Looking for literary biographies…

Today is Emily Bronte’s birthday (thank you, internet), which reminded me that I have just a few more chapters to read in the Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson. One of the gems of this book—which is a quick read, as Introductions usually are—is the mention of how much Dickinson was influenced and affected by Bronte. Until recently, I did not always pay attention to timeline and it hadn’t really occurred to me how many of the authors I consider classic were contemporaries. Anyone born in the 1800s or earlier I’ve often lumped into one great category called Dead Writers and had not bothered with the fascinating way in which these writers interacted or influenced one another.

But what this really got me thinking was that without realizing or intending to do this, I’ve read a good number of literary biographies recently. And thoroughly enjoyed all of them. This all started with Lyndall Gordon’s Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, and then her Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life, and then I read Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf’s Nose. (Although come to think of it, it actually all started with Houellebec’s long essay on H.P. Lovecraft.) I started reading Benjamin Moser’s biography of Clarice Lispector, but had to return it to the library and haven’t gone back to get it again. I’d like to finish this, but other projects got in the way. I will, perhaps strangely, go ahead and put Kate Zambreno’s Heroines and Anne Carson’s Nay Rather into this category as well. I then read Catherine Dubuis’s A Femme Entre les Lignes: Vie et Oeuvre de Clarisse Francillon. And somehow made my way to Wendy Martin’s Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson.

But what I’ve noticed is how much I enjoy reading these, and I’d love some suggestions. I’ve made a short list already, but please do leave a comment if any of you have a favorite literary biography you think I’d enjoy. I admit that I’m really only interested in biographies of “dead” writers at this point, so with that in mind…

  • Lyndall Gordon – Lives Like Loaded Guns: A Life of Emily Dickinson
  • Barbara Johnson – A Life with Mary Shelley
  • Elizabeth Hardwick – Seduction and Betrayal
  • Benjamin Moser – Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector
  • Nancy Milford – Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Milley

I’ve seen there is a biography of Frantz Fanon by David Macey – has anyone read this? Or what about Lawrence Jackson’s book on Ralph Ellison? If someone has the inside scoop that there is a biography out or coming out on the Haitian writer Marie Vieux Chauvet, I’ll be forever grateful.


Reading, Writing & more Reading

Reading:

I was away this weekend in Burgundy spending a few days doing (a much-needed) nothing, just walking about with my family and visiting small villages, some wine tasting, and plenty of good food. While on this small trip, I read Anne Carson’s short essay “Nay Rather.” Then I read it again. And this morning, I’ve read it a third time. Such a beautiful essay (and the accompanying poems are a treat as well). It’s about translation and so speaks to much of what I love to think about—untranslatability, how language works to create pause (in thought, in communication, in understanding), how language attempts (and/or fails) to replicate experience. Carson uses several examples to talk around these ideas—the trial transcripts of Joan of Arc, Francis Bacon’s artwork and how he rejected narrative, and Friedrich Hölderlin’s extremely literal translations of Antigone.

I read parts of “Nay Rather” to my daughter on Saturday when none of us could sleep while a very bad musician played LOUDLY on the street corner outside of our hotel, and she loved hearing about Joan of Arc because last year we stayed with friends in a place where Joan was supposed to have spent a night once (and my daughter first heard a version of Joan‘s story from a friend who is an inveterate storyteller). My daughter absolutely loved this line, “The light comes in the name of the voice,” as well as many of the lines from Carson’s poem “By Chance the Cycladic People”—her favorite being, “Clouds every one of them smell different, so do ocean currents.” It is such a joy that children do not mind this kind of language. None of it struck her as odd, she just loved how it all sounded.

So today I am happily focused on this idea of Carson’s of writing/language that “stops itself.” I think that Clarice Lispector does a lot of this, which is why some people may find her difficult to read. And I think that Hélène Bessette does this in her 1954 novel maternA (which hasn’t yet been translated, alas). Poetic language does this more than non-lyrical writing—it is so often about disrupting thought or creating heavy silences—but one of Carson’s examples is as non-lyrical as you can get. I’m quite certain there are thousands of examples, and I’d love to hear from anyone else. What other writers and works do this?

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A quick aside: In our meandering visits, we passed very close to the small village near Yonne where Colette was born. There is a small museum in her former childhood home, but we didn’t get there. I was thinking about Colette recently, reminding myself to read more of her work, but also because she is one of the writers on my list of “women who have yet to be (completely) translated.” Much of her work, thankfully, is available in English, but not all of it.

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Writing:

I’ve had a few pieces come out lately that I haven’t point to here. The first two are reviews, of Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale (tr. Charlotte Barslund) and Ethel Rohan’s short memoir Out of Dublin. I really enjoyed both books, although they are very different from each other—both are unique love stories, both play with language (in very different ways), and both are about the effects of childhood on an adult.

And while I was away this weekend, Issue 9 – “The Disappearance Issue” – of Spolia came out, which includes one section of a forthcoming chapbook of mine called “Elemental: Variations.” There are many wonderful pieces in this issue, plenty of reasons besides my little contribution to download and support Spolia.

While I’m reporting on publications, I have a small poem—“nightjars”—in the latest issue of The Ann Arbor Review.

***

More reading:

I have the immense pleasure of reading through the Readux catalogue at the moment, and getting ready to write about these charming little books. If you don’t know Readux, take a moment to see what they’re about.

Here are some of the other books floating about my life at the moment: three different Anne Carson are supposed to grace my postbox today or tomorrow: Glass, Irony & God; Men in the Off Hours; and Red Doc>. I cannot wait for these. And then a friend has pointed me in the direction of Monique Roffey’s Archipelago and The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng. So that’s me, what are you reading?


“even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart.”

For my book club this week, I got the chance to re-read Doris Lessing’s 1951 The Grass is Singing. It’s an extraordinary book—not only because of its thematic project, which is complicated and stands up to all sorts of varied interpretation and socio-historical analysis, but because her prose is somehow both utilitarian and majestic all at the same time. That word utilitarian is so ugly, I know, but I use it because Lessing is just such a competent writer. Nothing ever superfluous, and yet… she can be wonderfully, incredibly lyrical.

I marked out a long passage yesterday that struck me as symbolic of something Lessing is doing, quite cleverly, throughout the book:

In the early mornings, when Dick had gone to the lands, she would walk gently over the sandy soil in front of the house, looking up into the high blue dome that was fresh as ice crystals, a marvelous clear blue, with never a cloud to stain it, not for months and months. The cold of the night was still in the soil. She would lean down to touch it, and touched, too, the rough brick of the house, that was cool and damp against her fingers. Later, when it grew warm, and the sun seemed as hot as in summer, she would go out into the front and stand under a tree on the edge of the clearing (never far into the bush where she was afraid) and let the deep shade rest her. The thick olive-green leaves overhead let through chinks of clear blue, and the wind was sharp and cold. And then, suddenly, the whole sky lowered itself into a thick grey blanket, and for a few days it was a different world, with a soft dribble of rain, and it was really cold: so cold she wore a sweater and enjoyed the sensation of shivering inside it. But this never lasted long. It seemed that from one half hour to the next the heavy grey would grow thin, showing blue behind, and then the sky would seem to lift, with layers of dissolving cloud in the middle air; all at once, there would be a high blue sky again, all the grey curtains gone. The sunshine dazzled and glittered but held no menace; this was not the sun of October, that insidiously sapped from within. There was a lift in the air, an exhilaration. Mary felt healed – almost. Almost, she became as she had been, brisk and energetic, but with a caution in her face and in her movements that showed she had not forgotten the heat would return. She tenderly submitted herself to this miraculous three months of winter, when the country was purified of its menace.

All that underlining is mine, obviously, but these were all the places where I thought Lessing was doing something interesting. So many small elements in just one paragraph. If you read this paragraph quickly, I think you could mistake it for just a simple pause in an otherwise unsettling narrative. It feels like a break. Here is Mary (who is elsewhere in a state of constant stress and emotional breakdown), relaxing, feeling somehow at peace. And I suppose there is that. But there are warnings here too – those ice crystals, the mention of her ever-present fear of the bush, that shivering, which she oddly enjoys, and then the dazzling, glittering sun without menace. There are sharp points dotted all along this restful passage.

The repetition of the word menace struck me as well. And the way it becomes an extended, albeit sideways, discussion of “heat.” She never talks about desire, but the entire book is about the heat that seems to drive Mary crazy. And of course heat is another way of talking about desire, so I can’t help seeing that here too. Ultimately that last line, “when the country was purified of its menace,” is also about desire and about the exploration that Lessing has got going about the master/servant situation, and about the catastrophic “desire” that infuses the racial situation at the same time. I don’t mean desire in normal terms, but in the broken way that Lessing treats it. And it makes me think of one of the most incisive lines from another favorite of mine, Nadine Gordimer’s Occasion for Loving:

Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart.

This is, I think, what drives all that marvelous (and by marvelous, I do mean horrific) subtext throughout The Grass is Singing. And Lessing never once forgets it. She puts it into the sky and the sun, and into the very landscape. Everything is intimate.


Moving! Reading!

I will be getting back to this space more regularly soon – we moved to a new village in March and I’ve been very busy getting settled in. I am extremely happy with our new place – even if I will miss our old farm house from time to time. But this new place has…. built-in bookshelves!! Everywhere!!  (Which I filled up a little too quickly, even if I did a major book sorting/giving away before we moved. Sigh.) In any case, things are nearly back to normal and I have been reading some wonderful stuff, all of which I am excited to write about. A short list:

  • Clarisse Francillon’s collection of stories Le Quartier – wonderful and touching vignettes of 1950s Paris
  • Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale – reviewing this one soon for Necessary Fiction
  • Chris Yates, Night Walk – these are really lovely nature essays in praise of exactly what the title says, walking at night
  • Amy Sackville’s Orkney – read this a few months ago and it just enthralled me

Also, I just started reading Sworn Virgin by the Albanian author Elvira Dones. Here is a book whose cover flap I actually should have read before diving in. On the first page the gender pronouns are switching all over the place – but this is the story of a young Albanian woman who has been living as a man in her village for the last fourteen years. The novel opens with her arrival in America, and the implication is that she will be able to be a woman again. This is proving difficult for her. Promises to be a really interesting book.

* * *
Also, In March I reviewed Christa Wolf’s slim novella August over at Necessary Fiction. I loved this little book – it’s simple and careful and all about memory.

August opens with the words, “August is remembering.” And this very simple sentence (the present tense of it absolutely perfect) directs the reader toward a series of tender meditations on this man’s early life. That word tender seems strange when the first memory called up is about the loss of his mother during a bombing raid on a refugee train, about a difficult conversation with a woman from the Red Cross and 8-year-old August’s medical exam and subsequent removal to a tuberculosis hospital. But despite the implied horror of these events, August’s tone is tender. Perhaps it is the distance Wolf gives him, 60 years in the future, or perhaps it is the life she has given him—a life mostly only hinted about—to fill those 60 years.

Alongside the careful tenderness in August’s tone there is also a feeling of resignation, and a cautious sorrow. Now a widower, now ready for retirement, now a man with plenty of time to be quiet and alone with his own thoughts—August fits the mold for the kind of memory piece that has even become a genre: an older man looking back upon his life and revisiting its twists and turns, its more difficult questions. But August isn’t interested in understanding anything. And this is the key. August simply wants to look at it again. To feel it all again. To peer through the windows of his mind and see the people and the objects of this particular and short period of his life.

You can read the rest of the review here.

 


discovering Clarisse Francillon

I’ve mentioned the Swiss writer Clarisse Francillon a few times, mostly on Twitter (and maybe not so much here,) but she’s someone I’m very interested in translating. I discovered her by accident one day, by wandering toward the back of the tiny public library in Vevey and finding myself in a little room that I thought, at first, was a storage space. But the sign on the door read “Clarisse Francillon Archive,” so, always curious, I turned the light on and started browsing. When she died in 1976, she donated her personal book collection to the library and they have kept it open to the public. There are about 2500 books in this small room.

A little background: Francillon was born in the Jura mountains in 1899, in the small watchmaking town of St. Imier. Her father and uncle were both involved as founders of the Longines watch factory. She was raised mostly in France, however, and moved to Paris in 1934 to live in a small rooftop garret to write as much as possible. In her lifetime she published something like 17 novels and several story collections. She was taken under the wing of Maurice Nadeau, and he was her editor for many years. Nadeau is often credited with the discovery of a number of celebrated French writers – I’m sad that Francillon is never mentioned on this list.

I am slowly working my way through her novels, all of which were published between 1927 and 1970. She has a vast and fascinating body of work. The book I started with – supposed to be her most famous – called Le Carnet à Lucarnes (The Skylight Notebook?) is written in an incredible style. Difficult, in many ways, as the sentences go on and on, and the narrative perspective isn’t quite easy to pin down, but it’s also clever and funny and definitely sometimes tongue-in-cheek. She absolutely rejects any notion of linear storytelling. But the book is about a woman who makes a Faust-like pact with the devil to remain beautiful forever. I’ve received permission from Denoël, the original 1968 publisher, to shop this novel around to English publishers, so I am working on my sample.

During the war, Francillon came back to Switzerland, and she wrote a novel of what that was like—being separated from the rest of the artistic movement, safe in the vineyards of the Lavaux. (She lived in a small cabin in Villette for those years, which is a village about 10 minutes from where I live). I’ve just started reading this one, and I think I’m about to be amazingly impressed. She is particularly interested, in all of her books, in women who are dealing with intense solitude. It’s fascinating.

I should also mention that Francillon was a translator. She was the person who brought Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano into French. They were close friends, and they had some interesting correspondence about this work and writing and the world. Her book collection involves a number of English titles – she was a devoted fan of Virginia Woolf and many other British modernists.

I had a chance to slip into the archives yesterday. The room is always dark. I’ve never seen another person in there – which is both exciting, because it makes me feel like I’ve got a kind of secret, but also a bit sad. Because isn’t anyone even in Switzerland reading her? A month or so ago, when I went to check out a stack of her novels, one of the librarians asked me what her work was like. I told her what I thought, but I was also disappointed that she hadn’t read her.

Yesterday, however, provided another treat. I have a hard time finding certain English books – especially older texts – without going to the University library in Lausanne. But I discovered yesterday that among Francillon’s own collection is an entire shelf of English books, and everyone I’d like to read. I came home with a 1950 volume of Virginia Woolf’s essays – The Captains Death Bed.

Francillon may have died in 1976, but she is lending me her books at the moment. And it feels like a very special conversation.


“She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.”

I read the following few paragraphs today, from Annie Dillard’s essay « Death of the Moth” which was published in 1976 in Harper’s. It is now one of those things I can never unread, and now I am different for having read it. That is the very best kind of reading. This essay was published with a new title, “Transfiguration” in her book Holy the Firm:

Two summers ago, I was camping alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I had hauled myself and gear up there to read, among other things, James Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a novel about Rimbaud that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen; I was hoping it would do it again. So I read, lost, every day sitting by my tent, while warblers swung in the leaves overhead and bristle worms trailed their inches over the twiggy dirt at my feet; and I read every night by candlelight, while barred owls called in the forest and pale moths massed round massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring.

Moths kept flying into the candle. They would hiss and recoil, lost upside down in the shadows among my cook pans.  Or they would singe their wings and fall, and their hot wings, as if melted, would stick to the first thing they touched — a pan, a lid, a spoon — so that the snagged moths could flutter only in tiny arcs, unable to struggle free. These I could realize by a quick flip with a stick; in the morning I would find my cooking stuff gilded with torn flecks of moth wings, triangles of shiny dust here and there on the aluminum. So I read, and boiled water, and replenished candles, and read on.

One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when the shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspread, flapped into the fire, dropped abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled, and fried in a second.  Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of pine.  At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time, her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burnt away and her heaving mouthparts cracked like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old?  Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax — a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.

And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into a flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like an immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical light, side by side. The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.

There is an interesting essay here on the entire piece and how Dillard came to write it.


“One must hang it with jewels.” Going back to Woolf

In 2010, I began a Virginia Woolf project, reading her fiction in the order it was published alongside her diaries and her short fiction. Between then and last year, I read her Diary Vol. I (1915 – 1919), the sixteen stories written up until 1921, The Voyage Out, Night and Day, Jacob’s Room and her Diary Vol. II (1920 – 1924).

I wrote a few things about my reactions to this body of work, which are perhaps not very interesting but have been interesting for me to look back on after my unexpected break in the project:

And now I am picking up the threads of this reading again. I spent most of last year moving very slowly through the second volume of her diaries, which cover the periods when she is writing Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway. There is a lot of worrying over the reception of her writing; this is always interesting. But also much more confidence in her artistic vision. In both Vol. I and Vol. II she spends a lot of her time talking about the people in her life, her friends and family, as well as domestic concerns – but in Vol. II she expands on her thoughts about writing and literature, and her own fiction as well.

In February 1924, she writes:

I’m working at The Hours, & I think it a very interesting attempt; I may have found my mine this time I think. I may get all my gold out. The great thing is never to feel bored with one’s own writing. That is the signal for a change—never mind what, so long as it brings interest. And my vein of gold lies so deep, in such bent channels. To get it I must forge ahead, stoop & grope. But it is gold of a kind I think.

In terms of catching up, I’ve actually already read Mrs. Dalloway twice, but I think I’ll reread it once more as I get started on Vol. III. And I’m actually behind on the short stories so I got started on those today. I have thirteen to read that were published between 1922 and 1925. The first of these is called “A Woman’s College from Outside” and it is one of those snippets of scene that works as a full story because of the fullness and emotional specificity of Woolf’s prose. It is nothing but a glimpse into a women’s dormitory and a close-up of a single girl. Although at one point she moves wider to touch upon a few other students and gives this wonderful description, which contains a reference point, a kind of clue, for the ending:

Good Bertha, leaning with her head against the chair, sighed profoundly. For she would willingly have slept, but since night is free pasturage, a limitless field, since night is unmoulded richness, one must tunnel into its darkness. One must hang it with jewels. Night was shared in secret, day browsed on by the whole flock.

The story is not much more than a portrait of a very particular emotion – one I would call expectancy, which makes sense for the setting as well. The woman in the story is waiting, observant, awed. It ends like this:

…she lay in this good world, this new world, this world at the end of the tunnel, until a desire to see it or forestall it drove her, tossing her blankets, to guide herself to the window, and there, looking out upon the garden, where the mist lay, all the windows open, one fiery-bluish, something murmuring in the distance, the world of course, and the morning coming, ‘Oh,’ she cried, as if in pain.

This is something I find again and again in Woolf’s prose, the ability to combine movement with emotion with exterior (most often natural) scenery. She does this so incredibly well. She conjures up so clearly, so concisely, the often unexplainable connections between the world and human sentiment.

Am very much looking forward to getting back into this project.


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