Reading WH Auden’s Prose

“Throughout life our existence is profoundly influenced by names, names of persons we meet and love, names of characters, whether in history or fiction, who embody for us what we mean by goodness, justice, courage, names of artists and scientists who have helped us form our conception of life and the world. Indeed one might say, ‘Give me a list of the names in your life and I will tell you who you are.’ ”

It so happens that, when I was a schoolboy, the first poets that made up the role-call of my adolescence were Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. It now seems odd that I was attracted to such a heterogeneous collection of poets, but their work surely helped shape my  early conception of life.

Youthful literary passions don’t always bear revisiting. It seems unlikely that I will return to Plath, Dickinson or Cummings though by objective standards they are good poets. They make up a litany of writers I once enjoyed that I haven’t found to sustain rereading.

Eliot and Auden, Tom and Wystan as I somewhat absurdly think of them having read many memoirs and accounts of their contemporaries, are, if not quite constants, writers I dip into annually to refresh my memory of a particular line or poem. Both poets peaked in one of those infrequent intervals when the British decided to almost cherish their intellectuals. They were recognised, frequently on the radio and television, difficult to imagine in these times when our culture is infantilised and debased in precisely the way Auden foretold; last bulwarks as both poets were against a seemingly endless surge of neatly packaged, crude content to be voraciously consumed and forgotten.

Reading Auden’s prose for the first time is to be startled by its originality and by the sharpness of his insights. Michael Wood reviewed a volume of the prose, part of a complete edition of Auden’s works by Princeton University Press, consequently I’m reading volume V and would be content to read little else for quite some time.

His prose inevitably returns you to his poetry. A quite brilliant essay, The Fall of Rome, is a companion piece for his poem of the same name. For any writer of Auden’s acuity, all the writing forms a single body of work. There was a time when all my reading was of poetry, to engage with a gifted poet’s work after a thirty year absence is to discover a lush exquisiteness that only experience and the transformative nature of time can bring about. It also reminds me with some urgency to make much more time for poetry, whether revisiting barely recalled chestnuts or exploring newer work.

Taste and Judgement

“Each of us must be loyal to his own taste, though always ready to enlarge it; for this very reason, we must rid ourselves of all prejudices, for a prejudice is always created by our social milieu without our conscious consent and frequently blinds is to what our real tastes are.”

“My taste tells me what, in fact, I enjoy reading; my judgement tells me what I must admire. There are always a number of poems that one must admire but that, by reasons of one’s temperament, one cannot enjoy. The converse is not necessarily true. I don’t think I like any poem that I do not also admire, but I have to remind myself that in some other fields–tear-jerking movies, for example–I revel in what my judgment tells me is trash.”

WH Auden, 19th Century British Minor Poets

Art can only nourish if it is not consumed . . .

“In an affluent society like the United States, his publisher’s poetry royalty statements make it only too clear to a poet that poetry is not popular with the reading public. To any person who works in this medium, this should be, I believe, cause for more pride than shame. The reading public has learned how to consume even the greatest fiction as if it were a can of soup. It has learned to misuse even the greatest music as background noise to study or conversation. Business executives can buy great paintings and hang them on their walls as status-trophies. Tourists can “do” the greatest architecture in an hour’s guided tour. But poetry, thank God, the public still find indigestible; it still must either be “read,” that is to say, entered into by a personal encounter, or it must be left alone. However pitiful a handful of readers, a poet at least knows this much about them: they have a personal relationship with his work. And this is more than any best-selling novelist dare claim.”

WH Auden, Tradition and Innovation in Contemporary Literature

Our ‘True’ Profile

“No man can draw his own “profile” correctly, as Thoreau said: “It is as hard to see oneself as to look backwards without turning round.” The truth is that our friends—and our enemies—always know us better than we know ourselves. There are, to be sure, a few corrective touches to their picture of us which only we can add, and these, as a rule, are concerned with our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses.
It is, for example, axiomatic, that we should all think of ourselves as being more sensitive than other people because, when we are insensitive in our dealings with others, we cannot be aware of it at the time: conscious insensitivity is a self-contradiction.
Secondly, we can hardly avoid thinking that the majority of persons we meet have stronger characters than we. We cannot observe others making choices; we only know what, in fact, they do, and how, in fact, they behave. Provided their actions are not criminal, their behaviour not patently vicious, and their performance of their job in life reasonably efficient, they will strike us as strong characters. But nobody can honestly think of himself as a strong character because, however successful he may be in overcoming them, he is necessarily aware of the doubts and temptations that accompany every important choice.”

From WH Auden’s translator’s note to Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings, translated from the Swedish by Leif Sjöberg and WH Auden (1964)

JM Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country

Gerhard Richter: Girl’s Head (1965)

In the last stanza of Auden’s well known September 1, 1939 the speaker declares that he is composed “of Eros and of dust”. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country is suffused with the same Eros and dust. The story is narrated by Magda, “farmyard spinster, wrapped in the embrace of [her] furies”. The furies that pursue Magda are primal, sexual desire and a drive toward negation.

Magda reflects, “I have not lived, the joy and willingness of an unused body now dusty, dry, unsavoury.” It is the same pervasive dust that encrusts the house in the desert, her father after a day’s work, the servants as they return from a journey. In a dusty abandoned schoolhouse, she speculates whether beneath an old school bench she might find her father’s initials “beneath the dust [..] hacked into the wood with a penknife”. In despair, she wonders of her father, “Must I carve out my beseechings with a knife on your flesh? Do you think you can die before you have said Yes to me?”

Narrated through Magda’s internal monologue, a ‘spinster’s flights of imagination,’ all is interiority and any distinction between imagination and reality have been effaced. There is no certainty whether the acts of rape, assault and murder occur or are Magda’s psychological projections. At one point, Hendrik, a servant is told to batter down the “one door that, as far back in time as I can remember, has always stood locked. “What do you keep in the locked room? I used to ask my father. There is nothing in it, he used to reply”. As the dust in the room clears Magda, dull, pallid “jagged virgin” observes “The bed is neatly made up. I pat it and dust rises from the grey pillows, the grey sheets. Everywhere are cobwebs. They have made a room without a window, I say to Hendrik”. The same servant, later, ostensibly, beats and rapes Magda.

There is not a misplaced sentence in this risky novel, which could have failed in so many ways. It is arguably flawless and immensely powerful.

The Problem with History

History professor Joanna Bourke invokes Auden’s poem, Musée des Beaux Arts (1938), in a well expressed review of two history books by Peter Englund and Max Hastings. With few exceptions (for example, Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme) I dislike reading historical accounts of wars, and history in general. The genre’s presentation as non-fiction, all the while oozing fiction makes me queasy.

Bourke quotes Auden’s words,

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a
window or just walking along.

Reading this poem years ago perfectly captured my difficulty with reading histories (and poems) about the horrors of war. Bourke goes on to say,

This is what disturbed Auden about the response of writers to the atrocity at Lidice: the flood of poems actually served to draw attention away from the people of Lidice and towards the swollen sensibilities of the poets and their readers. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion, he concluded, that “what was really bothering the versifiers was a feeling of guilt at not feeling horrorstruck enough”.

In concluding her review, Bourke correctly adds that both Englund and Hastings serve as war correspondents, and that,”it is noticeable that elaborate recitations on the horrors of war do not necessarily translate into a politics of non-violence”.

Kafka: A Bibliography of Criticism (updated 24 Aug 2011)

Type “Kafka” into Google and you can choose from more than 14,000,000 English language sites-twice as many as for James Joyce. In Kafka: The Decisive Years Reiner Stach writes of ‘ well worn “complete interpretations” from the 1950s and 1960s, handbooks and tomes that explicate specific passages, essay collections, dreadfully hefty but nonetheless outdated bibliographies, and finally an immense array of academic monographs on the structure of fragment x, the influence of author y, or the concept of z “in Kafka.” As a reader of many of these volumes I agree with Stach’s conclusion of their value:

Disillusionment soon follows. Most of this material consists of unsupported speculation or academic verbiage. No Theory is too far-fetched to have been advocated somewhere by someone; there is no methodological approach that has not been used to interpret Kafka’s work. Some monographs resemble autistic games; it is impossible to imagine a reader who might reasonably benefit from them.

Although it is possible to revel in Kafka’s artistry without reading a single word of criticism, it is natural after reading the short stories and the three incomplete novels to dip into the diaries and letters. From there a curious mind is drawn to biography and interpretation. Disillusion swiftly follows.

I could use some help to compile a short list of essential Kafka criticism. What are the genuinely enlightening essays or books? After suggestions from Steve Mitchelmore and Flowerville I have updated the bibliography:

  1. Kafka: The Decisive Years – Reiner Stach
  2. The I Without a Self (The Dyer’s Hand) – W. H. Auden
  3. Lambent Traces: Kafka – Stanley Corngold
  4. A Bird Was In The Room (Writing and the Body) – Gabriel Josipovici
  5. Kafka’s Children (Singer on the Shore) – Gabriel Josipovici
  6. Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice – Elias Canetti
  7. The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta (Testaments Betrayed) – Milan Kundera
  8. Reading Kafka and Kafka & Literature (The Work of Fire) – Maurice Blanchot
  9. Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form – Stanley Corngold
  10. Kafka: An Art for the Wilderness (The Lessons of Modernism) – Gabriel Josipovici
  11. Notes on Kafka (Prisms) – Adorno
  12. K. – Roberto Calasso
  13. Conversations With Kafka – Gustav Janouch
  14. Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays – Ronald Gray, ed.
  15. The Metamorphosis (Lectures on Literature) – Vladimir Nabokov
  16. Kafka, Rilke and Rumpelstiltskin (Speak, Silence) – Idris Parry
  17. Kafka and the Work’s Demand  (The Space of Literature) – Maurice Blanchot
Excluded from this list because I consider them inferior are Brod’s biography (interesting but unreliable), Pietro Citati’s hagiography and Deleuze and Guattari’s showiness.
[21 Aug: Added a second Blanchot, Gray, Parry and Nabokov; deleted Pawel’s biography due to speculation and inaccuracies. 24 Aug: Removed Benjamin’s two Kafka essays (Illuminations)]

The Hazards of Kafka

Browsing my bookshelves for something to read to fill half an hour – before being collected for the cinema – I am drawn back to Auden’s essays in The Dyer’s Hand. Today, it is to The I Without a Self that I turn, Auden on Kafka.

Kafka is one of two writers who have remained with me from my teenage years, read annually, the other being Eliot. The ‘meaning’ I extract from both has changed much over the passage of years. I am in sympathy with Auden’s reading.

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.

Just before this statement, Auden writes, “Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on whose whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful.”

Sylvia Plath is the other writer about whom one could make the same statement. Any others come to mind?

Dyer on Academic Lit Crit

In Anglo-English Attitudes Geoff Dyer writes of his repulsion for academic literary criticism, particularly of Theory and its advocates. Terry Eagleton is singled out as an odious example. It is harsh, but I agree with the distrust of literary critics that are incapable of producing art of their own.

Dyer argues that:

If you want to see how literature lives then you turn to writers, and see what they’ve said about each other, either in essays, reviews, in letters or journals – and in the works themselves. ‘The best readings of art are art,’ said George Steiner (an academic!); the great books add up to a tacit ‘syllabus of enacted criticism.’ This becomes explicit when poets write a poem about some great work of art – Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ – or about another poet: Auden’s elegy for Yeats, Brodsky’s elegy for Auden, Heaney’s elegy for Brodsky (the cleverly titled ‘Audenesque’). In such instances the distinction between imaginative and critical writing disappears.