The Daily

Books

Kicked Toward Saintliness

January 21, 2016 | by

On the dark erotics of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers.

From a German edition of Our Lady of the Flowers.

On September 11, 1895, the deputy chaplain of Wandsworth prison wrote a worried report about one of his new charges, Oscar Wilde, who had been transferred from Pentonville two months before. “He is now quite crushed and broken,” the chaplain recorded:

This is unfortunate, as a prisoner who breaks down in one direction generally breaks down in several, and I fear from what I hear and see that perverse sexual practices are again getting the better of him. This is a common occurrence among prisoners of his class and is of course favoured by constant cellular isolation. The odour of his cell is now so bad that the officer in charge of him has to use carbolic acid in it every day.

The possibility that a famous author had been driven to masturbating during his internment in Wandsworth would not have reflected well on the prison’s authorities, who immediately denied the charge and changed the indiscreet chaplain’s assignment. One wonders how they would have reacted to Jean Genet’s short film Un chant d’amour (1950), which the French author, playwright, and criminal directed in collaboration with Jean Cocteau soon after writing the last of the five novels that earned him international fame. Midway through the film, a poker-faced prison guard peers one at a time into a row of cells, each of which turns out to contain an autoerotic peepshow more wild, graphic, and uninhibited than the one before. A convict rubs his exposed member against the wall of his cell; a smiling bather lathers himself lasciviously in soap; a young black man, one of the many dark-skinned figures in Genet who appear to their white observers as sexual threats, dances with a tight grip on his open-flied crotch. Read More »

Black Ink

January 15, 2016 | by

Henry de Montherlant’s novels have fallen out of fashion, but at their best they’re perfect for our confused age.

Henry de Montherlant, c. 1953.

Henry de Montherlant began writing in earnest after he came home wounded from the Great War, a decorated veteran. France in the 1930s made him a literary star, awarding him the Grand Prix—yet he hated the Third Republic. Montherlant, a true misfit, had many such contrarian tendencies: though he was gay, he wrote caustic articles for right-wing magazines and loathed modernity. In print, he professed admiration for the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, writing that France, with its “shopgirl’s morality,” deserved to lose the war. His book Le solstice de juin counseled “acceptance, then adherence” to German occupation and Vichy; after the war, it earned him a yearlong ban from publishing.

Even so, Montherlant was elected to the Académie française in 1960. His plays were staged, his novels published. In 1972, he swallowed cyanide and, to make sure, shot himself in the head. He has made the long slide from fame to infamy, but in his time he was tolerated and even praised, a guilty reminder that there were far more collaborators than Charles de Gaulle’s myth of noble France ever could admit. His literary biographer Lucille Becker writes, Read More »

The Countries We Think We See

January 8, 2016 | by

For Lesley Blanch, travel writing offered a chance to explore her preconceptions about a place as much as the place itself.

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Every travel writer is a character in her own narrative, no less a part of the story than the “foreigners” that story depicts. In my own travels, I’ve found that women in countries that discourage mixed-gender interactions often speak to me more openly about culturally illuminating subjects—sex, love, motherhood—than they might to a male writer. My femaleness, it seemed, wasn’t simply a question of perspective; it was a question of action.

When I raised this subject in a lecture last year, someone in the audience broke in with a question. Why did I feel the need to “insert” myself into my narratives at all? She brought up the travel writer Colin Thubron, whom she cited as the paradigmatic example of the quiet, objective observer. “He doesn’t insert himself into his writing at all!” she exclaimed. Read More »

In the Madhouse

January 5, 2016 | by

John Clare, Christopher Smart, and the poetry of the asylum.

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Saint Luke’s Home for Lunatics, where Christopher Smart was confined for more than five years

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, here.

In an agrarian or preindustrial Britain, a brilliant young man bristles at his assigned vocation. After reading insatiably for years, he starts publishing odd, distinctive poems that cause a local stir. Urged to settle down, he instead experiments with more startling writing and shows more worrying behavior. His wife and family, understandably troubled but also driven by some unsavory motives, arrange for him to be sent to a madhouse, where confinement turns out to be much more to his harm than to his good. As his mental and physical health declines, his poetry starts to develop more radical formal arrangements. It also takes on a new tone: a strange, arresting combination of de-sexed innocence, bitter wisdom, childlike whimsy, and intensity of focus. Well after his death, as literary critics start pillaging the past for works of inadvertent modernism, his surviving poetry becomes a source of inspiration for a new generation of writers by whose books he’d have been equally fascinated and baffled.

This account corresponds roughly to the lives of both John Clare (1793–1864) and Christopher Smart (1722–’71), though it ignores much of what set the two poets apart. An archetypical urban poet, the son of a bailiff, Smart spent years on Grub Street writing satires, poems, attacks on his contemporaries, and flurries of hackwork, much of it under pseudonyms. Years earlier, when he started his career as a brilliant (if eccentric) divinity student at Pembroke College, he’d already received a thorough grounding in the classics. Clare, an agricultural laborer who lived and worked in Britain’s East Midlands during a period of rapid industrialization, grew up to a family of poor tenement farmers and went to school only sporadically. No less intelligent and formally imaginative than Smart’s, his poetry was as closely informed by Helpston’s birds, flowers, and folk songs—he might have been one of Europe’s earliest ethnomusicologists—as his predecessor’s was by the gospels, the classics, and the Grub Street press. Read More »

Whiting Winners Choose Their Most Influential Books

December 10, 2015 | by

Last March, we announced the ten winners of this year’s Whiting Awards, given annually to writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama, based on early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come. Now we’ve asked eleven Whiting winners, past and present, to write about the books that have influenced them the most—a list to bear in mind as you choose your holiday reading. —D. P. Read More »

Extreme Remedies

December 7, 2015 | by

George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, forty years later.

George Jackson

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on the French revolutionary Madame Roland, here.

On August 21, 1971, George Jackson pulled a pistol on his wardens at San Quentin, the notoriously racist maximum-security prison to which he’d recently been relocated. When the news broke that he’d freed several of his fellow inmates, presided over the slashing of eight prison officials’ throats (six guards and two trustees), and then died under heavy gunfire while sprinting to freedom, it provoked a strange mixture of shock, anger, revulsion, and grief. Gregory Armstrong, Jackson’s editor at Bantam, would later confess to a reporter how relieved he was that he hadn’t followed through on his offer to help the younger man escape. Bob Dylan wrote a protest song in Jackson’s praise. (“He wouldn’t take shit from no one / He wouldn’t bow down or kneel / Authorities they hated him / Because he was just too real.”) Jackson’s attorney, Stephen Bingham, under suspicion of having smuggled in the escape weapon, fled the country for thirteen years. Huey Newton gave Jackson a long, effusive eulogy (“he lived the life that we must praise”). A group of Black Panthers imprisoned in Folsom advised his parents to “take pride in the fact that you have a large strong family of budding warriors.”

Since the 1970 publication of Soledad Brother, his ferocious, disquieting collection of letters from prison, Jackson had been an international celebrity. In his introduction to the book’s first printing, Jean Genet insisted that the collection “must be read as a manifesto, as a tract, as a call to rebellion, since it is that first of all.” Abdellatif Laâbi read the letters admiringly during his own imprisonment; they let “one follow,” he told his wife in 1975, “the transformation of a man who challenges a new kind of slavery, strips its mechanisms down, and keeps his dignity intact throughout the worst kind of ordeal.” The day before Jackson’s death in 1971, Derrida wrote Genet a long letter worrying that the introduction hadn’t done justice to the dire situation Jackson’s writing was meant to expose. “With the best intentions in the world,” he cautioned, “with the most sincere moral indignation in the face of what, in effect, remains unbearable and inadmissible, one could then lock up again that which one says one wants to liberate.” Read More »