‘Would you be interested in publishing a time bomb that I have just finished putting together?’: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

lolitaIn February 1954, the Russian-born American writer Vladimir Nabokov wrote to the publishers New Directions offering them his latest novel: ‘Would you be interested in publishing a time bomb that I have just finished putting together? It is a novel of 459 typewritten pages.’ New Directions declined to publish his novel but it was eventually published the following year in Paris—and soon after was banned in France. The time bomb was Lolita, perhaps the most controversial novel of the 20th century for its story of ‘Humbert Humbert’, the pseudonym of a man who at the age of 37 becomes hopelessly infatuated with a 12-year-old girl, Dolores Haze, whom he renames Lolita: ‘She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.’

The novel opens with a ‘Foreword’ by John Ray, Jr, PhD, the cousin of Humbert Humbert’s lawyer, into whose care Humbert willed on his death his memoir titled Lolita, or the Confessions of a White Widowed Male so it can be prepared for publication. Dr Ray remarks that the manuscript is ‘a tragic tale tending unswervingly to nothing less than a moral apotheosis’, adding that although the cynic might argue that commercial pornography makes the same claim, the learned would maintain that, unlike the 12 per cent of American men with his erotic tendencies, Humbert is filled with despair by his urges.

The cynic and the learned reader have been arguing ever since over the content of Lolita—is it pornography or art?—a debate that reached new heights in America over Adrian Lyne’s 1997 remake of Nabokov’s novel starring Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain, which faced difficulties getting cinema release in the USA. Nabokov saw his novel as a work of art, containing ‘various allusions to the psychological urges of a pervert’, in a long tradition of European writing dating from ancient times to the 18th century that mixed comedy with lewdness.

Nabokov's butterflies in first American edition of Lolita, 1958. Image via the Nabokov Museum.

Nabokov’s butterflies in first American edition of Lolita, 1958. Image via the Nabokov Museum.

Humbert’s memoir famously opens with a play on Lolita’s name: ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.’ Humbert then recounts his happy childhood on the Mediterranean, surrounded by golden sand and sea vistas, where one summer he falls ‘madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly’ in love with a girl several months younger than he called Annabel. Their passion is so intense that only complete immersion in each other’s flesh and souls could have satisfied it—but Annabel dies for months later of typhoid, leaving her lover with his eternal longing. Humbert, a bookish European intellectual, conducts a remorseless self-analysis in the pages of the novel. He attributes his passion for Lolita to his ruined love for Annabel:

We loved each other with a premature love marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives. I was a strong lad and survived; but the poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open, and soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.

Humbert is torn by his illicit desires, which he resists until he moves to America following the Second World War. One day, while looking over a potential lodging, he happens to notice ‘Lo’: ‘from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses …’

Lolita is the story of Humbert’s love affair with Lolita, which hums across suburban America, along its highways and in its motels. It is a tragic and disturbing novel of possession and desire—and the beauty, erudition and irrepressible playfulness of Nabokov’s prose only serve to deepen the tragedy of the story, of which Humbert is only too painfully aware:

I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tyres, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.

The novel was eventually published in America by Putnam in 1958 with a note by Nabokov about its genesis. He traces Lolita to a story he read in Paris in 1939 or 1940 about an ape who, after great encouragement, eventually produced the first ever drawing by an animal—a charcoal sketch of the bars of its cage. This poignant report inspired Nabokov to write a short story in Russian, and he returned to the idea years later in America, in 1949. ‘I was now faced with the task of inventing America,’ he wrote. This he did, inventing his own America in words, writing Lolita during his many trips in search of butterflies through Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming (Nabokov was a highly regarded, self-taught lepidopterist, a butterfly expert). Lolita became a bestseller and its sales enabled Nabokov to retire from teaching and devote himself exclusively to writing.

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov was born in 1899 in St Petersburg, Russia, to an aristocratic family. His father was the head of the pre-revolutionary liberal Constitutional Democratic Party and went into exile when the Revolution broke out, moving with his family to Berlin. Nabokov received a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied zoology then French and Russian literature, receiving a first-class honours degree in 1923. The previous year his father had been assassinated in Berlin (having rushed to shield the man for whom the bullet was intended), an event that was to haunt Nabokov for the rest of his life. His first novel, Mary, written in Russian, was published in 1926, and his first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, was published in 1941. In 1925 Nabokov married Vera Evseyevna Slonim, with whom he had one son, Dimitri. In 1940 he moved with his family to America, where he taught at Wellesley College, and then taught Russian and European literature at Cornell University from 1948 until the publication of Lolita ten years later.

tehranLolita has had a widespread impact on contemporary culture, from coining the word ‘nymphet’ to the word ‘Lolita’ itself, which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a sexually precocious schoolgirl’. The first cinema adaptation of the book, for which Nabokov wrote the screenplay, was Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 hit film Lolita, starring James Mason as Humbert and Sue Lyon as Lolita. In 2003 a book about a group of Muslim women and one man in Iran who find inspiration in Lolita and other literary classics became a bestseller: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi. Nafisi writes: ‘no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom …’

Sue Lyon and James Mason in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, 1962

Sue Lyon and James Mason in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, 1962

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‘Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way’: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

dying63In 1929 William Faulkner began writing a novel in the early morning hours while employed as a nightwatchman at the University of Mississippi power plant. He had already published three novels, including The Sound and the Fury (1929), but was yet to find widespread success. He staked everything on his new novel: ‘I set out deliberately to write a tour-de-force,’ he later commented. ‘Before I began I said, I am going to write a book by which, at a pinch, I can stand or fall if I never touch ink again.’ According to Faulkner, he finished the novel in six weeks. The book he wrote, published the following year, was As I Lay Dying. The title comes from Agamemnon’s speech from the Underworld in the Odyssey, about his ignominious death plotted by his wife on his return home to Greece from the Trojan War. In As I Lay Dying it is the wife, Addie Bundren, who dies and her husband, Anse, whose neglect and meanness are implicated in her dying.

As I Lay Dying is composed of 59 fragments spoken by fifteen characters—Addie herself; Anse; their four sons, Cash, Darl, Jewel and Vardaman; their daughter Dewey Dell; their neighbours; the doctor, Peabody; and various bystanders who are drawn into the outlandish events that follow Addie’s death as Anse, for once determined to follow Addie’s wishes, transports her corpse from her deathbed to her final resting place in Jefferson. Over the course of the novel the Budrens’ harsh farming life in the backwaters of one of America’s most impoverished states, Mississippi, is revealed in beautiful, muscular prose: ‘That’s the trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long. Like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image.’

Like a Cubist painting the novel’s multiple perspectives are shattered and put back together by Faulkner. Each new view brings to life a character’s intimate thoughts sparked by Addie’s death, thoughts that are filled with grief, sorrow, incomprehension, selfishness, madness, love. The picture Faulkner paints, never quite seen in its totality, is one of the most bizarre of literature: a straggly group of four men, a girl and a coffin on a cart, accompanied by a fierce, sinewy man on a ‘durn circus animal’ (Jewel on his piebald horse) trailing across the land through flood and fire under a buzzard-hung sky with a decaying corpse which, by the time they reach Jefferson, is nine days dead. Two books that filled Faulkner’s mind, which he returned to time and again, were the Old Testament and Don Quixote, and As I Lay Dying is like some surreal incarnation of the spirits of these two books in the soil of Faulkner’s ‘apocryphal country’, the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County where his novel takes place.


Bottle and fishes by Georges Braques

As I Lay Dying is a meditation on life, death and madness. The views of death range from the doctor’s learned ‘I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind—and that of the minds of the ones who suffer the bereavement’, to Addie’s brutal truth: ‘I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.’ Cash’s poignant observations on his brother Darl, who is ‘touched by God himself and considered queer by us mortals’, show his profound understanding of madness: ‘Sometimes I aint so sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way.’ Faulkner’s vital prose captures in a few phrases the life of his characters, such as Anse, who comes alive in all his niggardliness: ‘If He’d aimed for man to be always a-moving and going somewhere else, wouldn’t He have put him longways on his belly, like a snake? It stands to reason he would.’

William Faulkner

William Faulkner

William Faulkner, born the oldest of four sons of Murry and Maud Falkner (Faulkner later added the ‘u’) in New Albany, Mississippi, came from an illustrious Southern family whose fortunes had waned. His great-grandfather Colonel William Clark Falkner had fought in the Civil War, made a fortune from railways after the war and bought a plantation. He had also written the bestselling novel The White Rose of Memphis. Faulkner’s father eventually settled in Oxford, Mississippi, where he became the business manager at the University of Mississippi. Here Faulkner was able to indulge his passion for riding, shooting and hunting—and reading. Although he left school early, Faulkner was a voracious reader his whole life. He joined the British Royal Air Force in July 1918 and trained in Canada, but the war ended before he flew a plane. When he returned home he devoted himself to drawing and to writing poetry, and by 1925, when he travelled to Europe, had devoted himself to writing. In Europe Faulkner spent most of his time on the Left Bank in Paris, at the time the centre of Modernism, where he saw the paintings of Cezanne, Picasso and Braque. Faulkner, a talented drawer and painter, brings a Modernist painter’s eye to his writing: ‘The front, the conical facade with the square orifice of doorway broken only by the square squat shape of the coffin on the sawhorses like a cubistic bug, comes into relief.’

MGM, Culver City, 1930s

MGM, Culver City, 1930s

Faulkner’s first novel, Soldier’s Pay, was published in 1926, but he did not become established as a writer until the publication in October 1929 of The Sound and the Fury (which he’d written in despair and regardless of questions of commercial appeal). He found commercial success two years later with the publication in 1931 of the controversial, bestselling Sanctuary, about the rape of a college student. In 1929 Faulkner married his childhood sweetheart Estelle Oldham following her divorce from her first husband. Hoping to support his new family as a writer—Estelle already had two children and in 1933 had a daughter with Faulkner—Faulkner embarked on the novel he intended would be a tour de force, As I Lay Dying. In 1932 MGM offered Faulkner a job in Hollywood and, needing the money, in May 1932 he moved to Culver City, California, to work as a screenwriter. Like Picasso, Faulkner was extraordinarily productive and innovative in realising his vision—his creative output was enormous (including 19 novels) and he constantly experimented with form.

In 1949 Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his dignified and impassioned acceptance speech he spoke about the numbing post-war preoccupation with physical danger and the urgent need for writers to engage not with fear but the problems of the spirit, of the heart. Among other things he said:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man.

William Faulkner, Hollywood, early 1940s. (Photo by Alfred Eriss)

William Faulkner, Hollywood, early 1940s. (Photo by Alfred Eriss)

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‘our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion’: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

unknownThe Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Duke of Palma and Prince of Lampedusa, wrote only one novel, The Leopard, which he began two years before his death in Rome at the age of sixty. The Leopard, a meditation on the passing of time and the changing of eras, was rejected as unpublishable during di Lampedusa’s lifetime. Eventually published in 1958, the year after its author’s death, The Leopard went on to win the Primo Strega, Italy’s most prestigious literary award. Hailed as a masterpiece, the novel became an international bestseller. E.M. Forster captured its essence when he called it ‘one of the great lonely books’.

The Leopard opens in May 1860 in Sicily, at the daily recitation of the rosary in the villa of the Prince of Salina. The Prince, his wife, son, daughters and the family priest, Father Pirrone, gather in the drawing room beneath its ceiling painted with the family’s blue shield of the Leopard supported by the deposed gods and goddesses of ancient Rome. Like these ancient deities, the rule of the Prince and his world are doomed. The revolutionary hero Garibaldi is due within days to land in Sicily with his ‘Thousand’ volunteer troops and within weeks will take the island. Within months, the entire Kingdom of Two Sicilies (the kingdoms of Sicily and Naples jointly ruled by the last Bourbon monarch, Francis II) will be absorbed at the hand of Garibaldi into a unified Italy under the rule of King Victor Emmanuel, crowned king of Italy in 1861.

At the centre of di Lampedusa’s novel is the massive, mighty Leopard himself, the Prince of Salina:

there was constant coming and going between Villa Salina and a silversmith’s for the straightening of forks and spoons which, in some fit of controlled rage at the table, he had coiled into a hoop. But those fingers could also stroke and knead with the most exquisite delicacy, as his wife Maria Stella knew to her cost; while up in his private observatory at the top of the house the gleaming screws, caps and studs of telescopes, lenses and ‘comet-finders’ seemed inviolate beneath his gentle manipulations.

Burt Lancaster as The Leopard

Burt Lancaster as The Leopard

The Prince is politically astute yet above politics, he is mathematical, and his sensual appetites are still rampant as he approaches fifty. Like an Olympian god, he watches with a lofty dispassion tinged with regret as the world around him changes forever, as the aristocracy succumbs to the energy of the new liberal bourgeoisie. And yet the Prince’s secret knowledge, the irony at the heart of the novel summarised in his nephew Tancredi’s pithy observation—’If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’—is that at root nothing really changes, while everything falls apart and life moves inexorably towards death.

The novel, written while di Lampedusa was dying of lung cancer, reeks of death and decay. In his most outspoken speech, the Prince argues that ancient Sicily is too old to understand the new modern world of factories and progress. In the context of the industrial world, Sicily is like ‘a centenarian being dragged in a bath-chair around the Great Exhibition in London, understanding nothing and caring about nothing’. Instead, Sicily is interested only in death:

our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death, our languor, our exotic ices, a hankering for voluptuous immobility, that is for death again … novelties attract us only when they are dead, incapable of arousing vital currents …

On every page the novel radiates an almost painful awareness of this passing of time towards oblivion. Even in a magnificent ballroom, pulsing with the bodies of young people dancing, destruction lurks: ‘from the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943.’



And yet life goes on, through the political ferment, through change and revolution. The novel is told in eight chapters across fifty years, from May 1860 to May 1910, driven by the energy of the Prince’s dashing nephew Tancredi, who can read the signs of the times and positions himself accordingly—first as one of Garibaldi’s Redcoats, then as a member of the regular army of Victor Emmanuel, His Majesty, King of Sardinia. In his efforts, Tancredi is assisted by the careful manoeuvring of his indulgent uncle, his guardian, who facilitates his ambition and watches over the young man with affection, admiration and some jealousy. When Tancredi falls madly in love with the beautiful daughter of the vulgar, nouveau riche Don Calogero, the Prince gives way to their inevitable union. And yet he sees all: ‘The bourgeois revolution climbing his stairs in Don Calogero’s tail-coat, Angelica’s beauty putting the shy grace of his Concetta in the shade, Tancredi rushing at the inevitable changes.’

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Like the Prince, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was born in Palermo, Sicily, into Sicilian aristocracy. Despite his family’s disapproval of his literary obsession, di Lampedusa was a passionate reader in Italian, Latin, Greek, German, French and English. He had a particular admiration for another chronicler of the rise of the bourgeoisie, Stendhal, and wrote Lessons on Stendhal which was published as a book in 1977. During the First World War, di Lampedusa served in the Italian artillery in Hungary, where he was captured and imprisoned. He later escaped and walked back to Italy. After a nervous breakdown prevented the diplomatic career he desired, di Lampedusa spent his life reading, writing and travelling, and in 1932 he married the Latvian exile Baroness Alessandra Wolff-Stomersee, whom he had met in London. It is said that his cousin, the award-winning poet Lucio Piccolo, inspired him at the age of 58 to write the novel about which he’d been dreaming for half his life, The Leopard.

The Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti’s sumptuous, acclaimed cinema adaptation of The Leopard was released in 1963. Perfectly cast, the film starred Burt Lancaster as the Prince of Salina, Alain Delon as Tancredi and Claudia Cardinale as Angelica, and won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. The Leopard was rereleased in 2004 in a restored, recut version, and its continuing popularity reflects the novel’s enduring power as a lush evocation of change and decay.


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The power of art: does it move you?

If, as Duchamp said, art is the interaction between the object of scrutiny and the viewer, then what is our role in that interaction, as viewers? There’s been a lot of talk about our role and rights as creators, especially in the electronic age when the means of creative production and distribution are available to so many more of us. When we’re all creators in search of an audience.

But I’m interested in how we respond and act as that audience. Can art move us so deeply it makes us act? Can art change lives?

Reading Tolstoy changed the life of Mohandas Gandhi. Tolstoy—who in War and Peace calls war ‘the vilest thing in life’—inspired Gandhi’s non-violent resistance to British rule in India and in his honour Gandhi founded the Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg, South Africa. And a poem from Victorian England by William Ernest Henley—’Invictus‘—scribbled on a scrap of paper sustained Nelson Mandela through his long imprisonment. Its last lines are:

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

And books (in a library, that threatened species) were life-saving for writer Junot Diaz. At the 2008 Sydney Writers’ Festival Diaz gave thanks to the librarian who introduced him to ‘the wonder of books and in the process, I would argue, saved my life’.

In a laneway in the heart of Sydney 180 birdcages have been strung across the sky for an installation called ‘Forgotten Songs‘*. And birds sing somewhere nearby.

Except this is a place where no birds sing. The songs are recordings of the birds who once sang here, before we put up buildings where trees had been and laid bitumen where once was earth. Recordings of Eastern Whipbirds, Rockwarblers, Fan-tailed Cockatoos and other birds sing during the day. And at night the Powerful Owl, Southern Boobook, Tawny Frogmouth. ‘Forgotten Songs’ is installed in Angel Place next to the City Recital Hall, where the Brandenburg Choir with its live human song is a regular fixture.

Forgotten Songs, Angel Place, Sydney

Forgotten Songs, Angel Place, Sydney

For me the cumulative effect of empty birdcages filled with shrill, disembodied birdsong in a dingy laneway called Angel Place next to a house of live human music and song is beautiful, poignant and devastating. I have been turning ‘Forgotten Songs’ over in my mind since it was first installed in the summer of 2010. It has joined forces with Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—and now Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book. They have moved me to answer them, to acknowledge them in action.

From Underworld by Don DeLillo:

It was reddish brown, flat-topped, monumental, sunset burning in the heights, and Brian thought he was hallucinating an Arizona butte. But it was real and it was man-made, swept by wheeling gulls, and he knew it could only be one thing—the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island.

This was the reason for his trip to New York and he was scheduled to meet there with surveyors and engineers in the morning. Three thousand acres of mountained garbage contoured and road-graded with bulldozers pushing waves of refuse onto the active face … It was science fiction and prehistory, garbage arriving twenty-four hours a day, hundreds of workers, vehicles with metal rollers compacting the trash, bucket augers digging vents for methane gas, the gulls diving and crying, a line of snouted trucks sucking in loose litter.

From The Road by Cormac McCarthy:

They listened but they could hear nothing. Still he could see the open country to the east and the air was different. Then they came upon it from a turn in the road and they stopped and stood with the salt wind blowing in their hair where they’d lowered the hoods of their coats to listen. Out there was the gray beach with the slow combers rolling dull and leaden and the distant sound of it. Like the desolation of some alien sea breaking on the shores of a world unheard of. Out on the tidal flats lay a tanker half careened. Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I’m sorry it’s not blue, he said. That’s okay, said the boy.

From The Swan Book by Alexis Wright:

Now the day had come when modern man had become the new face of God, and simply sacrificed the whole Earth.

My own observations, conversations and the words of scientists, activists, journalists, some few politicians and fewer economists (significant because their language currently rules the world), tell me we’re fucking up the planet, ruining the earth, through short-term thinking and greed. But the images that stick in my mind and move me to act are from The Swan Book, Underworld, The Road, ‘Forgotten Songs’. That is the power of art.

I originally posted this in March 2010 at overland.org.au. I’m reblogging it today to add the picture which is now missing from the original—and to remind myself of the power of art and the extreme urgency that we act to stop our species from fucking up the planet that is our home. If we humans share one thing, it is this planet to which we are all, after all, indigenous.

*’Forgotten Songs’ is by Michael Thomas Hill (my partner), Richard Wong, Dave Towey, Richard Major and Fred van Gessell.

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‘But he found no words for regret, melancholy, and longing in his meagre vocabulary’: The Radesky March by Joseph Roth

6555394-mIn 1916, Joseph Roth enlisted in the Austrian Army and spent the next two years on the Eastern Front of the First World War. He would later write of his life: ‘My strongest experience was the War and the destruction of my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.’ Roth lived to see the destruction of his fatherland, but he never saw, never knew, his own father, a travelling salesman who disappeared before his son’s birth and later died insane. In its preoccupation with fathers real and symbolic, The Radetzky March articulates Roth’s two tragic losses.

Roth’s eighth novel, The Radetzky March is a beautiful, poignant story about fathers and sons, and the inexorable tide of history as it first elevates then abandons a peasant family, and with it the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire. Roth writes with wry irony, unfolding a tragedy from his comic opening, tracing the collapse of an era through three generations of men: the grandfather, Joseph Trotta, a peasant honoured for a freak accident in which he saves the life of the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I; his officious son, the district captain; and his grandson Carl Joseph, a lieutenant unfit for military life. The Radetzky March opens in 1859 in the midst of the Battle of Solferino—’the grandfather’s war’—and closes in 1914 with the faltering outbreak of war along the border of Austria and Russia. As the First World War erupts, the grandson, Lieutenant Trotta, futilely dreams. ‘Here was the war for which he had prepared himself since the age of seven. It was his war, the grandson’s war. The days and the heroes of Solferino were returning.’

Battle of Solferino by Carlo Bossoli

Battle of Solferino by Carlo Bossoli

Emperor Franz Joseph

Emperor Franz Joseph

The Battle of Solferino was a formative moment in both the nationalist campaign to unite Italy and in the life of Roth’s character Joseph Trotta (the grandfather), a Slovenian peasant. Fought in the north of Italy, the battle pitted the troops of Napoleon III of France and Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont-Sardinia against the Austrian Army under Franz Joseph. Two years later, in 1861, Victor Emmanuel II was proclaimed King of Italy. In The Radetzky March, Roth’s fictional Joseph Trotta saves the life of the historical Kaiser Franz Joseph at Solferino. In the midst of battle, Trotta sees the young kaiser lift his field glasses to his eyes and, like any frontline soldier, Trotta knows the gleaming binoculars will attract enemy fire, so he pushes the emperor to the ground and takes a bullet in his left shoulder as he falls. When Trotta recovers, he is awarded the highest military honour in the empire, and for his accidental heroism he’s made Captain Joseph Trotta von Sipolje. Trotta is completely disoriented by the honours bestowed upon him. Every night and every morning ‘as if his own life had been traded for a new and alien life manufactured in a workshop, he would repeat his new status to himself and walk up to the mirror to confirm that his face was the same …’ When Trotta, disillusioned and gutted, later requests his discharge from the army, instead of being allowed to sink into longed-for anonymity, he is further elevated: he is made Baron Joseph von Trotta und Sipolje.

The story belongs to the baron’s son, the district captain, and grandson, Lieutenant Trotta, who are strangely afflicted by Baron Trotta’s noble legacy. Roth’s portraits of these two men are astute and agonising in their tragedy. The son, a bureaucrat, knows how to reply tersely to his own son’s dutiful letters, how to congratulate him on his promotion to lieutenant, but is lost when that same son cries out to him in need. ‘But how should you behave if your son was drunk, if he cried “Father!” if the cry “Father!” came out of him?’ the father helplessly wonders. And when the son tries to thank his father for his help, he finds he cannot: ‘And he tried to describe how touched he was. But he found no words for regret, melancholy, and longing in his meagre vocabulary.’

Roth’s penetrating psychological insights are matched by his humour and acute understanding of his times. Sent to the eastern border of the empire, Lieutenant Trotta finds himself in a shadowy multicultural world of shifting allegiances and swampland: ‘Any stranger coming into this region was doomed to gradual decay. No one was as strong as the swamp.’ In this distant outpost dwell Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Russians, Croats, Slovenes, Poles. One of the charismatic locals, Count Chojnicki, observing his dissolute companions, remarks that ‘the Poles, of whom he himself was one after all, were skirt chasers, hairdressers, and fashion photographers …’ Their twilight world is fuelled by alcohol and ruled by merchants who are the crude predecessors of Joseph Heller’s machiavellian Milo Minderbinder:

Always on the move, always on the alert, with glib tongues and quick minds, they might have had the stuff to conquer half the world—had they known what the world was all about. But they did not know. For they lived far from the world, between East and West.

Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in Brody, Galacia, now in the Ukraine but then on the far eastern border of the Hapsburg Empire. When he was 20, Roth transferred from his local university to the University of Vienna and two years later, in 1916, he volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army. He returned to Vienna in 1918 and moved to Berlin in 1920. In 1923 he began to write for Frankfurter Zeitung, travelling widely across Europe and eventually becoming one of the best paid and most respected journalists of the age. Roth also found time to write novels, working in his spare moments in hotel rooms and cafes. It was during these years that he wrote The Radetzky March, which was published in 1932.

Roth married in 1922 and in 1928 his wife, Friederike, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalised. Born a Jew, in the early 1920s Roth was one of the first to become aware of the menace of Hitler and soon became one of the most outspoken and ardent critics of the Nazi regime. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Roth severed his ties with Germany and fled from Berlin by train for exile in Paris, but he was forced to leave Friederike behind in the psychiatric hospital in Berlin. His books were later burnt by Nazi-supporting students in Berlin. Roth’s life as an emigre in France was lonely and hard. He struggled to find publishers for his work; lived out of suitcases, moving from hotel to hotel; and drank heavily. In 1939, aged 44, Roth died of pneumonia and alcoholism. The following year his wife was killed in the Nazi euthanasia program.

General Joseph Radetzky

General Joseph Radetzky

The title of Roth’s great novel, The Radetzky March, comes from the music of Johann Strauss the Elder, whose ‘Radetzky March‘ was composed in 1848 to honour the Austrian general Joseph Radetzky, who won decisive battles against Sardinia in the first Italian war of independence. It became one of the most popular pieces of music in the Hapsburg Empire and a symbol of the empire’s might—and its refrains haunt the pages of Roth’s novel, evoking glory days gone by. Although Roth started out as a communist—he was once known as ‘Red’ Roth—and always kept his sympathies with the poor, he later grew nostalgic for the old world of the bygone century, before nationalism had torn Europe and the Austro-Hungarian Empire apart. This nostalgia resonates through The Radetzky March.

Roth’s novels were long neglected and only began to be reissued in Germany in the 1970s. With the translation into English in 2000 of Roth’s novel Rebellion, the German poet, critic and translator of Roth, Michael Hoffmann (he who decimated Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North), ensured that all Roth’s novels were at last available in English. The 14th Prague Writers’ Festival in May 2004, at which Hoffman spoke, was dedicated to Joseph Roth.

The Austrian director Axel Corti, passionately committed to adapting Roth’s novel for the screen, died in 1993, two weeks before he finished shooting his film of The Radetky March, starring Max von Sydow, Tilman Gunther and Charlotte Rampling. It was first screened posthumously in 1994 as a television miniseries.

Tilman Gunther as the grandson Carl Joseph

Tilman Gunther as the grandson Carl Joseph

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Garlanded with rosebuds and the hackwork of the devil: Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood

61fzfr3fcfl_sl500_In 1920 the American writer and artist Djuna Barnes moved from New York to Paris where she met the love of her life, Thelma Wood. Their passionate eight-year love affair, fired by sex, drugs and violent emotion, came to an explosive end in 1929. Two years later, Barnes left Paris for England and moved into Peggy Guggenheim’s country manor, where she wrote out her devastation in a haunting novel of erotic obsession and torment, Nightwood, which Barnes called the soliloquy of ‘a soul talking to itself in the heart of the night’ and said was written in blood. The extraordinary baroque richness of her novel, about the unleashed passion of Nora Flood for the boyish woman Robin Vote, led the poet TS Eliot to compare it to Elizabethan drama: ‘What I would leave the reader prepared to find is the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation, and quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.’

Nightwood, told in eight disjointed chapters, opens early in 1880 with the birth in Vienna of Felix Volkbein. Felix’s Jewish father Guido has attempted to ‘span the impossible gap’ between himself and his Christian wife, between his Jewish blood and that of his adopted land, Austria, by pretending to be from an old, noble Austrian family—’the saddest and most futile gesture of all had been his pretence of barony’. Felix—who assumes his father’s false title to become Baron Volkbein—is the first of the novel’s outcasts, nighttime creatures at odds with the world. At a decadent party in Berlin, Felix Volkbein meets Dr Matthew O’Connor, an Irishman who dominates the party with his depraved stories of young men—such as Nikka, who wore nothing at all ‘except an ill-concealed loin-cloth all abulge as if with a deep-sea catch, tattooed from head to heel with all the emeublement of depravity! Garlanded with rosebuds and the hackwork of the devil’—and the ‘savage and refined’ American woman Nora Flood, who is promoting a circus.

The doctor meets up with Felix in a Paris cafe, but their drinking session is abandoned when the doctor is called to assist a woman who has fainted in a nearby hotel. The two men discover a dishevelled form on a bed surrounded by exotic plants and flowers:

About her head there was an effulgence as of phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water—as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deteriorations—the troubling structure of the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds—meet of child and desperado.

Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood

Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood

Barnes’s lover Thelma Wood was the original for this portrait of the fluid Robin Vote, with whom Nora Flood soon falls desperately in love. When Robin drifts away into the twilight, impossible to hold, and moves in with the rich American widow Jenny Petherbridge, Nora, in her unleashed grief, turns to the doctor for comfort. In the fifth fragment of the novel, the beautiful ‘Watchman, What of the Night?’, Nora asks the doctor to tell her everything about the night. The doctor, dressed in a woman’s nightgown and golden wig, responds by talking through Nora’s ravaged ravings, telling her stories of the night and those who haunt it—drug addicts, alcoholics, the debauched and ‘that most miserable, the lover who watches all night long in fear and anguish’.

'The Robing of the Bride', Max Ernst

‘The Robing of the Bride’, Max Ernst

In Nightwood Barnes probes intensely the darkness of illicit love, jealousy, death, agonised passion and perverse desire. Her vision is prescient in an era—the 1930s—that saw the rise of Nazism intent on eradicating deviance. Barnes’s extravagant metaphors and symbols, ferocious and daring, have all the ornate, sensual detail of Surrealist painting, which emerged in Paris in the 1920s and to which Barnes was exposed through her friendship with the Surrealists:

Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning into human. Such a person’s every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; an insupportable a joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear.

Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes was born into an eccentric household in 1892 in Cornwall-on-Hudson. Her father, a dilettante artist, lived with his wife, mistress, children and his mother, a journalist, who was responsible for Barnes’s early education. In 1912 Barnes’s mother took her children to New York, where Barnes went to art school, her first experience of formal education. She then worked as a journalist and artist to help support the family. In 1915 she published The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings in the decadent, depraved mood of Aubrey Beardsley. She soon left New York for Paris, where as a journalist she interviewed expatriate artists and writers. It was there in 1921 that she met and fell in love with the artist Thelma Wood and they set up house together, living a wild and drunken life. Their relationship ended in 1929 when Wood, who had frequent affairs with men and women, began a passionate affair with another woman.

In Paris Barnes was friends with James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Ford Madox Ford, who published her stories in his Transatlantic Review. In 1928 her first novel, Ryder, was published. A semi-autobiographical book which she described as ‘a female Tom Jones‘, Ryder became a bestseller in the United States. Her second novel, Nightwood, was eventually recommended for publication by TS Eliot at the prestigious publishing house Faber & Faber, and was published in England in 1936. Barnes’s densely written novel influenced writers such as Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas and Anais Nin. In 1940 Barnes returned to New York City, moving to Greenwich Village, where she lived until she died in 1982, shortly before her 90th birthday.

Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes

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‘Love leaped up out at us like a murderer jumping out of a dark alley’: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

700_largeMikhail Bulgakov spent nine difficult years working on The Master and Margarita, writing eight different versions and only completing the final manuscript shortly before his death in 1940. The novel is a fierce satire of Stalinist Russia, a love story of cosmic dimensions, and a story of Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, given its explosive subject matter, The Master and Margarita wasn’t published until 27 years after Bulgakov’s death. The serialised publication in 1967 of a censored version of the novel caused a literary sensation in Soviet Russia for its daring engagement with a taboo subject, Christianity; its rich, outrageous black comedy; and the outlandish behaviour of its supernatural characters—Satan disguised as the foreign Professor Woland and his retinue of two grotesque demons, a gigantic black cat and a beautiful, naked woman. The novel opens on a strange spring day at Patriarch Ponds, a park in inner Moscow. Two Communist Party literary hacks—Berlioz, the editor of a highbrow literary magazine, and Bezdomny, a poet—walk together discussing the poet’s latest work, an anti-religious poem about Jesus commissioned by Berlioz. Like all good Soviet citizens, they are committed atheists, and Berlioz is concerned that Bezdomny has made Jesus too convincing in his poem, as if he really existed, when the point of the poem is to show he is pure myth.

‘There is not one oriental religion,’ said Berlioz, ‘in which an immaculate virgin does not bring a god into the world. And the Christians, lacking any originality, invented their Jesus in exactly the same way.’

Patriarch Ponds, 1920s

Patriarch Ponds, 1920s

But Patriarch Ponds (named ‘Patriarch’ after the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, an institution under ruthless attack in the 1930s) sets the scene for the sudden arrival of a character from this outlawed theology—Satan: ‘He looked slightly over forty. Crooked sort of mouth. Clean-shaven. Dark hair. Right eye black, left eye for some reason green. Eyebrows black, but one higher than the other. In short—a foreigner.’

When the man—who describes himself as a professor of black magic and tells them he was with Pontius Pilate during his interrogation of Jesus—predicts an improbable event that rapidly comes to pass, Bezdomny is terrified and tries to warn the people of Moscow and his fellow writers that a mad professor and foreign spy is on the loose and will wreak havoc unless he is caught. For his efforts, Bezdomny is bound in tea towels and carted off to a psychiatric clinic. Here he’s visited by a dark-haired man with restless eyes from the neighbouring room who calls himself ‘a master’, and the two men discover they’ve been locked up because of Pontius Pilate. The Master then tells his extraordinary tale about falling in love with a beautiful woman who urges him to finish his novel about Pilate, which she believes is the work of a master. He does, but ‘When I emerged into the world clutching my novel, my life came to an end.’

With brilliant dexterity, Bulgakov weaves together the three strands of his story: the tale of the Master and his lover, Margarita; the story of Pontius Pilate and his failure to act courageously (a story written by the Master, narrated by Satan, read by Margarita, dreamt by Bezdomny); and the surreal nightmare of the satanic invasion of Moscow. In the last of these strands, greedy, petty officials are transported or imprisoned on a whim, their apartments invaded, their lives destroyed, as the terror wreaked by Stalin’s regime is turned on the instruments of state (including one of Moscow’s literary clubs at whose hands Bulgakov suffered). Bulgakov writes with dazzling, knife-sharp precision and wild originality, with a violence that lurks even in the love scenes. When the Master and Margarita meet, ‘Love leaped up out at us like a murderer jumping out of a dark alley. It shocked us both—the shock of a stroke of lightning, the shock of a flick-knife.’

Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov was born in 1891 in Kiev, Ukraine, in the Russian Empire, into a theological family (his father was a theology professor at the Kiev Theological Academy). He studied medicine at Kiev University and following his graduation in 1916 joined the White Army as a doctor, but in 1920 gave up medicine to work as a journalist. The following year, aged 30, Bulgakov moved to Moscow to devote himself to literature. He worked as a freelance journalist, writing comic pieces for newspapers and journals, but found little success with his novels in an increasingly repressive Soviet regime, of which his work was sharply critical. His first novel, The Heart of a Dog, was not published in his own country until 1987. His novel about the Civil War, The White Guard, was published in serial form in 1924 but the last instalment never appeared because the journal was closed down for failing to toe the Communist Party line. Bulgakov briefly became a successful playwright, but in 1929 his plays were banned. Even his adaptation for the stage of The White Guard, which was reputedly among Stalin’s favourite plays, was eventually banned.

Forced into isolation and poverty, Bulgakov was so frustrated by the impossibility of getting his work published in the Soviet Union that he wrote to Stalin requesting permission to emigrate (his brothers had emigrated to Paris). In response, Stalin personally telephoned him to offer him a post as literary consultant at the Moscow Arts Theatre, which he accepted. At this time he met Elena Shilovskaia, and they were married in 1932 (she was his third wife; he was her second husband). He started work on The Master and Margarita and it is said that the beautiful intrepid Margarita was modelled on Elena. Eight years later, Bulgakov died in despair, leaving his great unpublished indictment of his times and fervent call for love and compassion, not power, to shape human lives—The Master and Margarita. As Yeshua (Jesus) tells Pilate:

‘Among other things,’ continued the prisoner, ‘I said that all power is a form of violence exercised over people and that the time will come when there will be no rule by Caesar nor any other form of rule.’

In 2005 the first Russian film version of The Master and Margarita was made, to be screened as a 10-part television series. Directed by Vladimir Bortko, the film had to be made secretly in the Crimea because Bulgakov’s story now risks offending an entirely different section of Russian society: the Church. As Father Mikhail Dudko (head of the Secretariat for Church and Society) told the Guardian: ‘We Christians know four gospels, and in Bulgakov’s book we see a kind of fifth: a gospel narrated by Satan, [who is called] Woland in the book. And the interpretation is in Satan’s favour. Our reaction to such an interpretation can be nothing but negative.’ Nevertheless, The Master and Margarita is Russia’s favourite book.

Mikhail and Elena

Mikhail and Elena

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