Memorable Non-Fiction of 2015

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The Poems of T.S. Eliot: The Annotated Text. Volumes 1 & 2, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (Faber & Faber)

51XoshEXVEL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are linked in strange and unlikely ways. They were both anti-semitic (and Eliot was a racist to boot) but this does not prohibit or prevent the appreciation and enjoyment of their poetry except when, as in Eliot’s King Bolo pieces, the bigotry is put into words. Céline is still worth reading, Wagner worth listening to and it’s not difficult to find other examples of artists with objectionable right-wing convictions–after all, who objects to reading Yeats?

The more interesting connection between Eliot and Pound is the way one of this pair of American poets helped the other; for just as Pound was of enormous importance to the young Joyce he also decisively influenced Eliot in the writing of ‘The Waste Land’ – published in 1922, the same year as Ulysses – and that astonishing poem would not exist in the form it does were it not for Pound’s editing of the work. Until the publication of the first volume of this two-set edition the only way to see clearly what Pound achieved was by way of a facsimile and transcript of the original drafts (Faber & Faber, 1986), showing how Pound worked on the text, but now Faber & Faber have gone one better thanks to the annotations provided here by Ricks and McCue. Quantitively, Eliot’s poetic output is not great but with just ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, ‘The Waste Land’, ‘Four Quartets’ and a handful of other pieces his place in English literature is assured and this is reflected in the fact that the first volume has 346 pages of poems and 965 pages devoted to commenting and annotating them. This, of course, includes a detailed presentation of Pound’s work on ‘The Waste Land’.

It’s always risky to speak of a definitive edition but in this case it is difficult to imagine, unless new work by Eliot comes to light, how the present two volumes could be replaced by something better.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury)

silk_roadsThis book lives up to its claim to be a new history of the world because of its geopolitical paradigm shift. We like to think that the cultural centre of gravity is and always has been Europe – the USA, after all, owes its identity to millions of European migrants – but Peter Frankopan knows otherwise. He is a Herodotus of the twenty first century, charting the history of an east-west clash, the Orient versus the Occident, and like Herodotus he explores a cultural cartography with a sense of wonder and through a series of anecdotes and digressions. The possibility that the Indian Mahabarata influenced Homer is not as preposterous as it sounds for, after all, a mid-sixth-century silver ewer in the grave of a nobleman in China depicts the Trojan War. Frankopan’s subject is a networked world stretching across Central Asia from China to Asia Minor. Traversed in centuries past by merchants in caravans carrying not just silks, spices, slaves but ideas – the legacy of ancient Greece to our civilization owes not a little to the Byzantines and Arabs of medieval times – and in modern times by armies like Hitler’s, driven to acquire wheat and oil in the east. The Silk Roads is a fascinating read, written with flair and the result of serious scholarship.

The Little Review Ulysses, James Joyce (Yale University Press)

Joyce cover mech.inddAnyone with more than a passing interest in Joyce will want a copy of this book on their shelves and it seems surprising that it has taken so long to produce a copy of the installments of Ulysses as they first appeared in the Little Review magazine. The first readers bought Little Review, edited in New York City, because they were interested in experimental writers and most would have known nothing about the Irish author whose novel began appearing in episodes, or sections of episodes, sandwiched between the work of other avant-garde writers. Yale’s Ulysses reproduces the contents page of each edition that brought Joyce’s masterpiece to light, beginning with the one of  March 1918 that also lists writings by Wyndham Lewis, Jessie Dismorr, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford) and Arthur Symonds. These Contents pages end with the July-August edition of 1920 and readers never saw the last four episodes of the book, partly because the editors were prosecuted early in 1921 and partly because the novel’s book publication was planned to appear in the autumn of 1921 by Shakespeare and Company in Paris. The Little Review’s Ulysses preserves the original typos and printing errors and, of course, it is not the finished version that finally saw publication in 1922. As readers were dipping in to the magazine’s instalments, the author was busily revising, lengthening and complicating what they were reading. The editors – Mark Gaipa, Sean Latham and Robert Scholes – add an essay foregrounding important differences between the text in instalments and the book edition. They also discuss issues of the Little Review in which Joyce’s episodes appeared before concluding with various documents from the Little Review that have some relevance to Joyce’s novel.

Ezra Pound: Poet Volume III The Tragic Years 1939-1972, A. David Moody (Oxford University Press)

ezra_poundEzra Pound, a rafter holding up the building that housed modernist literature, was crucially important in bringing the work of James Joyce to attention, helping the unknown writer while he himself was living far more frugally than the man he so presciently admired. As an editor of Little Review he could publish Joyce but he was also prepared to sell two autograph letters of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to pay for an oculist to help with the writer’s eye problem. The enthusiastic young Yank was also of immense importance in promoting T.S. Eliot when the young American poet was a complete unknown.

In 1918, he was able to write how ‘international capital might not very well focus the force of the world’s arms upon any section of the planet which too daringly attempted to interfere with, tax, or restrict the action of Capital’. He sincerely believed poetry could enlighten the common mind but his own blind spots were egregious. In Paris in 1911 he thought nothing of the paintings by Cezanne he saw and later in London he was unmoved by proletarian discontent and a railway strike. His mind was on higher matters even when his feet were on the ground, tramping for over 20 miles a day in southern France in the land of the troubadour poets he so loved. One day he worked himself into a rage because his reveries were interrupted by a flesh-and-blood bohemian, a gypsy, asking if he’d seen a troupe of singers. Pound needed a better balance between past and present, poetry and plodding reality, but his exuberant personality never found it.

All this is recounted in the first volume of Moody’s biography (A Young Genius 1885-1920) and the second volume (The Epic Years 1921-1939) continues the story, sticking to a methodology whereby ‘Nearly everything that matters here has behind it some document—I have refrained from speculation and I have ignored hearsay’. Admirable in many ways, it leaves us wanting speculation (gossip would do) about the sex in Ezra and Dorothy’s peculiar marriage. A child is born to Dorothy, but not by Ezra, while he is father to a child with another woman, Olga Rudge.

The third volume is a magnificent conclusion to a magisterial biography and it’s hard to imagine a better researched account of Pound’s life and work emerging for generations to come. What makes all three books so excellent is Moody’s background as a teacher of English, enabling him to write knowledgeably and appreciatively about Pound’s poetry in a way that most if not all  historians could never manage. The chapter on the Pisan Cantos poems astonishingly composed under Guantanamo-like conditions — is sound literary criticism not biography, just as the rest of the Cantos were discussed in volume one and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and other early poetry in the first volume. The angry heart of this third volume is the section entitled American Justice, arguing convincingly that Pound’s lawyer was to blame for the 12-year incarceration of Pound in an asylum when the man was clearly not insane, stitched up by phoney psychiatric reports. Pound was clearly anti-Semitic but this was not a crime and a far from uncommon aspect of WASP mentality; Moody argues that his broadcasts from Italy on behalf of Mussolini were stupid but not the act of a traitor.

Voices on Joyce, edited by Anne Fogarty and Fran O’Rourke (University College Dublin Press)

voices_on_joyceThe Joyce industry is a microcosm of capitalism in its relentless, competitive search for new markets – new readings and interpretations — creating needs where there were none because they weren’t necessary in the first place or cashing in on existing markets (like continental theory) by offering the same product in different packaging. The result, like Shelly Brivic’s Joyce through Lacan and  Žižek (2008), can be indigestible spiel, theory feeding off of theory, that can only turn new readers away from Joyce. A blessed relief, then, to come across a collection of essays that does the opposite by starting with a section of five essays looking at different points on Joyce’s temporal compass. The opening piece by Cormac Ó Gráda examines the Jewish, mostly Lithuanian community in the Dublin of 1904 and shows how Joyce didn’t really know that much about it, making his choice of background for Leopold Bloom all the more intriguing. Another one, by a Justice of the Supreme Court of Ireland, looks at three cases of unnatural death in Ulysses. There are three other sections to the book – Dublin and Joyce, Joycean Intertexts, Contesting Joyce – and between them they cover enough topics for everyone to find something of interest. The book is supremely well illustrated with photographs of Dublin taken by Lee Miller in the 1940 and one of the shorter essays, by Terrence Killeen, sheds some light on this interesting American photographer.

Hirohito’s War, Francis Pike (Bloomsbury)

hirohitos_warIt is easy to point to weaknesses in this book, chiefly being its dependence on English language sources and an irritating habit of unnecessarily using italics, and there are odd imbalances like the meagre treatment of Richard Sorge, the most important spy of World War II, which doesn’t even mention his execution in Japan. At times the book falls prey to ‘just one fuckin’ thing after another’ school of history and there are archaic and insensitive comments (Roosevelt is an ‘armchair cripple ’and MacArthur’s first wife a ‘licentious divorcee’) but Pike’s achievement is a magnificent one. The scholarship and marshalling of secondary material is prodigious – over 1000 pages of print – and the attention given to China’s role in the war is long overdue. The country’s sufferings and fatalities dwarf those of the US and Britain and is only comparable with Russia’s. Pike is correct to emphasize the significance of China in starting the war: Japan wanted access to its material assets and so did the US. The American ultimatum to Japan for complete withdrawal of troops from China and Indochina was deemed necessary to protect and extend Western investments in Asia. The oil blockade by the US virtually forced Japan into war. Pike is excellent with set pieces like the Japanese conquest of Malaya and Singapore or the retreat from Burma and his narrative of the Battle of Midway, with Japan losing four of its six fleet carriers in a single morning due to bad luck and US intelligence knowing their plans, has never been better told. Some of the pen portraits are unbalanced. He does a commendable hatchet job on MacArthur but says too little about others like General Percival (and no mention of his equally illustrious background killing rebels in West Cork). Justice, though, is accorded Yamashita in Malaya, Kawaguchi in Dutch East Indies and Iida in Burma.

The numerous accompanying maps are all online, infuriating until you become accustomed and then realize it’s good to have a particular one on view for a particular section of the book.

The Man on the Mantlepiece, Janet Denny (Silverwood Books)

man_on_the_mantlepieceA book like this one is the necessary complement to one like Hirohito’s War, not because it deals with the European as opposed to the Asian theatre of war but because its micro scale brings home the felt reality of war for the individuals and their families who suffered during and after the conflict. Janet Denny lost her father in 1944, shot down after a bombing raid over Germany, when she was being brought into the world – his last letter home to her mother was written the day his wife’s contractions started – and he was always that man in the photograph on the mantelpiece in Janet’s home. Decades later, her mother remarries and moves out of the house and in the process Janet discovers her father’s journal. He was a young socialist and a pacifist but comes to the conclusion that he must do something to fight fascism and so he joins the armed forces.

Janet Denny seeks to find out why he changed his mind and what happened to him. She comes to discover who the German pilot was who shot him down and then finds out about the two young Englishmen who shot the German down. They themselves were later also killed in the war; like the grim curse on the house of Atreus in Aeschylus, death follows death in an unforgiving chain of retribution.

Slavoj Žižek and Dialectical Materialism, edited by Agon Hamza and Frank Ruda (Palgrave Macmillan)

szIt is taking time to come to terms with the evolution of Žižek’s thought and this collection of essays is one of the best attempts thus far. The first essay, by Adrian Johnston, goes straight to the heart of the matter by asking whether the seminal notion of a materialism without matter – there is a physical reality but it lacks the positivity and unity that we expect to be there; instead, there is an immanent negativity that finds expression in antagonisms and contradictions – is consistently adhered to within Žižek’s writings. Johnston finds lurking within the ontology that sees subject emerging from substance – quoting Žižek: ‘Man is … an anamorphic distortion of nature, a perturbance of the “natural” rhythm of generation and corruption’ – a throwback to thinking of nature as a Whole, at one with itself (despite the qualifying scare quote of ‘natural). Such a tension between completeness and its lack is inevitable, one aspect of the ‘absolute recoil’ that pits one thing against itself, every impediment being not an external obstacle but an internal conflict that is always there. One illustration of this, bringing such highfalutin philosophy down to earth, is the way of understanding why the aspirations of the Irish struggle against British rule before 1921 turned into the unjust and repressive state that emerged with independence. The ideal was not abused, exploited or corrupted: the possibility for the kind of state that did emerge was always there, written into its form, just as it was in Russia after 1917.

The essays in this collection are wide-ranging, from Todd McGowan showing how Žižek reads Hegel to Ed Pluth on the difficulties of aligning Lacanian theory with Hegel and Žižek. Pluth’s ‘solution’ is to equate Lacan’s Real with Žižek’s pre-ontological void, supported by Badiou and his talk of ‘organized multiples’ (hence the importance of set theory for Badiou: ‘it supplies the) – one supersized instance being history.

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One Response

  1. Gabriel Brenner

    January 4, 2016 9:34 pm

    I am glad to see a reviewer say in a leftwing online magazine that one can appreciate the poetic brilliance of Eliot and Pound regardless of their political and ethnic views. Pound in the Cantos openly admires the leadership of Mussolini, and is obsessive about the rate of interest and implies that Jewish bankers are the main cause of injurious banking policies that led to recession. Many of his Cantos are fascist and anti-Jewish in theme; whereas two or three references to Jews in the poems of Eliot are en passant and not main themes. Some literary critics have defended Eliot by saying that a couple of references to Jews are uttered by literary ‘voices’ in individual works and need not be taken as the personal views of the poet. Whatever the case, Eliot’s Waste Land could not have succeeded without the careful editing done by Pound. Pound’s early poems influenced by the French troubadour tradition and the imagist movement show the writing skills of a major poet, as do Hugh Selwin Mauberly and Ode Pour l’Election de son Sepulchre. Pound was a key talent spotter who encouraged young poets and novelists. His place in 20th century literature is assured. On the music of Wagner – so blatantly admired by Nazis – it is good to learn that his masterful pieces or orchestration can now be performed in Israel.
    We here in Ireland have long ago sidelined W B Yeats’s daft cocktails of ideological views including fairyland, Madam Blavatsky hocus pocus and fascist ‘heroism’ and have concentrated instead on the beauty of his lyrics and the subtlety of his symbolism – things more enduring than his ‘notions’.
    The other side of the literary coin is works of art and literature that portray ‘engagement’ with regard to social wrongs. Goya and Picasso in visual art; Hemingway,
    steinbeck, Auden and Spender in literature are a few names that come to mind. (Goya lived more than a century before Picasso, but was a vital influence.) Our liking for art and literature can be motivated by the skills of the artists and the universality of their themes. Our judgement of art and literature can be partly guided by their ability to inspire human empathy, regardless of the personal political sympathies of their creators. Charles Dickens was not a socialist, as Orwell’s long essay makes clear, but his sympathy for the underdogs of Victorian society are clear, and his ability to use caricature and humour to win over middle class and working class readers ensured that Dickensian social insights influenced Liberal, Conservative and Labour government policies long after his death.