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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

A Very Interesting Excursion

June 29, 2015 | by

Looking for van Gogh in Belgium’s mining district.

the-sower-sower-with-setting-sun-1888

Vincent van Gogh’s The Sower, 1888, which was inspired by paintings by Jean-François Millet.

Earlier this month, Nellie wrote for the Daily about van Gogh’s time in the Borinage and its effect on his art. In this follow-up piece, she reflects on her own travels in the region.

On a sunny but cool afternoon in mid March, I stood on the muddy ground of a closed and abandoned mine in Belgium. Behind me, a handful of pigs screamed from inside a pen in one of the decrepit buildings. A large, lean, mean-looking dog, which in fact was not mean at all, stood nearby, tethered to a long rope.

It was my first time in this place, the former mining district of Belgium, called the Borinage, though I spent the nearly six years prior writing a novel that took place there. From 1878 to 1880, before he declared himself an artist, Vincent van Gogh lived in the Borinage, trying to be a preacher, and the story of what may have happened during that time is my novel’s subject. I didn’t go to Belgium while I was researching or writing the book—the mines are all closed these days and the area developed; I told myself there was no point in going if it didn’t look just like it had in the late nineteenth century. But Mons, the city that sits right at the tip of the Borinage region, is this year’s selection for the European Capital of Culture and, as a result, is home to all sorts of interesting exhibits and performances, including the first-ever exhibition of van Gogh’s work from and related to this period of his life: it opened, strangely, just a few weeks after my book had been published. It was a coincidence too odd to ignore, and I got on a plane to go see this place I had long imagined.

I have been struggling to articulate what this visit was like in any coherent way. I knew, all those years, that the place I was envisioning was real, but in my mind it was a place that no longer existed, a place to be conjured and imagined, not to stand on with two real feet. To be confronted with the reality of the place in physical space was quite a different thing. I expected that there would be nothing left. In a way I was right, and in a way very wrong. Read More »

Down Where the Asparagus Grows

June 16, 2015 | by

little-review

“The Little Review: A Magazine of the Arts―Making No Compromise with the Public Taste,” Vol. 4, No. 11, March 1918.

A letter from Ezra Pound to James Joyce, March 1918. Pound, then an editor for the New York magazine The Little Review, had arranged to serialize Joyce’s Ulysses; he feared its more scatological parts would result in confiscation from the government. The Egoist, a British magazine also running the novel in installments, had failed to find a printer willing to accept it.

The Little Review had already been suppressed once, in November 1917, for a piece by Wyndham Lewis; Judge Augustus Hand had banned it, citing a subsection of the U. S. Penal Code that likened prurient literature to information about contraceptives. “I confess to having been a bad citizen,” Pound had rebutted in print, “to just the extent of having been ignorant that at any moment my works might be classed in the law’s eye with the inventions of the late Dr. Condom.”
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Idle Bird

June 10, 2015 | by

Van Gogh finds art in the Borinage.

coalmine-in-the-borinage-1879(1)

Vincent van Gogh, Coalmine in the Borinage, 1879.

In October of 1879, Theo van Gogh went to visit his brother, Vincent, in the Borinage coal-mining district of Belgium. Theo was en route to Paris, where he had business to conduct as an art dealer; Vincent was doing self-appointed missionary work. The pair walked along an abandoned quarry that reminded them of a canal they’d frequented as children in Holland, but now there was an undeniable rift between them. Theo, upset by Vincent’s appearance—he had given away nearly all of his clothes to the miners, and had ceased bathing—told him, “You are not the same any longer.” He felt that Vincent was wasting his time in this squalid place, and suggested that he leave to take up a different trade.

Angry at his brother’s inability to understand him, Vincent wrote a letter to Theo on October 15 that would be the last for ten months. The brothers had been writing letters to each other almost unceasingly since 1872, when Vincent was nineteen and Theo fifteen. This would be the first and deepest rupture between them, a silence that would never repeat itself. Referring to Theo’s accusation of “idleness,” Vincent wrote with bitterness, Read More »

The Spit of Recollection

June 2, 2015 | by

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin.

A letter from Philip Larkin to Barbara Pym, July 18, 1971. The pair enjoyed a long, warm correspondence beginning in 1961; they met, at last, in 1975, at the Randolph in Oxford. “I shall probably be wearing a beige tweed suit or a Welsh tweed cape if colder,” Pym wrote in advance. “I shall be looking rather anxious, I expect.” In 1977, Larkin helped Pym find a wider audience by choosing her as the most underrated writer of the century.

Duke’s Head Hotel, King’s Lynn,
Norfolk

Dear Barbara,

I have a theory that “holidays” evolved from the medieval pilgrimage, and are essentially a kin of penance for being so happy and comfortable in one’s daily life. You’re about to point out the essential fallacy in this, viz., that we aren’t h. & c. in our daily lives, but it’s too late now, the evolution has taken place, and we do the world’s will, not our own, as Jack Tanner says in Man & Superman. Anyway, every year I take my mother away for a week, & this is it. God knows why I chose this place—well, there are certain basic requirements—must be fairly near where she lives, must have single rooms with private bathrooms & lift, must for preference be near the sea … even so, one can make grave errors, & I rather think this is one of them. One forgets that nobody stays in hotels these days except businessmen & American tourists: the food is geared to the business lunch or the steak-platter trade: portion-control is rampant, and the materials cheap anyway (or so I guess: three lamb chops I had were three uncuttable unchewable unanswerable arguments for entry into EEC if—as I suspect—they had made the frozen journey from New Zealand). The presence of the hotel in the Good Food Guide is nothing short of farce. Of course it’s a Trust House, which guarantees a kind of depersonalized dullness. Never stay at a Trust House. Read More »

A Perfect Baby

May 18, 2015 | by

Honourable_Bertrand_Russell

Bertrand Russell in 1916.

A letter from D. H. Lawrence to Bertrand Russell, February 1916. When the two men had met the previous year, they became fast friends, and had even planned to give a lecture series together—but their friendship quickly soured. “Gradually I discovered that he had no real wish to make the world better, but only to indulge in eloquent soliloquy about how bad it was,” Russell later wrote of Lawrence. “If anybody overheard the soliloquies so much the better, but they were designed at most to produce a little faithful band of disciples who could sit in the deserts of New Mexico and feel holy. All this was conveyed to me in the language of a fascist dictator.”
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M.F.A. vs Donleavy

April 23, 2015 | by

John Deakin’s portrait of J. P. Donleavy in London, 1950s.

An exchange between J. P. Donleavy—who’s eighty-nine today—and John Irving, from our Spring 1988 issue. Some two years previous, in his Art of Fiction interview, Irving had disparaged Donleavy at length, speaking of their meeting at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Irving taught in the seventies:

I like meeting other writers, and Iowa City is a good place to meet them, but I didn’t enjoy Donleavy. John Cheever and I, who were in a particularly ritualized habit of watching Monday Night Football together, while eating homemade pasta, were happy to hear that Donleavy was coming. We’d both admired The Ginger Man and we wanted to meet the author. I went to the airport to meet him; I’d written three novels—but not yet The World According to Garp; I wasn’t famous. I didn’t expect Donleavy to have read anything of mine, but I was surprised when he announced that he read no one living; then he asked if we were in Kansas. I told him a little about the Workshop, but he was one of those writers with no knowledge about writing programs and many prejudices about them: to be a student of writing was a waste of time; better to go out and suffer. He was wearing a very expensive three-piece suit, very handsome shoes, and handling a very posh walking stick at the time, and I began to get irritated. In a meeting with Workshop students, he told them that any writer who was lowering himself by teaching writing wasn’t capable of teaching them anything. And so I was quite cross by the time I had to pick up the great man and drive him to his reading. I said we would be taking Mr. Cheever with us to the reading, and that both Mr. Cheever and I were great admirers, and that although I knew Mr. Donleavy did not read anyone living, he should know that Mr. Cheever was a wonderful writer. His short stories were models of the form, I said. But when I introduced Cheever to Donleavy, Donleavy wouldn’t even look at him; he went on talking to his wife, about aspirin, as if Cheever wasn’t there. I tried to say a few things about why so many American writers turned to teaching—as a way of supporting themselves without having to place the burden of making money upon their writing; and as a way of giving themselves enough time to practice their writing, too.

But Donleavy wasn’t interested and he said so. The whole trip he was taking was tiresome; the people he met, the people everywhere, were tiresome, too. And so Cheever and I sat up front in the car, excluded from the conversation about the evils of aspirin, and driving the Donleavys about as if they were unhappy royalty in a hick town. I will say that Mrs. Donleavy appeared to suffer her husband’s rudeness, or perhaps she was just suffering her headache. Cheever tried a few times to engage Donleavy in some conversation, and as Cheever was as gifted in conversation as any man I have ever met, I grew more and more furious at Donleavy’s coldness and unresponsiveness and total discourtesy. I was thinking, frankly, that I should throw the lout in a puddle, if there was one handy, when Cheever spoke up. “Do you know, Mr. Donleavy,” Cheever said, “that no major writer of fiction was ever a shit to another writer of fiction, except Hemingway—and he was crazy?” That was all. Donleavy had no answer. Perhaps he thought Hemingway was still a living writer and therefore hadn’t read him, either. Cheever and I deposited the Donleavys at the reading, which we spontaneously decided to skip. It was many years later that I met and became friends with George Roy Hill, who told me that he’d been a roommate of “Mike” Donleavy at Trinity College, Dublin, and that “Mike” was just a touch eccentric and surely not a bad sort. But I remembered my evening with Cheever and told George that, in my opinion, Donleavy was a minor writer, a shit, or crazy—or all three. I should add that drinking wasn’t the issue of this unpleasant evening; Cheever was not drinking; Donleavy wasn’t drunk—he was simply righteous and acting the prima donna. I feel a little like I’m tattling on a fellow schoolboy to tell this story, but I felt so awful—not for myself but for Cheever. It was such an outrage; that Donleavy—this large, silly man with his walking stick—was snubbing John Cheever. I suppose it’s silly that I should still be angry, but George Plimpton told me that Donleavy has a subscription to The Paris Review [a complimentary subscription—Ed.]; this presents an apparent contradiction to Donleavy’s claim that he doesn’t read anyone living, but it gives me hope that he might read this. If the story embarrasses him, or makes him angry, I would say we’re even; the evening embarrassed Cheever and me, and made us angry, too.

Donleavy wrote the following response; the editors also published a riposte from Irving. Read More »