Archive for the 'Authors and Books' Category
In the Letters of Ted Hughes (selected and edited by Christopher Reid) you´ll find a letter from Hughes to Edna Wholey in which he says he hears “a commotion in the hedge, and after a while, out trundled a hedgehog, merry as you like, and obviously out for a good time. I thought he might make a jolly companion for an evening so I brought him in. After a while I noticed he had disappeared and later heard a noise just like the sobbing of a little child, but very faint, and it continued for long enough. I traced it to a pile of boxes, and there was my comrade, with his nose pressed in a pool of tears, and his face all wet, and snivelling and snuffling his heart out. I could have kissed him for compassion. I don’t know why I’m so sympathetic towards hedgehogs.”
There are some interesting parallels between the circumstances surrounding the trials of Oscar Wilde and the situation that Jian Ghomeshi now finds himself in.
Oscar, after learning that a defamatory card had been delivered to his club by the Marquis of Queensberry (father to one of Wilde’s lovers, Lord Alfred Douglas), decided to sue. On the card were the words ‘Oscar Wilde posing (as a) Sodomite’ (there is some uncertainty about the exact wording). Nonetheless, Oscar sued for libel. Queensberry subsequently rounded up a number of young men who were known to sell their favours, to testify against Oscar, contesting his claim that he was not a sodomite. In fact, they had been paid generously by Wilde to engage in homosexual acts.
The result was that Oscar lost his case. He had to pay court costs, and, if I recall correctly, had to declare bankruptcy, due to the fact that Queensberry called in some debts. Anyhow, because of the evidence presented in the first trial, Oscar was prosecuted by the Crown on charges of gross indecency. This is where the phrase ‘The love that dare not speak its name’ gained currency. It is from the poem “Two Loves” by Lord Alfred Douglas, published in 1894 and was commonly interpreted as a euphemism for homosexuality. By Wilde’s definition “ [..] it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him.” No matter. The jury found him guilty as charged and he was sentenced to two years hard labour. He came out a broken man, living out the rest of his tragically short life in France, in poverty and in poor health. He died in a seedy Parisian hotel from a form of encephalitis.
In today’s scandal the CBC is playing Queensberry to Ghomeshi’s Wilde. Suing the CBC is a doomed cause. Apparently members of a union (as Ghomeshi is) cannot sue their employers, and these same employers have the right to fire anyone whose private lives might diminish or besmirch their ‘brand’ or reputation. Meanwhile, witnesses are now coming forth to tell their BDSM sex stories to CBC audiences, complete with allegations of having been beaten by Ghomeshi, and corroborating the Toronto Star stories of Ghomeshi having had non-consensual, violent sex with multiple partners.
Homosexuality at the time of Oscar’s trial (despite being practiced discreetly by many, including Queensberry’s eldest son) was as shocking as violent non-consensual sex is today. There is however one important difference between the cases. Unlike homosexuality, violence against women will never be accepted by society. In fact it is an insult to Oscar Wilde to equate what he did, to what Ghomeshi has done. Nonetheless, if the comparison between these two situations is to hold, then, once Ghomeshi’s suit against the CBC has been thrown out, the Crown will press charges against him for assault, and other related illegal activities.
In light of yesterday’s tragic events in Ottawa, and in tribute to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, this poem:
WHERE THE MIND IS WITHOUT FEARWhere the mind is without fear and the head is held high Where knowledge is free Where the world has not been broken up into fragments By narrow domestic walls Where words come out from the depth of truth Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit Where the mind is led forward by thee Into ever-widening thought and action Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
- Rabindranath Tagore
2014 marks the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth. In celebration of this, The Folio Society has issued a new selection of his poems, notable, I’d say, not for the poetry which is well known, but for its deft presentation.
Black and white it is. And appropriately so, as these contrasting colours, if they may be called such, feature large in Thomas’s poetry. Most memorably, ” Bible-black”, but also “crow-black”, “tar-black”, “bat-black”.
Pull the volume from its slipcase and the first thing you see on the front board is a striking black and white photograph of Dylan lighting a cigarette. The image is strongly reminiscent of one I recall seeing of John Lennon, another bard of sorts, another rock star – for Dylan was as popular as a rock star, something unheard of at the time for a poet. In fact, it is after him that Bob Dylan chose to name himself.
The photograph’s whites beautifully capture the sheen of Dylan’s Lord Fauntleroy curls, the shine of his silk scarf, the flame of his match, the texture of his sweater.
Opening the book you see the poet at work, in his own hand, text scattered across the end papers, complete with scratch outs and replacement words. Across from the title page, there’s a contact sheet, on glossy paper, that features six images of Dylan in various poses. Similar evocative photos of family and place illustrate and demark the collections from which these poems have been selected.
The title page displays its text in a san serif font, upper and lower case, set beneath Thomas’s distinctive signature, complete with its little twirl on the “D”. Each poem in the book receives a bold san serif title, coupled with serifed text.
The pages of the book provide ample ‘thumbage’ space, lending the type a stark, beautiful legibility against bright white paper. The book has an informative introduction by Owen Sheers, one of Wales’s leading authors, and a helpful, lengthy notes section at the back.
Here’s how Sheers concludes his introduction:
Because, whatever his faults and excesses, he is a poet who we need to have in our lives. A reminder of the nature of the human condition, stripped bare of intellectual masking. A reminder of the natural world given voice with suitable drama and strange wonder. And a reminder that poetry has its roots in music, and always will.
While Thomas’s poems are well known, those chosen here are judiciously selected, and beautifully presented.
Okay, after having recently read Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde, and just finished Kenneth Silverman’s biography of Edgar Allan Poe, I’m getting a little tired of authors who die miserably, in extremely squalid circumstances. Oscar died poverty-stricken in a seedy Parisian hotel – Edgar broke, in hospital, after having been rescued from a dive bar, drunk or stoned/medicated out of his tree, wearing someone else’s clothing. Oscar was diagnosed with encephalitic meningitis, probably brought on by syphilis contracted as a young man. Here’s Ellmann:
“At 5.30a.m., to the consternation of Ross and Turner, a loud, strong death rattle began, like the turning of a crank. Foam and blood came from his mouth during the morning, at ten minutes to two in the afternoon Wilde died…He had scarcely breathed his last breath when the body exploded with fluids from the ear, nose, mouth and other orifices The debris was appalling.”
As Ellmann puts it in the epilogue:
“It was ostracism – more or less – by two groups, those who could not bear his homosexuality and those who could not bear his requests for money.” “English law had misdone him by punishment, and English society finished him off by ostracism”
According to Joseph Evans Snodgrass, the Baltimore editor and physician who rescued Poe from Gunner’s Hall tavern in Baltimore, “Poe was sitting in an armchair surrounded by onlookers”. Silverman continues “Poe had a look of “vacant stupidity.” He wore neither vest nor tie, his dingy trousers fit badly, his shirt was crumpled, his cheap hat soiled. Snodgrass thought he must be wearing castoff clothing, having been robbed or cheated of his own.” A Dr. John J. Moran at the Washington Medical College hospital, to which Poe was driven, “diagnosed Poe’s condition as encephalitis, a brain inflammation, brought on by “exposure.” This explanation is consistent with the prematurely wintry weather at the time, with Snodgrass’s account of Poe’s partly clad condition, and with Elmira Shelton [a love interest]‘s recollection that on leaving Richmond Poe already had a fever. Both explanations may have been correct: Poe may have become too drunk to care about protecting himself against the wind and rain. Whatever the cause, the poet who above all others worshipped Poe also keenly sensed how much his death at the age of forty was demanded of him. “This death was almost a suicide,” Charles Baudelaire remarked, ” a suicide prepared for a long time.” Both Oscar and Edgar were buried with fewer than 15 people attending each of their funerals. Today both graves receive the attention of thousands of literary pilgrims. I’m hoping the subject of the next literary biography I read wont end quite so tragically. Here’s the Literary Tourist list of all things Edgar Allan Poe.
I’ve just finished reading Richard Ellmann’s splendid biography of Oscar Wilde. Filled with telling detail about the man and his times, illuminating insights and deep empathy, the work is one of the most engaging I’ve ever read. Here’s how it ends:
“His work survived as he had claimed it would. We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social impulse, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardized, to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. He belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s. Now, beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, and so right.”
Biography, when written this well, joins reader and subject in ways that only true-life friendships can approach. I felt a real void after finishing this book, and, to bring in literary tourism, a desire to explore the various places and books referred to therein. With this in mind, here’s the Literary Tourist list of all things Wildeian.
The poet as a young man
Pablo Neruda – Die Slowly
He who becomes the slave of habit,
who follows the same routes every day,
who never changes pace,
who does not risk and change the color of his clothes,
who does not speak and does not experience,
He or she who shuns passion,
who prefers black on white,
dotting ones “it.s” rather than a bundle of emotions, the kind that make your eyes glimmer,
that turn a yawn into a smile,
that make the heart pound in the face of mistakes and feelings,
He or she who does not turn things topsy-turvy,
who is unhappy at work,
who does not risk certainty for uncertainty,
to thus follow a dream,
those who do not forego sound advice at least once in their lives,
He who does not travel, who does not read,
who does not listen to music,
who does not find grace in himself,
she who does not find grace in herself,
He who slowly destroys his own self-esteem,
who does not allow himself to be helped,
who spends days on end complaining about his own bad luck, about the rain that never stops,
He or she who abandon a project before starting it, who fail to ask questions on subjects he doesn’t know, he or she who don’t reply when they are asked something they do know,
Let’s try and avoid death in small doses,
reminding oneself that being alive requires an effort far greater than the simple fact of breathing.
Only a burning patience will lead
to the attainment of a splendid happiness.
Most authors are born to be failures and the publisher knows it. He makes his living out of the few successes, and if he is indulgent with less successful writers, it is not only because there is always the possibility that today’s failure may become tomorrow’s best seller. Unless he has a genuine sympathy with the author’s problems, no one can hope to make an enduring success of publishing
- MICHAEL JOSEPH
To write books is easy, it requires only pen and ink and the ever-patient paper. To print books is a little more difficult, because genius so often rejoices in illegible handwriting. To read books is more difficult still, because of the tendency to go to sleep. But the most difficult task of all that a mortal man can embark on is to sell a book.
Another illusion, seldom entertained by competent authors, is that the publisher’s readers and others are waiting to plagarize their work. I think it may be said that the more worthless the manuscript, the greater the fear of plagarism.
SIR STANLEY UNWIN
A small publisher really should, if he can, stay away from fiction.
A small press is an attitude, a kind of anti-commerciality. The dollars come second, the talent and the quality of the writing come first. If the presses wanted to make money, they’d be out there selling cook books.
Gone today, here tomorrow
ALFRED KNOPF on book returns.
Great editors do not discover nor produce great authors; great authors create and produce great publishers.