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Posts Tagged ‘nineteenth century’

Notes from a Dead House

September 15, 2015 | by

This is the first in a series by Max Nelson on prison literature.

Käthe Kollwitz, The Prisoners, 1908.

No writer intends to produce prison literature. Just as incarceration involves its own awful set of debasements, drudgeries, and abuses, so it marks any writing done under its restrictions as part of a genre, one of the oldest to which new work is still added daily. The loose canon of prison literature includes novels (Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Toer’s Buru Quartet), autobiographies (Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Madame Roland’s memoirs), poems (Pound’s Pisan Cantos), erotic fictions (de Sade’s Justine, Cleland’s Fanny Hill), poetic dialogues (Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy), economic tracts (Gramsci’s prison notebooks), histories (Nehru’s Glimpses of World History) and works of philosophy (portions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus)—but with the stipulation that whoever enters it must have suffered to an extent, and in a way, for which practically no one would volunteer. No prison writing is professional, but nor is any of it exactly recreational; it comes, by definition, from environments where “any self-willed display of personality … is considered a crime.”

Those words arrive early in Notes from a Dead House, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s extraordinary, semi-fictionalized account of the internment he endured in a Siberian prison camp after being sentenced to four years of hard labor for his involvement in a revolutionary conspiracy—and the latest installment in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s grand, ongoing effort to retranslate the Russian canon. Episodic, rambling, full of keen and deliberately stretched-out character sketches, the book is the drama of a person working out how to reproduce prison life in prose: its longueurs, its diversions, its pleasures, traumas, and inurements. Read More »

What’s the Use?

July 21, 2015 | by

Celebrity and oblivion in the Goncourt brothers.


Edmund and Jules Goncourt.

Few documents provide as comprehensive—or as caustic—a view of celebrity as the diary of the Goncourt brothers, Jules and Edmond. Chronicling literary Paris from 1851 to 1896, The Journal of the de Goncourts features enough searing bons mots and scandal mongering to make Gawker look like a Sunday school brochure. In one entry from 1852, the famed cross-dressing novelist and amoureuse George Sand threatens to “publish an account” of the behavior of her son-in-law, the sculptor Clésinger; he is quick to reply: “then I’ll do a carving of your backside. And everybody’ll recognize it.” The novelist, playwright, and bohemian Villiers de l’Isle-Adam is described as having “the face of an opium addict or a masturbator”; Edmond de Goncourt dismisses Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality, like his poetry, as a “plagiarism from Verlaine.”

Whether or not one is familiar with the poets, novelists, and absintheuses of Haussmannian Paris, to read the Goncourt brothers is to plunge headlong into a world of bitter rivalries and bitterer friendships, in which every gathering around a café table on the Grands Boulevards is a chance to raise one’s status in the byzantine literary hierarchy. “Here,” as Christopher Isherwood put it, “gossip achieves the epigrammatic significance of poetry.” Of course, such a cynical, self-satisfied perspective can grate. André Gide, writing on the Goncourts’ novels, excoriated their style as pathologically shallow—a Perez Hilton of the Passages des Panoramas: “It is impossible to read a page by them where that good opinion they have of themselves does not burst out from between the lines.” Read More »

Disagreeable Tales

July 14, 2015 | by

In his fiction, Léon Bloy strove “to disclose the universal villainy of respectable people.”

Bloy observed the vows of both poverty and suffering; he earned the nickname the Ungrateful Beggar.

In his first homily as Pope Francis, in March 2013, the Pontiff included an obscured voice of the French fin de siècle. Restating one of the most entrenched principles of Catholic dogma, Francis declared, “When one does not profess Jesus Christ, I recall the phrase of Léon Bloy—‘Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.’ ” Though it may have struck religious scholars as unusual, the reference to Bloy indicated the Church’s cautionary role against the millennial idolatry of technology and humanism. Bloy, who wrote a series of pamphlets, novellas, and essays during the increasingly scientific climate of the Second Empire and the Belle Epoque, included himself among the cabal of symbolists and decadents who had taken Satan as the object of their literary obsessions—specifically, the resurgence of the devil in the popular French imagination. Read More »

Plus Ça Change

April 21, 2015 | by


A portrait of Charlotte Brontë from The Brontë Sisters, by Patrick Branwell Brontë, ca. 1834.

From Charlotte Brontë’s letter to her friend Ellen Nussey, April 2, 1845. Brontë and Nussey exchanged hundreds of letters; this one, written about two weeks before Brontë turned twenty-nine and two years before the publication of Jane Eyre, finds her in a laudably bitter frame of mind, inveighing against marriage and men.

I see plainly it is proved to us that there is scarcely a draught of unmingled happiness to be had in this world. ——’s illness comes with ——’s marriage. Mary T. finds herself free, and on that path to adventure and exertion to which she has so long been seeking admission. Sickness, hardship, danger are her fellow-travellers—her inseparable companions … Yet these real, material dangers, when once past, leave in the mind the satisfaction of having struggled with difficulty, and overcome it. Strength, courage, and experience are their invariable results; whereas, I doubt whether suffering purely mental has any good result, unless it be to make us by comparison less sensitive to physical suffering … Read More »


March 16, 2015 | by


From Photographs of British Algae

Some claim that Anna Atkins—born on this day in 1799, in Kent—was the first woman to take a photograph. Others that hers were the first photos ever printed in book form.

Atkins was a botanist, an artist, and an accomplished nature photographer. Her father was a scientist, and he encouraged his daughter’s early interest in botany. Both her father and her eventual husband, John Pelly Atkins, were friendly with the pioneering photographer and inventor William Henry Fox Talbot; it was probably Talbot who introduced her to the techniques she would come to use in her art.

In her books on British algae and her later work on plants and ferns, Atkins worked by contact-printing cyanotype photograms, and by “photogenic drawing,” the process by which light-sensitive paper is exposed to the sun. Read More »

Baby Style

March 5, 2015 | by

watch-grabber1Years ago, I lived with a roommate who worked as a temp at a now-defunct parenting magazine. While she was there, the magazine sponsored a cutest-baby contest, and she took to rescuing some of the nonwinning entrants from the trash—these were physical photos, back then—and affixing them to our refrigerator door. The resulting gallery was off-putting, to say the least. 

I was reminded of this not long ago while I was browsing some nineteenth-century newspaper archives. An ad from a November, 1877 Brooklyn Daily Eagle caught my eye: THE GREAT NATIONAL BABY SHOW, it trumpeted. The upcoming exhibition (at a venue rejoicing in the name of “Midget Hall”) promised “infantile prodigies,” “freaks of nature”, “Fat Babies!” “Lean Babies!” as well as “beautiful triplets and elegant twins.” Cash prizes were promised. Read More »