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New Candor

April 10, 2014 | by

Rebecca Mead, Jill Lepore, and a new direction for biography.

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A portrait of George Eliot by Frederick William Burton, 1864.

Feminism, Paula Backscheider explains in Reflections on Biography, transformed the study of history. “The arresting power of women’s deepest feelings, their comments about their own bodies, and the stark force of their drive to work” are part of the new candor, she says. And there are new things to consider: “How do you do justice to boundary-breaking acts, such as learning to read, or, as with [George] Eliot, not marrying?”

It was thanks to feminism that the relationship between biographer and subject took on a new life—for women to tell other women’s stories, they had to find ways to reconstruct those women’s lives. Ordinary women and their domestic lives became respectable subjects. Their diaries, letters, photographs, and other records could be taken seriously as evidence. Minor details, even in non-events, nuance the undertaking.

Reading Rebecca Mead’s intimate and scholarly My Life in Middlemarch, her memoir about George Eliot’s masterpiece, got me thinking about this shift in biography. What is it that compels one woman to explore the work and personality of another, often with centuries between us—and what are we trying to say? Read More »

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A Chain on the Great Feelings

February 11, 2014 | by

The deceptively breezy poems of Stevie Smith.

NPG x133107; Florence Margaret ('Stevie') Smith by Jane Bown

Photo: Jane Bown

Stevie Smith’s playful, carnivalesque poems, tiny on the page but emotionally trenchant, are getting a new life—her Best Poems were reissued in December. 

It’s high time. Smith’s work has been nearly forgotten, her books having fallen out of print. She is not, on the surface, tenderly lyrical or feminist enough to court contemporary readers. Born in England in 1902, she enjoyed some popularity in the sixties for oddball performances of her poems, which she often sang, or read with spooky dramatic flair, but she might just have been too original, or too variegated, for any one school of poetry to champion her work. Perhaps she has also been dismissed because she comes off as cold and hard, a person of uncertain likeability: her so-called comic verse roils with death wishes and sneering attacks on other poets. (“Let all the little poets be gathered together in classes / And let prizes be given to them by the Prize Asses,” she says in “To School!”) She has been put in with Blake, Coleridge, and Emily Dickinson. Fine company, but Smith is far more varied, unfettered, and disenchanted than all that. Her lines have scope. They contain a high-low mix of childlike diction, plain speech, formal rhymes, and heroic couplets, with a register that ricochets between folk tunes, hymnals, liturgy, nursery rhymes, and lyrical verse. She deliberately set many poems to the tunes of hymns, and sang them as such. Given all the wit and intellect that animate her poetry, why has she been forgotten? 

A profoundly independent and, by all accounts, slightly peculiar woman, Smith—born Florence Margaret, and only later Stevie—lived in the same house in North London from the time she was three until her death, taking care of an aunt she treasured, without the need to insert a proper man or children into her life. She worked as a secretary in the women’s magazine business for her entire career, which perhaps is why, in her poems and in her letters, she tilts to seeing women as acutely silly. She avoided serious relationships, settling instead into easily reciprocated, caring friendships and a familial bond with her aunt. Read More »

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Kings Have Adorned Her

November 7, 2013 | by

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah), and Sassoon David.

A fortune teller greeted David Sassoon on his way home from synagogue one night in Baghdad and told him to leave at once for India. He would be blessed with immense riches, she said. He was the son of Sheikh Sassoon, chief banker for the Ottoman pasha and nasi, or leader, of Baghdad’s Jewish community. Fleeing the despotic Daud Pasha, who had it out for the wealthy merchant, Sassoon settled in Bombay in 1833, eager to trade under British protection.

Back in the 1830s, Bombay was a port city of seven islands, a relative backwater, but a place where Sassoon could live and conduct business in peace, thanks to the East India Company and in large part to its president, Gerald Aungier. Back in 1668, England, eager to pawn off the Portuguese territory, rented the company the worthless, swampy islands for £10 of gold a year. Aungier saw promise. He moved the company’s Surat operation 165 miles south to Bombay, established courts and added judges, guaranteed religious freedom and individual rights (and loans) to traders and artisans, encouraged racial and religious communities to have spokesmen, and built causeways, docks, and a mint. Aungier created the ethic of equal opportunity that Bombayites would cherish for centuries by urging justice to all “without fear or favor,” says Naresh Fernandes in his smart new biography of Bombay, City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay.

November is the fifth anniversary of the bombings at the Taj and Oberoi, two luxury hotels in South Bombay. The much-loved Taj was built by the industrialist Jamshed Tata in 1903, after another hotel turned him away because of his skin color. It’s a hotel that well-off locals grew up in, wandering the halls to admire its magnificent art collection, and lunching at the Sea Lounge, which overlooks the Gateway of India. (It was famously a watering hole for gambler and derbyman Victor Sassoon, David’s great-grandson, who lived at a suite at the Taj in the 1920s and 1940s.)

The targeted murders of Chabad Jews at Nariman House during the 2008 attacks were an odd turn of events. New Jews, known by few, they were not a part of Bombay’s historic landscape. They existed largely to house Israeli travelers, famously fond of long Indian sojourns. (Goa and the Himalayas are Israeli hubs.) The murders signaled not the arrival of anti-Semitism in India proper as much as it underscored the truth that anyone and everyone has always been welcome in Bombay. Though targeting Jews is no fluke anywhere, the real story is the story of Bombay’s Jews, which for all purposes started with David Sassoon. Read More »

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Sex and Sensibility

October 16, 2013 | by

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Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, detail, 1768, oil on canvas. National Gallery, London, UK.

Vivian Gornick describes the journey to self-possession as one of unimaginable pain and loneliness. “It is the re-creation in women of the experiencing self that is the business of contemporary feminism: the absence of that self is the slave that must be squeezed out drop by drop,” she says, quoting Chekhov, in “Toward a Definition of the Female Sensibility,” from her 1978 collection Essays in Feminism.

The journey, Gornick observes, is “one in which the same inch of emotional ground must be fought for over and over again, alone and without allies, the only soldier in the army, the struggling self. But on the other side lies freedom: self-possession.”

Last July, three years to the month that my marriage ended, I also ended my first serious postdivorce relationship, on the eve of the twelfth anniversary of my mother’s death. It was the first year I had forgotten my mother’s anniversary and one month after my divorce became official. My ex-husband, who had vowed to become a better friend the day we told my father we were splitting up, showed up when others were too fed up with my ramblings and hand-wringing over a man who had made me astoundingly unhappy for months. For some, it was not easy to understand that the sexual content of being loved, after so much loss, was simply gripping. Read More »

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Contra Dancing with Pierre Reverdy

September 11, 2013 | by

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“I’d have to go up or it’s better if you come down and, arm in arm, let’s go somewhere else where no one looks at us,” says Pierre Reverdy in his poem “Further Away Than There.” So many of Reverdy’s tiny geometric poems are like this: refreshingly, dizzyingly cubist. You think you’re reading a poem but are being manipulated to move around it in a way that’s cinematic.

Reverdy’s is the latest in The New York Review of Books’s new poetry-in-translation series. The tiny ultramarine-and-turquoise book is packed with embittered, contemplative, spooky, lyrical, and emotionally honest poems. Reverdy dares to move a sentence into strange and misleading territory but it seldom makes no sense. The fourteen translators, who include Rosanna Warren and John Ashbery, are as disparate in tone, syntax, and translation style as you can get. It’s hats off to Reverdy, then, for producing work so exacting that it reads consistently and lucidly in English.

At the center of the French avant-garde, Reverdy founded Nord-Sud in 1917 with Apollinaire and Max Jacob, and was close friends with the cubist painters Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris. It’s because of these friendships that Reverdy became associated with literary cubism. (In March 1917, Juan Gris launched his treatise on cubism, “Sur le Cubisme,” in Nord-Sud.) Though Reverdy’s Nord-Sud lasted only a year, it embodied and advanced the avant-garde movements, especially surrealism and dadaism, that coalesced and overlapped in wartime Paris.

I skimmed the book from the back forward first, to see where Reverdy ended up. The varied forms (prose poems, fractured lines, squares, paragraphs) force you to constantly reassess, but the diction seemed deliberately chosen. Then I looked at Juan Gris’s paintings online. In Fruit Dish, Pipe and Newspaper, the diagonals cut up, down, and across the canvas. Turning back to the Reverdy, I closed in on a few poems, and found a parallel technique in a sentence in Always Alone: “In the street when our arms threw up a bridge, no one looked up and the houses tilted.” What an extraordinary scene—the pull between love and its boundaries, their private public space, houses tilting presumably around the lovers. Read More »

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Reader’s Block

August 22, 2013 | by

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For a year and a half I read Helen Lowe-Porter’s sauntering, elegant translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain at the rate of about one paragraph a day. For months I envisioned Hans Castorp lighting up his Maria Mancinis or gazing at Frau Chauchat’s creamy white arm curving along the back of a dinner chair. The sentences were amplified with a key transitive verb or with a subtle detail of winter in Davos and then slowly unfurled. Inevitably, several sentences in, I would put the book down and polish some sentences of my own. This happened nightly. I made it through three-quarters of the book, to the point just after (spoiler alert) Joachim dies, and I cried again, just as I had a decade earlier when I first read the entire novel.

During the day, I’d go to the writers’ space I belonged to in Brooklyn, a gloomy place filled with dark cubicles, and write all day. Never once did I flip open a book. That was for nighttime reading and always Thomas Mann. He, or rather Lowe-Porter, had the right tone for the book I was writing.

Nearly two years later, dozens of books lie scattered on the floor beneath my bookshelves. Some are piled on top. These are the books I mean to read. Many I ordered in one fell swoop from Open Letter Books. Others are offbeat wonders from the NYRB Classics. A handful are poetry books that I’ve read and re-read for decades. But you don’t read poems as much as you hear them in your head. They go on and on, with no end and no beginning, as T. S. Eliot might have said. But you can, of course, read fiction. My neglected authors are an eclectic mix: César Aira, Willa Cather, Roberto Bolaño, Tanizaki, Sholem Aleichem, Thirty Umrigar, Mercè Rodoreda, Jean Genet, Natalie Sarraute, Jennifer Egan, Tessa Hadley, Christina Stead, Don DeLillo, and a dozen or so books by friends, which I promised I’d get to “immediately.” I envy my multi-tasking friends who read voraciously while they write.

It started to worry me a little. I picked up books I knew I loved—like The Magic Mountain or The Master and Margarita—and put them down again after lingering over select pages. I made it part of the way through infuriatingly opaque books, including Gombrowicz’s Cosmos and emotionally compelling ones, such as Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, a beautifully composed and moving book told in the alternating voices of a 100-year-old woman and her therapist in the asylum where she lived out most of her adult life. It takes place in Sligo, a word that makes me swoon. Sligo County in Ireland is the setting for W. B. Yeats’ famous poem, “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” where he hoped to put his clay- and wattles-made cabin “and live alone in the bee loud glade.” Still, I put the book down. Read More »

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