessed periodic uprisings against the government, among them: the 1830 “July Revolution,” which ousted Louis XVIII’s successor Charles X in favor of Louis-Philippe d’Orleans; a mini-1832 rebellion which unsuccessfully sought to reverse the 1830 July Revolution, an uprising critical to Hugo’s novel but less so to French history; and the February 1848 revolution in which Louis-Napoléon deposed Louis-Philippe and established the Second French Republic, an uprising in which Hugo was directly involved.

            Bellos’ account shines in its illumination of how these events and the broader currents of 19th century French history affected both Hugo himself and the novel he was working on.  To enhance our understanding of the novel and its seventeen year gestation period, Bellos includes what he terms “interludes,” short digressions on diverse but pragmatic subjects, such as regional and class differences in language in Hugo’s time; money and credit in 19th century France; intellectual property protection and the technical process involved in publishing books in the mid-19th century; and transportation in the time of Les Misérables (people walked a lot more then than they do today).  Bellos also delves into how Hugo’s political and religious views entered into his novel.

            Although Les Misérables is a “progressive” work which “surely expresses moral outrage at the plight of the poor,” (p.219), Bellos cautions that it should not be considered a tract for the emerging views of the European left.  Subtly, however, the novel traced out a “limited if still ambitious program of social action” (p.202-03): more humane criminal justice, with easier entry back into society for offenders, more education, and more jobs for the uneducated.  Hugo, who had never been baptized and did not subscribe to any established religion or cult, considered Les Misérables to be a religious but not Catholic work.  Hugo’s novel argues for “natural religion” capable of bridging the conflicts between Catholics and non-Catholics, and between believers and non-believers, conflicts which in Hugo’s view exacerbated the disparities between rich and poor.  Les Misérables is thus, as Bellos puts it, a “work of reconciliation — between the classes, but also between the conflicting currents that turn our own lives into storms. It is not a reassuring tale of the triumph of good over evil, but a demonstration of how hard it is to be good” (p.xxiv).

* * *

             Bellos notes that Les Misérables was already an “historical” novel when it first appeared in 1862.  With its story set in a past that had ended over a quarter of a century earlier, the novel could immediately be read as an “exercise in nostalgia for a vanished world . . . [and as] an unintended guide to the way things used to be” (p.54).  To dig into the novel’s 1815-to-1835 period is thus to dig into Hugo’s own adolescence and his formative early adult years.  The son of a soldier who fought in Napoleon Bonaparte’s wars, Hugo turned 13 in 1815.

               A precocious literary youth, by 1815 Hugo had already demonstrated a flair for poetry.  By 1832, the year he turned 30, Hugo was among France’s best-known poets who had published a handful of novels, among them the immensely popular Notre Dame de Paris (known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). 1832 marked the death of Germany’s Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the “undisputed eminence of European literature for the preceding half-century.”  Bellos notes that Hugo considered himself the logical candidate to step into Goethe’s shoes as “European genius-in-chief” (p.4). 1832 was also the year of the unsuccessful two-day revolt against the July monarchy, a minor episode in France’s 19th century which Hugo elevated to the center of Les Misérables through Marius’ participation in its events.

               The first draft of Hugo’s novel, whose title was initially Les Misères, was written in Paris between November 1845 and February 1848. Although this draft no longer exists, scholars have concluded that its plot corresponds closely to that of the final version.  1845 was also the year when Hugo was appointed a peer in France’s upper legislative chamber.  He was working on Marius’ involvement in the 1832 upheaval at the time of the 1848 uprising against the regime of King Louis-Philippe, and found himself, improbably, on the front lines defending the regime – an “experience like no other Hugo had ever had, and not easy to square with his views, his feelings, and his position” (p.47-48).  Hugo’s role in in the suppression of the popular revolt of 1848 was, Bellos argues, “what he had to come to terms with to carry on with his book, and what he [had] to come terns with in his book if it [was] to be the ‘social and moral panorama’ that he intended it to be” (p.113-14).

              Hugo’s position as an establishment figure ended definitively when he became one of the most outspoken and relentless critics of Napoleon III’s 1851 coup d’état.  Forced into exile, he fled initially to Brussels and from there to the Channel Islands, outposts of the British crown off the coast of France. After living first on the Channel Island of Jersey, Hugo and his entourage landed in Guernsey in 1855, with his draft novel gathering dust in a trunk.  He established residence for his family at an elaborate mansion known as Hauteville House, overlooking the sea.  Juliette was assigned to a smaller house nearby.  In 1859, Napoleon III issued an amnesty to those who had opposed his seizure of power in 1851.  Many of the exiles on Channel Islands chose to return to France, but Hugo elected to stay.  But it was not until April 25, 1860, that Hugo went back to the trunk that had followed him from Jersey and pulled out the musty pages of the work he had spent little time on since 1848.

            From that date onward, Bellos’ narrative gathers momentum as he traces the frenetic period that followed.   By this time, Hugo had changed the name of his work from Les Misères to Les Misérables, his innovative term that shifted the meaning from the “poor,” “pitiable” or “despicable” to something more inclusive that suggests solidarity among the less fortunate: a “moral and social identity that had no name before” (p.103).  Hugo finally settled on the names of most of his characters in early 1861. These names have become so familiar, Bellos observes, that it “takes an effort to realize that they all had to be invented, for none of them was taken from the existing stock of French first and family names” (p.115).  Hugo did not finalize Jean Valjean’s name until March 1861.  Previously he had been Jean Tréjan, Jacques Sou and Jean Vlajean.

            Hugo’s work was technically covered by the same contract that had paid him in the 1830s for Notre Dame de Paris.  Because of concerns that the novel might be subject to censorship or litigation if published in France, Hugo shifted to Albert Lacroix and his Brussels-based, politically liberal micro-publishing firm.  Hugo needed a buy out of his original contract and overall wanted more for Les Misérables than had ever been paid to an author for any book. He largely got it, nearly 3 million British pounds in today’s currency, with about 40% of that amount being paid to him up-front, in cash, prior to publication.  Hugo’s deal with Lacroix, worked out in a single day when Lacroix visited Hugo at Hauteville House without having read the draft of the novel, was thus the “contract of the century,” to use the title of one of Bellos’ chapters.

            Hugo got his cash payment on time, in December 1860, because Oppenheim Bank of Brussels agreed to lend money to Lacroix to pay for the book.  For Hugo, debt and crime were two sides of the same coin, and Bellos notes the irony of a novel “so firmly opposed to debt being launched on the back of a major loan – probably the first loan ever made by a merchant bank to finance a book,” thereby placing Les Misérables “at the vanguard of . . . the use of venture capital to fund the arts” (p.143).

          Hugo was still working on the latter portions of the novel when Parts I and II appeared in print on April 4, 1862.  A full two months later, on June 14, 1862, Hugo “corrected the last galley of the last volume of Les Misérables and dispatched it to Brussels.”  Over the course of the previous nine months, he had “turned a single-copy manuscript of a still unfinished work into the greatest publishing sensation of his age” (p.260).

             While Hugo was confined to Hauteville House finalizing his novel, daughter Adèle was in Paris serving as the publicity manager for its launch, working with her brother Charles and Lacroix, both in Brussels. Adèle had to raise the interest and enthusiasm level for the novel to a “pitch so high it would discourage the authorities from banning or seizing the book.  But she also had to let not a scrap of it be seen in advance. The requirement to boost the book while keeping it secret made the publicity manager’s job a work of art” (p.223).   Adèle promoted the book through a billboard campaign.  She also gave advance portions to newspapers, but told them they couldn’t print them until she gave a go ahead.  Thanks to the advance work, the book had been “trumped in all the media then available” in France, a “country that the author refused to enter” (p.228).

            Les Misérables was to go on sale in other major European cities outside France at the same time.  Adèle, Charles and Lacroix thus devised what Bellos labels the “first truly international book launch,” but with an infrastructure that was “barely ready for it: paddle steamers, a rail network that still had more gaps than connections, four-horse diligences and maybe, on the approaches to St. Petersburg, a jingling three-horse sleigh” (p.228).

             From its initial appearances, there was an electricity attached to Hugo’s novel that is difficult for us to fathom more than a century and a half later. The first two parts of Les Misérables sold out in France in two days. The crush for the first copies “verged on a riot” (p.231).  Groups of workers pooled their limited means to buy a copy of the book, passed it around among members of the group, and took turns reading its nearly 2,000 pages to fellow workers who were unable to read.  But the French press did not share readers’ enthusiasm for Les Misérables.  Left wing and socialist critiques were lukewarm; those in the right wing press were stinging.

          Outside France, one recurring criticism of the novel was that it was too rooted in French history, and thus lacked deep meaning for non-French reading audiences. These criticisms were not unfounded, Bellos points out.  Underlying Les Misérables was Hugo’s view that France was the “moral and intellectual powerhouse of the world,” with Les Misérables serving as the “first full formulation of the conventional explanation of the exceptional status of France” (p.235).  One of the larger purposes of Les Misérables, which begins at the end of France’s revolutionary period, was to make the French Revolution the “well-spring of nineteenth-century civilization and so to heal the bleeding wound that it bequeathed to subsequent generations of French men and women” (p.38).

            When the publisher of the first Italian translation of Les Misérables fretted that the legacy of the French Revolution had little relevance to his readers, Hugo responded with a “grandiose reply,” in which he “pulled out all the rhetorical stops” (p.237).  Hugo said that while he did not know whether Les Misérables would be read by all, he had written it for everyone. “I write,” Hugo explained:

with a deep love for my country but without preoccupying myself with France more than any other nation. As I grow older I grow simpler and become increasingly a patriot of humanity.  That is the trend of our times and the law of radiation of the French Revolution. To respond to the growing enlargement of civilization, books must stop being exclusively French, Italian, German, Spanish or English, and become European; more than that, human (p.237).

* * *

          As if to respond himself to the Italian publisher and others in Hugo’s time who considered Les Misérables too Franco-centric, Bellos concludes that the novel’s “moral compass,” extends “far beyond the history, geography, politics and economics of the world in which its story is set. The novel achieves the extraordinary feat of being at the same time an intricately realistic portrait of a specific place and time, a dramatic page-turner with masterful moments of theatrical suspense and surprise, an encyclopedia of facts and ideas and an easily understood demonstration of generous moral principles that we could do far worse than to apply to our lives today” (p.259).  Bellos’ conclusion could also be considered a final riposte to those modern-day skeptics who doubt whether Les Misérables rises to the level of great art.  Few readers of Bellos’ erudite yet easy-to-read account are likely to side with the skeptics.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

July 17, 2018

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under French History, Literature, Uncategorized

Novel Biography

 

Alice Kaplan, Looking For “The Stranger”:

Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic 

 

            In Looking For The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, Alice Kaplan,  Professor of Literature at Yale University and one of the English-speaking world’s leading authorities on modern French literature, seeks to bring a fresh perspective to Albert Camus and his signature novel, L’Etranger — known in North America as The Stranger and in Great Britain as The Outsider. Kaplan describes her story as a biography of a book, “connected to the life of its creator but also separate and distinct from him” (p.3).  Finding that Camus’ personality overshadows his novel in traditional biographies, Kaplan aims to tell the story of how Camus “created this singular book” by getting “as close as [she] can to his process and his state of mind as he creates The Stranger” (p.3-4).

          Kaplan’s central premise is that the elements of The Stranger were nearly fixed in Camus’ mind before he started writing.  The job of writing the  novel entailed coaxing these elements out of the mind and onto the written page, then tying them together.  In this sense, Camus “discovered the novel within himself” (p.3).  Kaplan thus examines how The Stranger went from glimmers and flashes in Camus’s mind in the late 1930s to a published volume in 1942, and in the years after publication became one of the 20th century’s most widely read novels.

             The Stranger changed the course of modern literature, Kaplan contends. Camus gave “new energy to the novel, a form that had existed for centuries, by turning it outwards, simplifying its expression and deepening its purpose” (p.83).   The story itself is, as Kaplan puts it, “deceptively simple” (p.1). The lead character, Meursault, like Camus an Algerian of French descent, learns in the book’s opening paragraph that his mother died. He attends her funeral. The day after the funeral, in Kaplan’s succinct summation, Meursault:

goes swimming with a girl friend and takes her to the movies. He writes a letter for a friend who is a pretty rough character. He kills an Arab on a beach in Algiers. He is tried and sentenced to death and, as the novel ends, he awaits execution (p.1).

Camus divided the story into two parts, with Meursault’s first person narration before and after the murder. The Arab whom Meursault kills is given no name in the novel, a matter that raises more questions today than it did in Camus’ time.

          Among The Stranger’s many mysteries is the spelling of the name of the novel’s narrator.  The only surviving draft spells Meursault without the first “u,” Mersault.  Inserting the “u,” Kaplan notes, adds an allusion to the French word for plunge, sauter, and to death, meur, as well as being the name of a famous French wine that apparently impressed Camus as a young man.  Without the “u,” the name has more of a Spanish sound and could have belonged to a European of Spanish descent.  Kaplan raises the possibility that the fateful “u” was added only by the publisher in the final page proofs.   There is no record that Camus ever clarified how he intended to spell his lead character’s name.

            As she endeavors to unlock this and other enigmas of The Stranger, Kaplan also includes enough about Camus the man to give the work some of the flavor of a traditional biography.  With the novel set in pre-independence Algeria, where Camus was born in 1913 and grew up as a dirt-poor European in a predominantly Muslim and Arab country, Kaplan also gives her readers a sense of what Algeria was like as a French colony.  But The Stranger was published not in Algeria but in Paris in 1942, at the height of the Nazi occupation, “one of the most humiliating and complicated climates for publishing in French history” (p.3).  Kaplan thus provides an incisive look into the milieu in which French writers and publishers struggled to survive during the Nazi occupation (a subject covered in more detail in Alan Riding’s fine work, And the Show Went On, reviewed here in September 2012). Kaplan skillfully weaves this contextual background into her biography of Camus’ novel, making her compact and thoughtful book highly engaging and often intriguing.

* * *

          Algeria in the 1930s was in its final decades of colonization before achieving independence from France in 1962 after a protracted war of independence. First colonized in the 1830s, Algeria by the 1930s was more than a French colony: it was part of la France d’outre mer, overseas France (or Greater France), made up of three administrative units that were départements every bit as much as the départements in mainland France.  Algiers, where Europeans lived in neighborhoods that looked like Marseille, was France’s fourth largest city. But liberté, égalité and fraternité went only so far in la France d’outre mer. By one of the odder particularities of colonial rule, Jews born and raised in Algeria were deemed full-fledged, 100% French citizens — like Camus and his family.  Arabs and Berbers, whom we might today term indigenous peoples, enjoyed by contrast almost none of the rights of Frenchmen, making Algeria a society structured on rank inequality.  Although Camus was “appalled by colonial violence and deeply hostile to [French] government policy” (p.51) in the 1930s, he was not yet a proponent of independence.  He saw his duty as a social critic to “strengthen French humanistic values” (p.51) in the administration of Algeria.

          Camus’ family was part of Algeria’s settler class, at the bottom of the European hierarchy, but nonetheless with privileges foreclosed to the Arab population.  His mother was of Spanish descent, illiterate, and almost totally deaf.  His father, an agricultural worker of French descent, died in 1914 at the Battle of the Marne in World I, when his son was one year old. Although brought up in dire poverty, young Camus was a promising pupil in primary school and received a scholarship that allowed him to attend a lycée, an elite French secondary school.  At the lycée, he proved to be an outstanding student, as well as a gifted athlete who enjoyed football, boxing and swimming — a “force of nature, physically unstoppable” (p.9). At age 17, however, Camus contracted tuberculosis, at the time frequently a fatal disease.

             Camus received a degree from the University of Algiers in 1936, where he had studied philosophy and literature. While an undergraduate, Camus met his first wife, Simone Hié, whom he married in 1934, when he was 21 and she was 20. At both the lycée and university, Camus was a student of philosopher Jean Grenier, who helped him develop his literary and philosophical ideas and became Camus’ life-long mentor.  Throughout the 1930s, Camus read avidly, was active in theatre, and became a prominent figure among left-wing intellectuals in Algiers, joining the Algerian Communist Party for a short time.

              After university, Camus worked for the Alger Républicain, a struggling, anti-fascist, anti-colonialist newspaper, where he wrote literary reviews and covered major trials, including several that grew out of ethnic tensions between Europeans and Arabs in Algeria.  As a court reporter, Camus assumed the role of what Kaplan terms a “lobbyist for justice,” earning a “reputation as a troublemaker with the colonial government” (p.39). Camus’ impatience with the hypocrisy of the courts became one of the cornerstones for the novel that was then percolating in his mind.

          As the novel percolated, Camus drew on memories of his own life with his near-deaf mother, “whose vocabulary amounted to 400 words and who had little language to give him beyond her gestures” (p.67).   In this concrete world, “objects come first, concepts last, and each sense is given its due.”  Because his first, most intimate attempts at communication were “defined by the absence of verbal understanding,” as Camus formulated his novel the physical world “became essential” (p.67).  Meursault and The Stranger thus emerged from the conditions of Camus’ own life. But Kaplan is emphatic that The Stranger should not be considered autobiographical.  If anything, Camus was reversing his life story, she argues:

Camus’s childish love for his deaf mother became Meursault’s indifference. The silent world in which he had grown up became the noisy place where Meursault heard every sound. Camus’ hatred of colonial violence expressed itself through Meursault’s murder of an Arab (p.85).

             Camus had a moment of epiphany in the fall of 1938, when he wrote the first five sentences of his percolating novel.  These five sentences did not change over the next four years, prior to publication in 1942. At that moment, Camus realized that “this was his beginning, and he stuck with it” (p.65). By mid-1939, Camus knew that his narrator “was going to kill an Arab,” at a time when there was “an abundance of material in the press about conflicts between Arabs and Europeans” (p.43-44).

            When war broke out later in 1939, Camus, 26 years old, was determined unfit for military service because of his tuberculosis.  With France at war, Alger Républicain was targeted as a security risk that authorities sought to shut down.  Camus then embarked on a four-year odyssey in which he moved back and forth between Algeria and France, ended his marriage to Simon Hié and married Francine Faure, all the while continuing to plug away at The Stranger.  In 1940, Camus landed a job with Paris-Soir, a prestigious French newspaper based in Paris, while he worked on The Stranger every day and part of every night.

           Living and writing in a drab Montmartre hotel, Camus “discovered that he could be in the middle of a paragraph, go off to work his shift at Paris-Soir, come back to the hotel and pick up exactly where he had left off, with no difficulty . . . [H]e had never done creative work with so much ease, and certainly not fiction” (p.79).  By April 1940, Camus had completed chapters 1 and 2 of his novel, and had started on chapter 3.  On May 1, 1940, Camus pronounced The Stranger finished, although significant vetting still lay ahead as he sought a publisher.  But the exaltation he felt upon completion of The Stranger was quickly dissipated by a relapse of tuberculosis — a relapse which subsequently rendered him too weak to read the page proofs of his novel.

           Later that same May 1940, the Nazis invaded France and in June 1940 the occupation of Paris began. Camus followed Paris-Soir out of Paris when the paper moved to Clermont-Ferrand.  By the end of year, however, he returned to Algeria, where he joined his new wife Francine and, relying upon  the uncertain wartime mail service, continued his efforts to find a publisher for The Stranger, along with Caligula and his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus, two other pieces he had been working on simultaneously. He sent his manuscripts to Jean Grenier, his former lycée and university teacher then living in France, and Pascal Pia, an editor at Paris-Soir.  Both men provided Camus with comments on The Stranger.

              Grenier, still an esteemed mentor, did not give his former student high marks for his work.  In what Kaplan terms “one of the great misunderstandings of a literary achievement” (p.109), Grenier seemed to go out of his way to highlight perceived shortcomings in The Stranger.  Grenier emphasized how the work did not measure up to those of Kafka, as if Camus was intent upon following in Kafka’s path.  In addition, Grenier had the temerity to compare the parts of the draft he liked to his own work.   Grenier’s reservations about The Stranger, Kaplan notes, although deeply discouraging at the time, may have been a gift to Camus that permitted him to break free of his former mentor.

          Pia’s response, by contrast, was “a beautiful example of generous reading, of enablement,” to the point that he and Grenier “seem to have read entirely different books” (p.113).  Pia also sent the manuscript to Roland Malraux, who passed the draft to his brother, renowned French writer André Malraux.  A “wonderful reader” (p.122), André Malraux was wildly enthusiastic about The Stranger and offered several practical suggestions for revisions.  Unfortunately, Malraux’s comments and Camus’ reaction to them have not survived, and we therefore do not know the extent to which Camus followed Malraux’s advice.

        Working independently, Grenier and Pia gravitated toward the major Parisian publishing firm Editions Gallimard as the potential publisher for The Stranger.  Publishing had become a particularly delicate enterprise in occupied Paris, involving an “unpredictable and politically fraught” process (p.132), in which Nazi overseers closely monitored the activities of publishing houses.  The houses were barred from publishing anything by Jewish writers, and otherwise had to stay away from works that looked “political,” a porous term that could encompass any work that reflected unfavorably upon the Nazis and their occupation of France and its capital.  Somehow, The Stranger was able to navigate through these obstacles: the novel was deemed “apolitical” and Camus was of the “right” ethnic heritage.

              On December 12, 1941, Camus authorized Gallimard to publish The Stranger before he had signed a contract, something he never would have done in ordinary times.  On April 21, 1942, after overcoming a wartime paper shortage, the last pages of The Stranger rolled off the printing presses.  In May 1942, Camus received a promised advance, and an advertisement for the book appeared in the Parisian daily newspaper Le Figaro in June.

            In a review in Le Figaro later that year, André Rousseaux, a highly literate, conservative Catholic, delved deeply into the novel and, as we would say in modern parlance, trashed it. Rousseaux showed no sympathy for Meursault, who was “simply inhuman” and Camus’ talent had “made his narrator’s inhumanity all the more despicable” (p.147).   But The Stranger survived this unflattering review, in no small measure because of a far more sympathetic assessment from none other than Jean-Paul Sartre, the ubiquitous philosopher and writer who by then set the terms of intellectual debate in France.

           Sartre’s review, entitled “The Stranger Explained,” was published in February 1943, and served as a major turning point for Camus’ novel. Sartre characterized The Stranger as a work that comes from “across the sea; an outsider novel, interested neither in burying the ancient regime one more time nor in indulging in self-loathing – two commonplaces of the modern French novel.”  The Stranger, Sartre wrote, was thus a “welcome reminder, in a terribly political moment, that a novel could exist with nothing to prove” (p.158-59). The attention that Sartre paid to Camus and his seriousness of analysis “defined The Stranger as an essential contemporary novel,” Kaplan writes. “Once Sartre had spoken, The Stranger’s future was all but guaranteed” (p.156).  Camus became close to both Sartre and his companion Simone de Beauvoir in the years immediately following The Stranger’s publication, although they fell out in the 1950s, ostensibly over political differences during the Cold War.

          The Stranger gained in stature in the late 1940s, as France struggled to reestablish its vaunted cultural life, and soared in esteem throughout the 1950s, the final decade of Camus’s life.  In 1957, Camus earned the Nobel prize for literature, based primarily upon the success of The Stranger (p.197). By this time, Camus had been recognized as a proponent of existentialism, the philosophy most closely associated with Sartre and Beauvoir. It was a label Camus resisted.

         Camus and Sartre had, Kaplan notes, a different notion of human potential that precluded Camus from embracing Sartre’s brand of philosophy. “For Sartre what mattered was consciousness – people getting along, or not getting along with one another.  Whereas for Camus what mattered was the insignificance of man against the world” (p.191).   But these distinctions were overlooked in the 1950s by the “demands of publicity and by the excitement over the latest intellectual fashion” (p.191; existentialism and Camus’s relationship with Sartre are at the heart of Sarah Blackwell’s highly-acclaimed At the Existentialist Café, reviewed here in April 2017).

          However Camus may have considered himself, the world saw him as an existentialist in January 1960, when he died in an automobile accident while riding to Paris with publisher and friend Michel Gallimard and Michel’s wife Janine.   A train ticket was found in Camus’ pocket, indicating that he may have decided only at the last minute to travel back to Paris by car with the Gallimards.  With his premature death,  Kaplan wistfully observes, there would be “no bad books for Albert Camus and he would never disappoint his readers” (p.198-99).

             In the years since Camus’ death, The Stranger has been analyzed in all the modern schools of literary construction and interpretation: in addition to existentialism, these include new criticism, deconstruction, feminism, and post colonial studies.  The most consistent criticism of The Stranger has been the lack of a name for the Arab killed, for many a stark reminder of the raw inhumanity of colonization in Algeria.  In 1962, two years after Camus’ death, colonization came to an end as Algeria achieved independence after a brutal civil war that had begun as World War II ended.

              Recently, Kaplan notes, an Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud, has written a well-received work of fiction, The Meursault Investigation, which tells The Stranger’s story from the viewpoint of the brother of the Arab killed. In the French translation from the Arabic, the narrator’s brother is “Moussa,” a name that “delicately echoes Meursault” (p.206).  But in the English translation, Moussa becomes “Musa,” closer, Kaplan notes, to Camus than Meursault.  Perhaps it is fitting that the Arab with no name in Camus’ novel has become, in the languages of two of history’s most wide-ranging colonizers, an Arab with two names.

* *

                 In just over 200 pages, Kaplan presents a comprehensive “biography” of one of the 20th century’s most consequential novels – its gestation period, birth, early years, adolescence and adulthood – strengthened by her judicious account of the novel’s author and his times and places.  Her work should appeal to those who have read The Stranger recently as well as those who read it decades ago.  It should also entice those who have not yet read Camus’ enigmatic work to do so.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 27, 2018

 

 

10 Comments

Filed under France, French History, Literature

Changing the Definition of Literature in the Eyes of the Law

Joyce.1

Joyce.2

Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book:
The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses

      James Joyce’s enigmatic masterpiece novel Ulysses was first published in book form in France in 1922. Portions of the novel had by then already appeared as magazine excerpts in the United States and Great Britain. The previous year, a court in the United States had declared several such excerpts obscene, and British authorities  followed suit in 1923. In The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham describes the furor which the novel provoked and the scheming that was required to bring the novel to readers.

     Birmingham, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, characterizes his work as the “biography of a book” (p.2). Its core is the twofold story of the many benefactors who aided Joyce in maneuvering around publication obstacles; and of the evolution of legal standards for judging literature claimed to be obscene. Birmingham also provides much insight into Joyce the author, his view of art, and the World War I era literary world in which he operated. The book, Birmingham’s first, further serves as a useful introduction to Ulysses itself for those readers, myself emphatically included, who have not yet garnered the courage to tackle Joyce’s masterpiece.

     Ulysses depicted a single day in Dublin, June 16, 1904. On the surface, the novel follows three central characters, Stephen Daedalus, Leopold Bloom, and his wife Molly Bloom. But Ulysses is also a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, with the three main characters serving as modern versions of Telemachus, Ulysses, and Penelope. Peering into the 20th century through what Birmingham terms the “cracked looking glass of antiquity” (p.54), Joyce sought to capture both the erotic pleasures and intense pains of the human body; fornication and masturbation, defecation and disease were all part of the human experience that Joyce sought to convey. He even termed his work an “epic of the human body” (p.14).

     Treating sexuality in a more forthright manner than what public authorities in the United States and Great Britain were willing to countenance — sex at the time “just wasn’t something a legitimate novelist portrayed” (p.64) — Ulysses was deemed a threat to public morality, and was subject to censorship, confiscation and book burning spectacles. But the charges levied against Ulysses were about “more than the right to publish sexually explicit material” (p.6), Birmingham contends. They also involved a clash between two rising forces, modern print culture and modern governmental regulatory power, and were thus part of a larger struggle between state authority and individual freedom that intensified in the early twentieth century, “when more people began to challenge governmental control over whatever speech the state considered harmful” (p.6).

     There is a meandering quality to much of Birmingham’s narrative, which shifts back and forth between Joyce himself, his literary friends and supporters, and those who challenged Ulysses in the name of public morality. At times, it is difficult to tie these threads together. But the book regains its footing in a final section describing the definitive trial and landmark 1934 judicial ruling, the case of United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses, which held that the novel was not obscene. The decision constituted the last significant hurdle for Joyce’s book, after which it circulated freely to readers in the United States and elsewhere.  In his section on this case, Birmingham’s central point comes into full focus:  Ulysses changed not only the course of literature but also the “very definition of literature in the eyes of the law” (p.2).

* * *

     James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, educated at Catholic schools and University College, Dublin. As a boy, Joyce and his family moved so frequently within Dublin that Joyce could plausibly claim to know almost all the city’s neighborhoods.  But Joyce spent little of his professional career in Dublin. Sometime in 1903 or 1904, Joyce met and fell in love with Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid from rural Galway then working in a Dublin hotel. Barnacle followed Joyce across Europe, bore their children, inspired his literary talent, and eventually became his wife. Joyce and Barnacle lived for several years in the Italian port city of Trieste, then in Zurich and Rome. But the two are best known for their time in Paris, where Joyce became one of the most renowned expatriate writers of the so-called Lost Generation. In 1914, Joyce published his first book, Dubliners, a collection of 15 short stories. Two years later, he completed his first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While not a major commercial success, the book caught the attention of the American poet, Ezra Pound, then living in London. During this time, Joyce also began writing Ulysses.

      The single day depicted in the novel, June 16, 1904, was the day that Joyce and Barnacle first met. Although there may have been single-day novels before Ulysses, “no one thought of a day as an epic. Joyce was planning to turn a single day into a recursive unit of dazzling complexity in which the circadian part was simultaneously the epochal whole. A June day in Dublin would be a fractal of Western civilization” (p.55). The idea of Homeric correspondences and embedding references to the Odyssey into early 20th century Dublin may seem “indulgent,” Birmingham writes, yet Joyce executed it “so subtly that the novel can become a scavenger hunt for pedants . . . Some allusions are so obscure that their pleasure seems to reside in their remaining hidden” (p.130-31).

     In the early 20th century, censors sought to ban obscene works in part to protect the sensibilities of women and children, especially in large urban centers like London and New York. It is thus ironic that strong and forward- minded women are central to Birmingham’s story, standing behind Joyce and assuming the considerable risks which the effort to publish Ulysses entailed. The first two, Americans Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were co-publishers of an avant-garde magazine, The Little Review, an “unlikely product of Wall Street money and Greenwich Village bohemia” (p.7-8), and one of several small, “do-it-yourself” magazines which Birmingham describes as “outposts of modernism” (p.71). From London, Erza Pound linked Joyce to Anderson and Heap, and The Little Review began to publish Ulysses in 1918 in serial form.

      In 1921, New York postal authorities sought to confiscate portions of Ulysses published in The Little Review under the authority of the Comstock Act, an 1873 statute that made it a crime, punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine, to utilize the United States mail to distribute or advertise obscene, lewd or lascivious materials. The Comstock Act adopted the “Hicklin rule” for determining obscenity, a definition from an 1868 English case, Regina v. Hicklin: “whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall” (p.168).

     The Hicklin rule’s emphasis upon “tendency” to deprave and corrupt defined obscenity by a work’s potential effects on “society’s most susceptible readers – anyone with a mind ‘open’ to ‘immoral influences.’ . . . Lecherous readers and excitable teenage daughters could deprave and corrupt the most sophisticated literary intent” (p.168). The Hicklin rule further permitted judges to look at individual words or passages without considering their place in the work as a whole and without considering the work’s artistic or literary value. Finding that portions of Ulysses under review were obscene under the Hicklin rule, a New York court sentenced Anderson and Heap to 10 days in prison or $100 fines. The Post Office sent seized copies of The Little Review to the Salvation Army, “where fallen women in reform programs were instructed to tear them apart” (p.197). The court’s decision served as a ban on publication and distribution of Ulysses in the United States for another 10 years.

     The court’s decision also highlighted the paradoxical role of the Post Office in the early 20th century. Although the postal service “made it possible for avant-garde texts to circulate cheaply and openly to wherever their kindred readers lived,” it was also the institution that could “inspect, seize and burn those texts” (p.7). Moreover, government suppression of sexually explicit material in the United States during and immediately after World War I shaded into its efforts to stamp out political radicalism. Ulysses encountered obstacles to publication in the United States not so much because “vigilantes were searching for pornography but because government censors in the Post Office were searching for foreign spies, radicals and anarchists, and it made no difference if they were political or philosophical or if they considered themselves artists” (p.109).

     Meanwhile, in Great Britain, Harriet Shaw Weaver, a “prim London spinster” (p.12) published Ulysses in serial form in a similarly obscure London publication, The Egoist, also supported by Erza Pound. After Leonard and Virginia Woolf refused to publish Ulysses in Britain, Weaver imported a full version of the novel from France. In 1923, Sir Archibald Bodkin, head of the Crown Prosecution Service, concluded that Ulysses was “filthy” and that “filthy books are not allowed to be imported into this country” (p.253; Bodkin also vigorously prosecuted war resisters during World War I, as discussed in Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, reviewed here in November 2014). Sir Archibald’s ruling authorized British authorities to seize and burn in the “King’s Chimney” 500 copies of Ulysses coming from France.

      The copies subject to Bodkin’s ruling had been printed at the behest of Sylvia Beach, the American expatriate who founded the iconic Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Company, a “hybrid space, something between an open café and an ensconced literary salon” (p.150), and a home away from home for Joyce, the young Ernest Hemmingway, and other members of the Lost Generation of expatriate writers. After Beach became the first to publish Ulysses in book form in 1922, she went on to publish eight editions of the novel and Shakespeare & Company “became a pilgrimage destination for budding Joyceans, several of whom asked Miss Beach if they could move to Paris and work for her” (p.260).

     Over the next decade, Joyce’s novel became an “underground sensation” (p.3), banned implicitly in the United States and explicitly in Great Britain. Editions of Ulysses were smuggled from France into the United States, often through Canada. The book was “literary contraband, a novel you could read only if you found a copy counterfeited by literary pirates or if you smuggled it past customs agents” (p.3). Throughout the decade, Joyce’s health deteriorated appreciably. He had multiple eye problems and, despite numerous ocular surgeries – described in jarringly gruesome detail here — he lost his sight. He also contracted syphilis. By the mid-1920s, Birmingham writes, Joyce was “already an old man. The ashplant cane that he had used for swagger as a young bachelor in Dublin became a blind man’s cane in Paris. Strangers helped him cross the street, and he bumped into furniture as he navigated through his own apartment” (p.289).

* * *

     In 1932, Beach relinquished her claims for royalties from Ulysses.  The upcoming New York publishing firm, Random House, under its ambitious young owner Bennett Cerf, then signed a contract with Joyce for publication and distribution rights in the United States, even though the 1921 court decision still served as a ban on distribution of the novel. To formulate a test case, Random House’s attorney, Morris Ernst, a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, almost begged Customs inspectors to confiscate a copy of Ulysses. Initially, an inspector responded that “everybody brings that [Ulysses] in. We don’t pay attention to it” (p.306).  But the book was seized and, some seven months later, the United States Attorney in New York brought a case for forfeiture and confiscation under a statute that allowed an action against the book itself, rather than its publishers or importers. The United States Attorney instituted the test case in the fall of 1933, a few short months after the first book burnings in Nazi Germany.

     The case was assigned to Judge John Woolsey, a direct descendant of the 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards. Ernst sought to convince Judge Woolsey that the first amendment to the United States Constitution should serve to protect artistic as well as political expression and that the Hicklin rule should be discarded. Under Ernst’s argument, Ulysses merited first amendment protection as a serious literary work, “’too precious’ to be sacrificed to unsophisticated readers” (p.320). Ernst went on to contend that obscenity was a “living standard.” Even if Ulysses had been obscene at the time The Little Review excerpts had been condemned a decade earlier, it could still be protected expression in 1933, given the vast changes in public morality standards since The Little Review ruling.

     Unlike the judges who had considered The Little Review excerpts, Judge Woolsey  took the time to read the novel and ended up agreeing with Ernst. He found portions of the book “disgusting” with “many words usually considered dirty.” But he found nothing that amounted to “dirt for dirt’s sake” (p.329). Rather, each word of the book:

contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers. . . when such a great artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture? (p.329).

Answering his question in the negative, Judge Woolsey ruled that Joyce’s novel was not obscene and could be admitted into the United States.

     A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge’s Woolsey’s decision, 2-1. The majority consisted of two of the most renowned jurists of the era, Learned Hand, who had been pushing for a more modern definition of obscenity for years; and his cousin, Augustus Hand, who wrote the majority opinion.  Once the appeals court issued its decision, Cerf inserted Judge Woolsey’s decision into the Random House printings of the novel, making it arguably the most widely distributed judicial opinion in history.  Two years later, the trial and appellate court decisions in the United States influenced Britain to abandon the 1868 Hicklin rule. Obscenity in Britain would no longer be a matter of identifying a book’s tendency to deprave and corrupt. Rather, the government must “consider intent and context – the character of a book was all contingent” (p.336).

     United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses established a test for determining whether a work is obscene and thus outside the protection of the first amendment, that, in somewhat modified form, still applies today in the United States.  This test requires a court to consider: (1) the literary worth of the work as a whole, not just selected excerpts; (2) the effect on an average reader, rather than an overly sensitive one; and (3) evolving contemporary community standards.  The decision, Birmingham argues, removed “all barriers to art” and led to “unfettered freedom of artistic form, style and content – literary freedoms that were as political as any speech protected by the First Amendment” (p.11).

* * *

     It is an open question whether Birmingham’s book will inspire readers who have not yet read Joyce’s masterwork to do so. But even those reluctant to undertake Joyce’s work should appreciate Birmingham’s account of how forward-minded early 20th century publishers and members of the literary world schemed to bring Ulysses to the light of day; and how judicial standards evolved to allow room for literary works treating human sexuality candidly and openly.

Thomas H. Peebles
Silver Spring, Maryland
July 29, 2016

9 Comments

Filed under American Society, History, Literature

Nobel Crime

Dr

BorisP

Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, The Zhivago Affair:

The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book  

       Boris Pasternak, although one of Russia’s greatest 20th century poets, is best known for his only novel, Doctor Zhivago, initially published in Italian in 1957. One year later, after becoming an international best seller which was banned in the Soviet Union, Doctor Zhivago was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. Under pressure from Soviet authorities, Pasternak renounced the prize, “triggering one of the great cultural storms of the Cold War” (p.13), Peter Finn and Petra Couvée write in The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book. Finn is national security editor for the Washington Post. Couvée is an affiliated researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands who also teaches at Saint Petersburg University in Russia.

        In a work that reads at times like a novel itself, Finn and Couvée address the Cold War machinations surrounding the publication of Doctor Zhivago.  The authors notably lay out for the first time the role which the CIA played in the novel’s publication. Rumors implicating the CIA existed almost from the time Doctor Zhivago first appeared, although many surmised that the agency had been only marginally involved. To the contrary, the authors demonstrate, the CIA was “in fact deeply involved” (p.17) in the publication of Pasternak’s novel. But its involvement is less central to the authors’ story than its prominent place in their sub-tittle indicates.

       Finn and Couvée create a vivid if bleak picture of the literary environment in post-World War II Soviet Union and they delve deeply into Pasternak, his enigmatic character and his tumultuous personal life. During the period in which he was writing Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak split his time between his wife Zinaida and his mistress Olga Ivinskya. Ivinskya became Pasternak’s literary alter ego and was imprisoned twice by Soviet authorities as a result of her association with Pasternak, the second time after Pasternak’s death in 1960.

       The other lead character in the drama is Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian Communist yet a man of means from a leading Milan industrial family. Feltrinelli arranged for the final manuscript of Pasternak’s novel to be smuggled out of the USSR in a suitcase in 1956 and published in Milan in 1957. Although Feltrinelli and Pasternak never met, they forged what the authors term “one of the greatest partnerships in the history of publishing.” Their secret correspondence, carried in and out of the Soviet Union by appointed messengers, serves today as a “manifesto on artistic freedom” (p.13).

* * *

       The authors describe Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago as “[b]oth epic and autobiographical” (p.10), recounting the life, loves and losses of a fictional  Russian physician Yuri Zhivago during the turmoil and chaos which the 1917 Russian Revolution wrought (“zhivago” means “the living” in Russian). Serving in a field hospital during World War I, the married Zhivago met and fell in love with nurse Lara Antipova. The two witnessed first hand the atrocities of the Russian Civil War that followed the revolution, committed both by the Bolsheviks and the anti-Bolshevik forces known as the White Russians. With the consolidation of Bolshevik power, Yuri and Lara parted, never to see one another again. When Zhivago returned to Moscow after the revolution, he found a city “wracked by chaos,” with his familiar world of art, leisure and intellectual contemplation “erased” (p.11).

        The power of Pasternak’s novel, the authors contend, lies in in its “individual spirit, Pasternak’s wish to find some communion with the earth, some truth in life, some love. Like Dostoevsky, he wanted to settle with the past and express this period of Russia’s history through ‘fidelity to poetic truth’” (p.16). Zhivago, they write, was like Pasternak himself, “from a lost past” of the Moscow intelligentsia, a “world to be disdained” (p.10) in the new Soviet order. Millions who never read the novel became familiar with the story from the 1965 David Lean film, in which Omar Sharif played Zhivago and Julie Christie was Lara.

        Pasternak disavowed any anti-Bolshevik agenda in his book but, with pages of disdain for the “deadening and merciless” Bolshevik ideology (p. 16), it is difficult to read Doctor Zhivago as anything but a harsh indictment of the revolutionary changes that the Bolsheviks sought to effectuate throughout Russian society. Doctor Zhivago appeared after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died in 1953, a time when the Soviet Union sought to distance itself from the harshest manifestations of Stalinist rule and defuse tensions with the West, while staying loyal to core Bolshevik principles. Yet Stalin’s ghost most assuredly haunted Communist Party General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and the Kremlin authorities under him as they tried to figure out how to handle the potentially subversive novel.

 

* * *

       Pasternak was born in 1895, and was thus 22 years old when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, 62 when Doctor Zhivago was first published in 1957. His father was a renowned artist and illustrator whose father, Pasternak’s grandfather, was a Jewish innkeeper in the Black Sea town of Odessa. Pasternak’s mother was an accomplished musician. The authors describe the Pasternaks at the time of the Revolution as a “prominent family within Moscow’s intelligentsia, who looked to the West, and were disposed to support the political reform of an autocratic, sclerotic system” (p.22).

       In the land of Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy, writers in pre-revolutionary Russia enjoyed revered status. The post-World War II Soviet Union was still a society where novels, poems and plays were not only “hugely significant forms of communication and entertainment” but also the “subjects of fierce ideological disputes” (p.14). Because of his accomplishments as a poet, Pasternak was entitled to live in Peredelkino, an exclusive “writer’s colony” outside Moscow, with perks unimaginable for average Soviet citizens.  Within the Soviet literary establishment, however, recognition of Pasternak’s talent was tempered by “doubts about his political commitment, and for long periods original work by the poet was not published” (p.5). In 1946, Pasternak was removed from the Board of Union of Soviet Writers, which considered Pasternak “lacking in ideology and remote from Soviet reality” (p.56). By 1949, when at work at Dr. Zhivago, Pasternak had been “banished to the edges of literary life in Moscow” (p.66). Throughout the post-war period, he earned a living as a translator of foreign literature, becoming one of the premier Russian interpreters of Shakespeare’s’ plays and Goethe’s Faust.

       Pasternak wrote Dr. Zhivago in fits and starts after the termination of World War II hostilities. As was customary in Russia, Pasternak shared early drafts of Dr. Zhivago with fellow writers. While working on these drafts, Pasternak met Olga Ivinskaya, 20 years his junior, twice married – her first husband committed suicide, her second died during the war — and an editor of the literary magazine Novy Mir, then the official organ of the powerful Union of Soviet Writers. “Pretty, voluptuous and sexually self-confident despite the prudish mores of Soviet society” (p.62), Ivinskya was commonly thought to be the model for Lara Antipova in Pasternak’s novel. Although Pasternak never left his wife Zinaida, his extramarital relationship with Ivinskaya lasted up to his death in 1960.

       Within the Russian literary world, Ivinskya’s affair with Pasternak set off “chattering about the deliciously scandalous liaison” (p.65). But the affair also attracted the attention of Soviet authorities who, on Stalin’s orders, had begun to crackdown on ideologically suspect writers. As a means of building a case against Pasternak, authorities interrogated Ivinskaya. Suspected of spying for Western powers and planning to escape the USSR, Ivinskaya was charged with having “close contact with persons suspected of espionage” (p.73) and, in July 1950, sentenced to five months imprisonment. She was released shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953.

       Although Pasternak had submitted his work to local publishers, he realized that Dr. Zhivago could not be published in the Soviet Union because it failed to conform to what he termed the Soviet Union’s “official cultural guidelines” (p.7). Pasternak knew also that he assumed a huge risk if he sought to have his novel published outside the Soviet Union. Hovering over all Soviet writers was the fate of Boris Polnyak, who was shot on Stalin’s orders in 1937 after being accused of seeking foreign publication for a novel. But Pasternak was willing to assume this risk. He was determined that his “final happiness and madness” (p.10), as he termed Dr. Zhivago, see the light of day.

       In 1956, Feltrinelli, the “unlikely Communist” (p.85), arranged through an emissary for the manuscript to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union. This was the period of Khrushchev’s not-so-secret February 1956 speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Union, in which he denounced Stalin’s crimes as a perversion of Bolshevik ideals. The thaw that followed the speech was “short lived; it would die with the Soviet invasion of Hungary” in October 1956 (p.89). But during this brief clearing when Feltrinelli received Doctor Zhivago, “[c]ooperation with Soviet writers and publishers seemed particularly opportune now that reform was gusting through the Kremlin” (p.89). Feltrenelli, who did not read Russian, sent the work to an Italian specialist in Russian literature.   Having read the manuscript in Russian, the specialist concluded that failure to publish the novel would constitute a “crime against culture” (p.89).

       Ivinskaya, already imprisoned because of her association with Pasternak, feared for her own safety if Dr. Zhivago was published abroad. Pasternak’s wife also firmly opposed Pasternak’s foreign publication plans and numerous Western friends urged him not to have the novel published abroad. But Pasternak held firm, signing a secret contract with Feltrinelli’s firm, sent to him by courier. Despite desperate efforts by the Soviet Union to prevent publication, the first edition of Doctor Zhivago, translated into Italian, was printed in Milan on November 15, 1957. A second run of three thousand copies followed five days later. The book was an immediate international best seller, but was officially banned within the Soviet Union.

        The editorial board of the official Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir scolded Pasternak for his “non-acceptance of the socialist revolution. The general tenor of your novel is that the October Revolution, the Civil War and the social transformation involved did not give the people anything but suffering, and destroyed the Russian intelligentsia, either physically or morally” (p.99) — a conclusion which many historians today would characterize as accurate. But one of Pasternak’s biographers noted that the Novy Mir board missed the novel’s “most heretical insinuation: by artistically conflating the Stalinist period with early revolutionary history,” Pasternak implied that the “tyranny of the last twenty-five year was a direct outcome of Bolshevism” (p.100). For Pasternak, Stalinism and the purges were not, as Khrushchev was then contending, a terrible aberration but rather a “natural outgrowth of the system created by Lenin” (p.100).

 

* * *

        Frustrated by its inability to “roll back” communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the CIA realized that Doctor Zhivago presented an opportunity to embarrass the Soviet government by placing the spotlight on Soviet suppression of a work of great literature in the tradition of Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. CIA involvement in the publication of Doctor Zhivago was one of the agency’s first efforts to leverage books as “instruments of political warfare” (p. 264), part of a broader agency effort to fund cultural activities and publications across Europe which would “manifest diversity and difference of view” between Soviet and American approaches (p.118), and thereby slowly undermine Soviet authority.

       President Eisenhower thus authorized a secret operation to publish Doctor Zhivago in Russian, with exclusive CIA control over the novel’s exploitation. Instead of having the State Department or the United States Information Agency trumpet the novel publicly, secrecy was employed, the agency contended, to prevent the “possibility of personal reprisal against Pasternak or his family” (p.116-117). The agency’s director, Allen Dulles, whose role in many far more nefarious plots is the subject of Stephen Kinzer’s book, The Brothers, reviewed here in October 2014, oversaw the operation. In some senses, the authors contend, the CIA was perfect for the Doctor Zhivago operation. Its budget was itself a secret and the agency “believed with genuine fervor that the Cold War was also cultural” (p.118).

       The 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, an event which a large number of Soviet citizens and Eastern European nationals were slated to attend, was the CIA’s target for distribution of the Russian version. The agency decided to use a New York publisher to prepare a Russian-language edition in the United States, but take the proofs to Europe for printing so no American paper stock would be used. If the Europeans printers obtained the copyrights from Feltrinelli “all the better.” If not the CIA decided, “we’ll do it black’’ (p.130). In the first week of September 1958, the Russian language edition of Doctor Zhivago rolled off the printing presses, bound in a blue-linen cover. The title page acknowledged the copyright of Feltrinelli, but botched the translation of his name in the Cyrillic alphabet. The copyright acknowledgment was a last minute addition “after a small number off early copies were printed without any acknowledgement of the Italian publisher”   (p.138). The book was handed out to Soviet and Eastern European visitors to the Brussels World’s Fair at the Vatican Pavilion.

 

* * *

            The Soviet Union’s widely reported hostility to Doctor Zhivago “ensured that a novel that might otherwise have had a small elite readership became an international best seller” and made Pasternak an “almost inevitable choice” for the Swedish Academy’s 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature (p.13-14). Pasternak had previously been under consideration for a Nobel Prize and yearned for the recognition that such an honor would bring.  In the aftermath of the decision to award Pasternak the Nobel prize, however, the Soviet Union “orchestrated a relentless internal campaign to vilify the writer as a traitor” (p.14).  Pasternak was frequently described as a “Judas” who had betrayed his homeland for “thirty pieces of silver” (p.166).   At Khrushchev’s urging, a speech to the Komosol, the youth wing of the Soviet Communist Party, referred to Pasternak as the “mangy sheep” of Soviet society who as a writer had “fouled the spot where he ate and cast filth on those by whose labor he lives and breathes” (p.180).

     Most ominously for Pasternak, Soviet authorities threatened him with expulsion from the Soviet Union. Ivinskya drafted a letter to Khrushchev, which Pasternak signed, pleading not to expel him from the Soviet Union. “I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and by work,” the letter read. “I cannot conceive of my destiny separate from Russia, or outside it” (p.182). In a telegram to Nobel authorities in Sweden, Pasternak renounced the prize, to the great disappointment of his fellow artists, both in the Soviet Union and worldwide, many of whom regarded his renunciation as an act of betrayal. A then- obscure schoolteacher named Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn “writhed with shame” that Pasternak would “demean himself by pleading with the government” (p.201).

       Editorialists around the world weighed in on the “startling virulence of the assault on a solitary writer” (p.186). A French newspaper described the Pasternak affair and its effect upon Soviet global standing as Khrushchev’s “intellectual Budapest” (p.186). American political cartoonist Bill Maudlin won a 1958 Pulitzer prize for his depiction of a scruffy Pasternak in a Soviet prison camp wearing a ball and chain and chopping wood in the snow with a fellow prisoner. The caption read: “I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What was your crime?” (p.186).

Maudlin

* * *

       Amidst the worldwide controversy, the ever-enigmatic Pasternak died of lung cancer in May 1960. The Soviet Union did not report Pasternak’s death, although it was front-page news around the world. But the Pasternak controversy continued after his death, with Ivinskaya again paying a heavy price for her association with Pasternak. She was arrested for the second time, accused of being Pasternak’s link with Western publishers in dealing in hard currency for Doctor Zhivago. In the West, prosecution of Ivinskaya was seen as a “continuation of the Nobel campaign against Pasternak” (p.251). Ivinskaya was not released until 1964.  Feltrinelli drifted out of publishing and into the Italian anarchist left of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was killed in 1972, when a bomb he and co-conspirators planned to use to cut off electrical power in a Milan suburb went off prematurely.

       Khrushchev, for his part, was driven from office in 1964. In forced retirement, he had time, finally, to read Doctor Zhivago. The former Communist Party General Secretary concluded that he should not have banned the novel. “I should have read it myself. There’s nothing anti-Soviet in it” (p.256), he reportedly told his son.   Khrushchev made the point explicitly in his own secret memoirs, dictated when he was a “virtual prisoner in his own home” (p.265). In an “irony that would surely have brought a small smile to Pasternak’s face,” Khrushchev allowed the tapes containing his memoirs to be “spirited out of the Soviet Union and published in the West’ (p.265).

 

 * * *

 

        The idea that a novel could change people’s minds and make a difference in the Cold War confrontations between the Soviet Union and their Western adversaries seems today quixotic, “almost quaint” (p.263), as the authors put it. Yet that was the idea that motivated the CIA to put its resources, human and financial, behind its efforts to shine a spotlight on Doctor Zhivago.  Uncovering the full extent of the agency’s disguised role in the dissemination of Pasternak’s novel constitutes a scoop for Finn and Couvée.  But that role is a secondary theme in their book,  overshadowed by  the authors’ detailed and engrossing depictions of Pasternak himself and the post-Stalin 1950s Soviet literary world in which he operated, and by their always-timely account of the world-wide debate over intellectual and artistic freedom which the publication of Dr. Zhivago precipitated.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 12, 2015

4 Comments

Filed under American Politics, European History, Intellectual History, Literature, Politics, Soviet Union, United States History

Into Thin Air

Schiff

Stacy Schiff, Saint-Exupery: A Biography

           When I was in the 9th grade, I had a charismatic English teacher who, in addition to requiring his pupils to memorize 3,000 vocabulary words and diagram sentences – even then, very unfashionable teaching approaches – introduced us to the world of serious literature. Among the authors we met were Dickens (“Great Expectations”), Faulkner (“The Bear”), and Shakespeare (“Julius Caesar”). But the centerpiece of our 9th grade literary experience was Antoine St. Exupéry‘s “The Little Prince,” which my teacher considered one of the best books ever written – my recollection is that he said it was the best book. Since then, I have often asked myself whether this lofty elevation of St. Exupéry’s iconic work was anything more than hyperbole spooned out to gullible 9th graders. In posing that question over the years, I realized that I knew next to nothing about the author of this work. So when I saw Stacy Schiff’s biography of St. Exupréy on sale at my favorite second hand bookstore, I pounced, hoping to learn a little about the man considered one of France’s greatest 20th century authors, and not solely for “The Little Prince.”

           Throughout this volume, Schiff shows herself to be a sophisticated biographer, tying a mind-boggling amount of detail into a coherent whole (skills which worked for her more recently when she received a Pulitzer Prize for her best-selling biography “Cleopatra”). She portrays St. Exupéry as a towering figure, 6 feet 4 inches, yet a “marvelous child” (p.325) with the “sensibility of a little girl” (p.76). He was an accomplished if somewhat eccentric aviator in aviation’s early days, demonstrating a “remarkable aptitude for mechanics” (p.132). As an aviator, Schiff contends that St. Exupéry was as popular among his peers “as John Glenn initially made himself among the early astronauts” (p.214). One friend summed up St. Exupréy the aviator: “When the flight is normal Saint Exupréy is dangerous; given complications, he’s brilliant” (p.330).

           St. Exupéry spent several formative years in the Sahara desert as a pilot for Aéropostale, one of France’s first overseas airmail services. He worked as an author during off hours, constantly scribbling drafts on scraps of paper. During his time in the desert, St. Exupéry pondered the “importance of responsibility, the fellowship it nurtures among men, the priority of an interior life” (p.29). The Sahara formed a backdrop in the 1930s, for several works that helped make him one of France’s leading 20th century literary figures, especially “Night Flight” and “Wind, Sand and Stars.” These works raised questions that St. Exupéry grappled with throughout his life:

how to reconcile an individual’s thirst for profit with some social good; how to allow for maximum liberty in a world prone to tyranny; how to apply the happy lessons of Aéropostale to a social structure; how to nourish and motivate man in a machine age (p.289).

           St. Exupéry was also what the French call a châtelain, with nobility in the blood, little in the bank account, and a certain “helplessness with financial matters” (p.77). On several occasions, he was forced to return to France, more specifically Paris, where he was a generally unhappy member of the Parisian café intelligentsia, mingling uneasily with Sartre, de Beauvoir and others at the Café des Deux-Maggots and Brasserie Lipp. He fell deeply in love with a woman he did not marry and married a woman one can only characterize as a fruitcake. Schiff suggests that the Little Prince’s painful attempt to figure out the elusive rose was an expression of St. Exupréy’s fractious relationship with his wife. During World War II, St. Exupréy joined many other French literary figures in New York.

           “The Little Prince” was written largely during St. Exupréy’s New York years. Schiff describes the work as a “satire for the adult world” at war (p.389), by far St. Exupéry’s “most popular and enduring work” — even if usually found on bookshelves “alongside Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and the Wizard of Oz” (p.449). “The Little Prince” has been translated into more languages – nearly 80, Schiff indicates – than any other original work in French, and still sells over 100,000 copies annually in the United States and in France.

           Although St. Exupréy was not on de Gaulle’s good side, he yearned to fight for his country and left New York to fly missions for the Free French. On the last day of July 1944, St. Exupréy took off on a solo mission and simply disappeared, “into thin air,” the title of Schiff’s chapter on his death. Even today, there is no certainty and few serious theories on how St. Exupréy met his end. But Schiff shows that he was despondent in the weeks and months immediately preceding his last mission. She does not state that he perished in a suicide mission, but the enigma that surrounds his death seems consistent with such an end. St. Exupréy was the “most celebrated French man of letters to die in the war,” Schiff notes wryly, “for the simple reason that most French men of letters did not see active combat after the fall of France in 1940” (p.438).

           In her biography of St. Exupréy and his world, Schiff portrays an author as beguiling, enchanting and mystifying as the Little Prince: “too broad for any category” and “fated to be misconstrued” (p.446). St. Exuprey’s work, she concludes, was “rich in spirit” and “makes us want to overreach ourselves. It makes us dream” (p.447) — a conclusion which I think my 9th grade English teacher would be happy to endorse.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
June 5, 2013

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, French History, Literature, Uncategorized

Chameleon, Vagabond, Pilgrim

Koestler

Michael Scammel, Koestler:

The Literary and Political Odyssey of a

Twentieth-Century Skeptic (5/17/11)

 

          Arthur Koestler is best known today for his second novel, Darkness at Noon, published in 1940, a scathing and psychologically penetrating examination of the Soviet show trials of the 1930s and totalitarianism as practiced in the Stalinist regime.  Michael Scammel contends in his highly detailed and engrossing biography that Darkness at Noon constitutes Koestler’s “principal contribution to political thought, forming one of the most imaginative and coherently argued indictments of totalitarian ideology and practice available to western readers” (p.xix). 

 

          Koestler was perhaps the quintessential 20th century Central European Jewish intellectual.  The odyssey that inspired Scammel’s title was astonishingly far ranging.   Koestler was born in 1905 in Budapest, raised in pre-Anchluss Vienna; reported on unfolding Zionism from Palestine; spent time in a Franco prison during the Spanish Civil War; and as an adult lived in Germany, France, Great Britain and the United States.  He moved from anti-fascism to communism to anti-communism, and then to anti-anti communism.  In the 1960s, Koestler went beyond Western politics to Buddhism, mysticism and what today seem like loopy new age zen movements.  Moreover, Koestler performed what I consider one of the most formidable intellectual feats imaginable, writing seriously in three languages, Hungarian, German, and English, with some credible work in French. 

 

          Throughout his odyssey, Scammel writes, Koestler was:

 

a chameleon, a vagabond, and a pilgrim, constantly changing and reinventing himself, inhaling, as it were, the essence of each place he stayed in, while remaining perpetually alien to his surroundings.  Never fully Hungarian, not quite Austrian or German, a Jew who turned away from Judaism, incapable of being French, definitely not an Englishman, and unwilling to accommodate himself even to the melting pot of multicultural America, he wandered the earth like a modern Quixote in search of a spiritual homeland (p.xviii).

 

          In his wanderings, Koestler mingled with some of the mid-twentieth century’s most influential luminaries.  He befriended Langston Hughes while traveling in Soviet Turkmenistan as a young and ardent Communist sympathizer.  He met George Orwell and W.H. Auden during the Spanish Civil War (Koestler admired Orwell, Scammel contends, far more than Orwell admired him).  In France, Koestler hung out with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and André Malraux.  When he came to the United States, he befriended Edmund Wilson, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Sidney Hook and, in his later years, Timothy Leary.  The glimpses that Scammel provides of these personalities constitute one of the book’s most entertaining features. 

 

          Deep thinker though Koestler undoubtedly was, Scammel shows that he was also a repugnant individual — an “incorrigibly volatile, egocentric, irascible, and promiscuous tyrant” (p.567).  Scammel documents in minute detail how Koestler drank heavily and was a sexual bully just about everywhere he went.  He had an affair with Simone de Beauvoir in Paris (unclear if Jean-Paul approved).  Borrowing from Bertrand Russell’s own playbook, in England Koestler enticed Bertie’s wife into bed.  Suffering from Parkinson’s disease and cancer, Koestler took his own life in 1983.  His wife Cynthia, twenty years younger and in good health, committed suicide with him, and it remains an open question whether Koestler intimidated her into joining him in an early death.  Koestler’s “chronic insecurity and the temper tantrums of a spoiled brat were never far from the surface” (p.309), Scammel ruefully concludes.   

          Even as a writer, Scammel finds Koestler’s work uneven.  Its “sheer bulk and variety” raise questions about its “quality and relevance, for in one sense Koestler simply wrote too much, in too many genres” (p.xix).  Using Isiah Berlin’s famous formulation of the fox and hedgehog, where the fox knows many things and the hedgehog knows a single thing very well, Scammel describes Koestler as a “peculiarly swift and preternaturally clairvoyant sort of fox” (p.570).  Koestler:  

 

knew a great many different things, rather than one big thing. . . [he had]  a phenomenal sense of smell, which led him very early to the centrality of “the Jewish problem” in twentieth-century European history, to the dangers of fascism and the false promises of Soviet Communism, to the crucial importance of political freedom and ethical clarity, to the glories and dangers of hegemonic, materialist science, and to the spiritual void of a twentieth-century culture lacking in faith (p.570).     

 

          At his best, Koestler achieved what Scammel terms a “fusion of autobiography, psychological penetration, and dialectical analysis,” accompanied by a “vivacity and immediacy of expression, wit, and polemical brilliance, and an infatuation with ideas and the ethics of political choice that are as thrilling and compelling today as when they were written” (p.571).  And Darkness at Noon was surely Koestler at his best.  This “literary masterpiece,” which has never gone of out print since its initial appearance in 1940, remains “one the great books of the twentieth century . . . a novel of ideas and psychological tension, partaking of the nightmare vision of modernists as varied as Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Camus, and Thomas Pynchon” (p.xix). 

 

          Scammel himself writes in incisive and instructive prose.  Although too long for my taste by perhaps a third, his well-crafted biography ably captures both Koestler’s protean personality and his contributions to 20th century literature and political thought.    

.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

February 12, 2013

 

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, Literature