Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category
Madeleines are very small sponge cakes with a distinctive shell-like shape acquired from being baked in pans with shell-shaped depressions. Aside from the traditional scalloped pan, commonly found in stores specializing in kitchen equipment and even hardware stores, no special tools are required to make madeleines. They are perhaps most famous outside France for their association with involuntary memory in the Marcel Proust novel “In Search of Lost Time,” in which the narrator experiences an awakening upon tasting a madeleine dipped in tea:
“She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been molded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…”
— “Remembrance of Things Past,” Volume 1: “Swann’s Way.”
There are several different versions regarding the history of the madeleine. In one version, ‘Madeleine’ was a young servant girl who had been requested to create a special treat for Stanislas Leczinski, the deposed king of Poland who had sought refuge in France in the 17th century. Thus, the Madeleine was invented for the purpose of soothing the spirits of the poor unwanted king. In another version, a different Madeleine created the special cakes in the shape of a scallop to feed to pilgrims making their way to Saint Jacques’ burial site. The scallop shell was a sign of protection which has long been associated with Saint Jacques in France, and indeed scallops are called coquilles Saint Jacques.
In any case, whoever first made the scalloped shaped madeleines had a very good idea, for their popularity has only increased over the centuries. At first they were made on a small scale, but with the industrial revolution underway, the road was paved for more large scale production.
What Do You Think? »
The “Late Style” of Henry James is famously complex; the serpentine sentences in his narration approximate the stream of consciousness, a psychological concept coined by his brother, the philosopher William James. Critical reaction to James’s later masterpieces is generally adulatory, but his high Modernist style has also served as the occasion for some good-natured literary ribbing. In an anecdote from her autobiography, A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton fondly highlights the element of the ridiculous that sometimes arises from James’s tangled, over-intricate way of thinking:
We must have been driven by a strange chauffeur—perhaps Cook was on holiday; at any rate, having fallen into the lazy habit of trusting him to know the way, I found myself at a loss to direct his substitute to the King’s Road. While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness, James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. “Wait a moment, my dear—I’ll ask him where we are”; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.
“My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer—so,” and as the old man came up: “My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.”
I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: “In short” (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), “in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right) where are we now in relation to…”
“Oh, please,” I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, “do ask him where the King’s Road is.”
“Ah—? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?”
“Ye’re in it,” said the aged face at the window.
What Do You Think? »
Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event held by the American Library Association (ALA) in an effort to draw attention to the importance of the First Amendment. Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week draws attention to the harms of censorship by listing all actual and attempted efforts to remove “controversial” books from the shelves of libraries, schools and universities. A perennial target is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which chronicles three days in the life of the protagonist and antihero Holden Caulfield, following his exodus of a boarding school he was attending. Originally published for adults, forward-thinking high school English teachers began assigning the book to their students because of its perceptive and sensitive treatment of teenage confusion, angst, sexuality, alienation, and rebellion.
The book immediately aroused strong objections within certain communities across the country when it began to be widely taught to high school students in the early 1960s. The grievances against the book are many and varied, and generally begin with objections about its vulgar language, citing the novel’s heavy use of words like “fuck” and “goddamn”. Other grievances include complaints about its sexual content, anti-religious overtones and undermining of family values. Many also complain that Holden is a bad role model, and that the book encourages rebellion, drinking, smoking, lying, and promiscuity. Damningly, many of the novel’s most vocal critics proudly bragged that they had never even read the book!
Of course all of the controversy couldn’t have been better publicity, and Holden Caulfield remains an enduring icon of teenage rebellion half a century after its publication.
What Do You Think? »
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5.
When The Modern Library released its definitive list of the “100 Best” novels of the 20th century published in the English language, William Faulkner’s fourth novel, The Sound and the Fury was ranked an impressive #6. (For the curious, Faulkner’s masterpiece was only preceded by Aldous Huxley’s, Brave New World (#5); Vladimir Nabokov’s, Lolita (#4); James Joyce’s, A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man (#3); F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby (#2) and James Joyce’s, Ulysses (#1)).
Despite its vaunted place in the literary pantheon, the groundbreaking novel was initially met with lukewarm sales when it was published in 1929. However, after the publication of Faulkner’s fifth novel, Sanctuary— a sensationalist story which Faulkner later claimed was written only for money — The Sound and the Fury also began to sell briskly, and the long-ignored literary great finally began to receive critical accolades.
The Sound and the Fury is the story of the fall of the Compson family, a bourgeois Jackson, Mississippi family in the early 1900′s. The novel is told in four chapters by four different narrators: Benjy, the youngest Compson son; Quentin, the oldest son; Jason, the middle son; and Faulkner himself, acting as an omniscient, third-person narrator who focuses on Dilsey, the Compsons’ servant. Faulkner employs the use of many narrative styles, including “stream of consciousness” a narrative style that was developed by a group of talented European novelists in the early part of the 20th century, including such luminaries as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
These authors were interested in exploring new ways of conveying the inner lives of their characters. This style aims to create the impression that the reader is eavesdropping on the flow of thoughts in the character’s mind, by closely mirroring the unfiltered and disjointed way that people actually think. Faulkner took the title of the novel from the above passage in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as the novel focuses on the decline and death of a traditional upper-class Southern family, “the way to dusty death”.
What Do You Think? »
On March 28, 1941, English novelist, essayist, diarist, epistler, publisher and pioneering feminist Virginia Woolf donned her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones and then walked into the River Ouse, near her home in Sussex, and committed suicide by drowning herself. Her body was not found until weeks later, and her husband buried her cremated remains under an elm tree in the garden of the home that they had shared together. She had left two similar suicide notes, one possibly written a few days earlier before an unsuccessful attempt. The one addressed to her husband Leonard read in part;
“I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”
Ever since her tragic suicide, literary sleuths have wondered why one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the 20th century decided to take her own life. Woolf had been plagued by periodic mood swings and intermittent bouts of depression since the sudden death of her mother when she was only 13 years old. When her beloved half-sister Stella passed away only two years later, Woolf suffered her first of several nervous breakdowns, the most severe of which occurred after the death of her father in 1904, which was so severe that she had to be briefly institutionalized. It has also been suggested that her mental illness was also influenced by the sexual abuse she and Vanessa were subjected to by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth (which Woolf recalls in her autobiographical essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate). Other biographers have suggested that her wild mood swings were the result of untreated bipolar disorder. Despite the fact that Woolf’s mental illness took its toll on her social life, her literary output remained relatively constant until her suicide.
Regardless of what factor finally drove Woolf to take her own life, her prolific output of diaries, letters, critical reviews, essays, short stories, and novels have continued to be the source of much contemporary scholarly study. Her most famous works include the classic novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), and the book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), with its famous dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
What Do You Think? »
“This land here cost twenty lives a foot that summer…See that little stream–we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk it–a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night (1933).
Craving a bohemian lifestyle and disillusioned with American materialism, a number of prominent intellectuals, poets, artists and writers flocked to Paris in the years following World War I. Prominent members of this elite clique included such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Waldo Peirce, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Erich Maria Remarque and Cole Porter. Author and poet Gertrude Stein coined this group of angsty artists “The Lost Generation,” after she supposedly heard her French garage owner speak of his young auto mechanics, and their poor repair skills, as “une génération perdue.”
Ernest Hemingway subsequently popularized in the epigraph to his novel The Sun Also Rises and his memoir A Moveable Feast. In the latter he explained “I tried to balance Miss Stein’s quotation from the garage owner with one from Ecclesiastes.” (A few lines later, recalling the risks and losses of the war, he adds: “I thought of Miss Stein and Sherwood Anderson and egotism and mental laziness versus discipline and I thought ‘who is calling who a lost generation?’”). In France, these expatriates came to be called the “Génération au Feu” or “The Generation in Flames”.
Full of youthful idealism and their fair share of angst, these individuals sought “the meaning of life”, drank excessively, had torrid love affairs and created a body of some of the finest works in American letters. Despite the fact that these writers and artists had abandoned their homeland in favor of chic Paris, their works profoundly changed the face of American Literature. Up until this point, most American writers still wrote in the creaky Victorian styles of the 19th Century. “The Lost Generation” explicitly renounced this outmoded style and introduced Modernist art and literature to the World, which was radically individualistic and expressed a general mistrust of institutions (government, religion) and the disbelief in ‘absolute’ truths.
Most impressively, they managed to accomplish this feat while perpetually under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol and engaging in all forms of debauchery and operatic interpersonal drama. Did these people ever sleep? I am exhausted just writing about them……
1 Comment »
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
-Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias.”
Shelley allegedly wrote “Ozymandias” as the result of a light-hearted competition with his close friend and fellow poet Horace Smith. Both poets settled on the subject, story and moral point in advance. Smith’s “Ozymandias” was published a month after Shelly’s version of the poem (in the same magazine to boot). It was originally published under the same title as Shelley’s verse; but in later collections Smith retitled it, “On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.” This was a wise decision on Smith’s part, in light of the fact that his poem was vastly inferior his brilliant friend’s version.
Shelley deeply admired and cared for Smith, and once remarked of him that: “Is it not odd that the only truly generous person I ever knew who had money enough to be generous with should be a stockbroker? He writes poetry and pastoral dramas and yet knows how to make money, and does make it, and is still generous.” Sadly for Smith, his talents weren’t quite as prodigious as his brilliant friend (it’s a good thing he never quit his day job); alas, he didn’t stand a chance in hell in a poetry slam with the legendary talent of Shelley against him. Check out Smith’s mediocre “Ozymandias” below:
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.” The City’s gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
What Do You Think? »