Friday, November 30, 2018

The 100 best novels / No 34 / Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)

The 100 best novels: No 34 – Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)

In Kipling's classic boy's own spy story, an orphan in British India must make a choice between east and west 

Robert McCrum
Monday 12 May 2014

Kim, Kipling's extraordinarily topical masterpiece, has one of the most brilliant openings in this series: "He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Ghar – the Wonder Horse, as the natives call the Lahore museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that 'fire-breathing dragon', hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot."
"He" is Kimball O'Hara ("Kim"), an imperial orphan scavenging a hand-to-mouth existence in the India of the British Raj at the end of the 19th century. The "Great Game" (Anglo-Russian rivalry in central Asia, including the territory now known as AfPak), is afoot, with memories of the second Anglo-Afghan war (1878-81) still vivid. Some passages of the novel, indeed, could almost have been written last year. Kipling's Kim is so untamed and sunburned that very few see him as white, or even know that his father was a sergeant in the Mavericks and that his mother was a poor Irish girl carried off by cholera. So Kim represents the meeting of east and west, one of Kipling's obsessions, whose ethnic duality will be exploited in the covert war between Britain and Russia that provides the backdrop to this novel.
Kim, therefore, engages the reader at three contrasting levels. It fictionalises Kipling's own Indian childhood (his father, John Lockwood Kipling, was actually the curator of the Lahore museum, already described). Second, it tells an adventure story of the kind that became especially popular in the heyday of the British Empire (see also the popular works of GA Henty, not selected for this series). Finally, and most importantly, it unfolds a boy's own story in which, through the trials of the Great Game, Kim will be given greater insight into his divided east-west inheritance. The key to this strand of the novel, which shadows a thrillerish spy story, is Kim's friendship with an ancient Tibetan lama who is on a quest to find the sacred and fabled "River of the Arrow". Kim becomes his guru's "chela" or disciple, and joins him on his journey while at the same time pursuing a public-school education sponsored by the lama. In the end, Kim must make his choice. "I am not a Sahib," he tells his guru, "I am thy chela." He might play "King of the Castle" on a great British cannon, but he knows where his loyalties lie.

A Note on the Text

Coming at the very end of Queen Victoria's reign, Kim marks the last gasp of a publishing tradition that was on the point of extinction. It appeared first in serial form in McClure's Magazine from December 1900 to October 1901, and also – because Kipling was so hugely popular and famous – in Cassell's Magazine from January to November 1901. Then it was published in single volume form by Macmillan & Co, with illustrations by HR Millar. Kim regularly appears on lists of classic fiction: in 1998, appearing as No 78 in the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century; in 2003 it featured in the BBC's Big Read poll.

Three more from Rudyard Kipling

007 Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
014 Fair by William Thackeray (1848)  

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The 100 best novels / No 33 / Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900)

The 100 best novels

No 33 

Sister Carry 

by Thedore Dreiser


Theodore Dreiser was no stylist, but there's a terrific momentum to his unflinching novel about a country girl's American dream 

Robert McCrum
Monday 5 May 2014

Sister Carrie is one of several novels in this series that address the American dream, and it does so in a radical spirit of naturalism that rejected the Victorian emphasis on morality. In some ways it's crude and heavy-handed, blazing with coarse indignation, but in its day it was, creatively speaking, a game-changer. Later, America's first Nobel laureate, Sinclair Lewis, said that Dreiser's powerful first novel "came to housebound and airless America like a great free Western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman".
I will be the first to concede that Dreiser does not now look anything like their equal. He is no stylist, and yet the raw power of his narrative trumps the sometimes excruciating clunk of his prose. Saul Bellow, for instance, advised readers to take Sister Carrie at a gallop. There's no question Dreiser paints an intensely detailed, compelling and closely observed portrait of urban America at the turn of the 20th century – a century in which the US would play such a decisive part.
The novel opens with Caroline – Sister Carrie – Meeber moving from the country to the city, taking the train to Chicago to realise her hopes for a better, more glamorous future. En route, she meets a travelling salesman, Charles Drouet, who soon releases her from the drudgery of machine-work in the heartless city by making her his mistress. This is the first in a succession of Carrie's fruitless attempts to find happiness. Henceforth, she becomes the victim of increasingly desperate relationships which, combined with a starstruck fascination with the stage, take her to New York and the life of a Broadway chorus girl. The novel ends with Carrie changing her name to Carrie Madenda and becoming a star just as her estranged husband, George Hurstwood, gasses himself in rented lodgings. The closing chapters of the book, in which Hurstwood is ruined and then disgraced, are among the most powerful pages in a novel of merciless momentum, whose unsentimental depiction of big-city life sets it apart. Contemporary readers were baffled, however, and Sister Carrie did not sell well.
"The critics have not really understood what I was trying to do," Dreiser said later. "Here is a book that is close to life. It is intended not as a piece of literary craftsmanship, but as a picture of conditions done as simply and effectively as the English language will permit … It makes one feel that American criticism is the joke which English literary authorities maintain it to be. When [the novel] gets to the people, they will understand, because it is a story of real life, of their lives."

A note on the text

Until the 1980s, the text of Sister Carrie was invariably based on the first Doubleday, Page edition of 1900 – a text that Dreiser himself amended only once, in 1907. But in 1981, the so-called "Pennsylvania edition" (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press) reverted to Dreiser's handwritten first draft, now held in the New York Public Library, and substituted his uncut holograph version as the scholarly text of the novel. This decision was challenged by a number of reviewers, introducing another level of controversy to a book whose publication history was dogged by trouble from the start. For this series, I have based my reading on the paperback Norton Critical edition (edited by Donald Pizer), which seems now to be accepted as the most reliable text – not least because it addresses in fascinating detail the furore surrounding the first printing of Sister Carrie, as well as illustrating the variations between Dreiser's first draft and the 1900 edition. This, for newcomers to Dreiser, is possibly the most interesting aspect of the novel's history, and runs (in summary) as follows:
Dreiser began Sister Carrie (occasionally titled "The Flesh and the Spirit" during its composition) at the suggestion of his friend Arthur Henry in 1899. Although he finished it on 29 March 1900, he was always dissatisfied with his work, and began to make revisions even as it was being submitted to New York publishers. At first, he offered it to Harper & Brothers (who "rejected it with a sharp slap"), and then to Doubleday, Page. This was a new imprint whose in-house reader, Frank Norris, was a published novelist whom Dreiser admired. Initially, it was Norris's enthusiasm that persuaded Doubleday to accept Sister Carrie. Then, possibly because Frank Doubleday's wife found the story repugnant and the text too sexually explicit, the firm turned it down. A row ensued in which Dreiser – who was always a combative character, at odds with the world – insisted on publication, standing on his legal rights, egged on by Arthur Henry. At one extraordinary moment, trying to get out of the contract, Frank Doubleday actually volunteered to offer the book to some of his rivals, including Macmillan and Lippincott. But Dreiser was adamant. He had a contract, and he would not be dissuaded.
Like any publisher bullied by one of their authors, Doubleday, Page did not launch Sister Carrie with much enthusiasm. It finally appeared on 8 November 1900 in an edition of 1,008 copies, of which 129 were sent out for review and 465 were actually sold. The balance of 423 copies was later turned over to a remainder house. Dreiser, mythologising his debut, subsequently claimed that Doubleday had effectively suppressed his first novel. The record shows, however, that it was well and widely reviewed, and appeared in Britain in 1901 from William Heinemann. In London, the Daily Express wrote of Sister Carrie: "It is a cruel, merciless story, intensely clever in its realism, and one that will remain impressed in the memory of the reader for many a long day." In America, the great critic HL Mencken referred to Dreiser as "a man of large originality, of profound feeling, and of unshakable courage".
Three more from Theodore Dreiser
Jennie Gerhardt (1911); Free and Other Stories (1918); An American Tragedy(1925).


007 Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
014 Fair by William Thackeray (1848)  

Friday, November 23, 2018

From high society to surrealism / In praise of Leonora Carrington – 100 years on

Carrington’s painting Chiki Ton Pays. 


From high society to surrealism: in praise of Leonora Carrington – 100 years on

With her paintings and tales based on dreams, animals and the occult, Carrington was an uncanny original. Marina Warner salutes the artist on her centenerary

Marina Warner
Thu 6 Apr 2017

n the mid-1980s, Leonora Carrington was living for a while in New York, in a small single room in a basement in the Gramercy Park area; she worked at a table between her bed and the kitchenette, clearing away the crucibles of tempera, brushes and palette to cook for herself and, sometimes, for guests who had tracked her down as I had. She had chosen to live below street level because that is where she felt safe, and she was very content with her modest setting. Among the many animals in her paintings and writings are badgers and raccoons and other builders of lairs and burrows; like them, she preferred to keep her feet firmly on solid ground, as if needing an anchorage while her mind spun off on its wild flights.

The surrealist artist of words and images was then in her 70s, small and thin, with very dark round eyes that still radiated the feral beauty of her youth, and a smoky voice filled with energy and humour. Here was a celebrated, indeed notorious figure; she could have been a monstre sacré. Yet she was exceptionally free from vanity and envy, from craving wealth or flattery or any other signs of worldly status (it’s significant, I think, that in one of those surrealist questionnaires that André Breton loved devising, Narcissus came last among her favourite myths).

Leonora Carrington at home in Mexico City in 2000

Every week or so she would go to her gallery and deliver one of her dream paintings in return for the small stipend they gave her, and then she would drop in on one of the Korean delis that had sprung up around that time and buy her dinner from the salad bar. We spent many days together wandering around the city: we once crossed Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum, where she wanted to look at the Egyptian collections; she was strongly attracted to wrapped and swaddled and swathed bodies, because they too made her feel held fast by reality. She was always tapping her powers of fantasy, by numerous techniques – including, especially, daydreaming on that threshold between sleep and waking where “hypnagogic visions” appear.
Carrington never bothered about her archive or her intellectual property, and her writings are more like a jazz musician’s basement tapes than a major creative writer’s archives. The Debutante and Other Stories, the first book from Silver Press, a new feminist publisher, is a major step in gathering her tales together for the first time – including the earliest ones from the 1930s and the material published in New York during the war, while many surrealists were in exile there, as well as later entertainments and fantasies she created, sometimes for performance, after she settled in Mexico.
At first she wrote in French – the language she shared with Max Ernst and with many of their friends when she was living in Paris and then in St-Martin-d’Ardèche in Provence before the war broke out in 1939. A few tales – among them the magnificent, terse detonations of “The House of Fear” and “The Debutante” – were published in tiny editions, but many more were scattered when the fall of France drove Carrington and Ernst, as well as many French nationals among the surrealists – Breton, Benjamin Péret, Marcel Duchamp – to flee. Some typescripts of stories she had forgotten about only surfaced among the papers of Jimmy Ernst, Max’s son, after his death in New York in 1984.
Asked about the relation between her writing and painting, Carrington offered an oblique clue: “I haven’t been able to reconcile image world and word world in my own mind. I know the Bible says sound came first – I’m not sure. Perhaps [they happened] simultaneously, but how did it all get solid?” In her tales, the image world and the word world do take on solid form. The story “As They Rode along the Edge” finds Carrington at her most witchy and comic: the heroine, Virginia Fur, lives in a forest and travels at the head of a procession of a hundred cats, “riding a wheel”. She has a huge mane and “long and enormous hands with dirty nails”, and “one couldn’t really be altogether sure that she was a human being. Her smell alone threw doubt on it – a mixture of spices and game, the stables, fur and grasses.

Carrington realigns, or turns upside down, the usual hierarchy of beings: humans emerge as only a single, lesser aspect of a polymorphously organic universe, and people in Carrington’s paintings gain in stature and, by implication, in wisdom the closer they come to the creaturely. While Circe cast Odysseus’s men under an evil spell when she turned them into beasts, Carrington, on the whole, considers animal transformation a blessing, a deliverance, a site of transcendence. In everybody, she said, there is “an inner bestiary”. She was “born loving animals”, and was taken out by her mother (a rare treat) to the local zoo in Blackpool to celebrate her first communion. In her own case, when she was young and a shape-shifter, her chosen avatar was the horse.

Born on 6 April 1917, Leonora had a childhood where the paddock on the one hand and the nursery on the other featured vividly as zones of thrill and transgression. The rituals and privileges of her background provided her with a heaped storehouse to raid. Her paintings, first shown by Breton in Paris in 1937, have titles that disclose how she was plundering what was marvellous from the banalities of a propertied family’s daily round: The Meal of Lord Candlestick and What Shall We Do Tomorrow, Aunt Amelia? reveal the interweaving of autobiography, invention, playfulness and mystery, the comic and the gruesome, also present in the stories she was beginning to write at the time, winning the admiration of Ernst and his circle.

She liked puncturing pomp and pretension of all sorts. A squib such as “The Three Hunters” satirises the pursuits of her class, most particularly her father and brothers, who were keen sportsmen; a story like “The Neutral Man” the stifling social round. But irony also streaks through her uses of Celtic enchantments, passed on by her Irish mother and nanny, which meshed with the surrealist web of erotic games, occult divination and perverse dream scenarios. Yet, throughout the fanciful, delinquent and transgressive scenes she imagines, Carrington sustains a dry inconsequent tone and well-bred, often naive English manners with a dash of faerie whimsy. Her magical egalitarianism means a cooking pot can do very well for an alchemist’s alembic, and the knitting of a jumper stand in for the weaving of the soul from “cosmic wool”.

A bronze sculpture by Carrington is unveiled in Mexico City in 2008.
 A bronze sculpture by Carrington is unveiled in Mexico City in 2008. Photograph: Alamy

Because she left England – for good, as it turned out – and has been published in French far more consistently than in English, Carrington has been identified with the surrealist movement abroad. So it’s easy to overlook her closeness to a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon tradition on the one hand and to Irish legends and lore on the other. The stance she adopts often reminds the reader of one of Hilaire Belloc’s wicked children, although she takes the delinquents’ side, not the admonishing grownups’. The stories of this early period also reflect the pleasure – even the intense pleasure – Carrington found in her changed surroundings. Her stories vibrate with warmth and colour, abundant and delicious herbs and foods, spectacular and unbridled self-expression; they show her revelling in wildness, in scents and textures – cinnamon and musk, in the release of passion and imagination, and the discovery of physical sensation. She also fantasticates about food, and her Catholicism surfaces in her lingering on the cannibalism at the heart of the eucharist. The necessary killing and trimming and dressing of animals for the table fascinate her: the passage from the kitchen to the table, from the pot to the dish, recurs as an obsessive motif. She denounces, with all a young woman’s vehemence, the waste and greed she perceives in her paternal home: The Meal of Lord Candlestick shows grotesque female orgiasts, in maiden-aunt society hats, impaling a baby and gorging on a fowl-cum-dragon flambé.

Food is powerful magic – it poisons, as in her comic masterpiece, the novel The Hearing Trumpetwritten in the early 60s and published in the 70s, but it also represents a female sphere, and its dangers can be redeemed by wise husbandry and care. Carrington always perceived a connection between traditional women’s work and art, and disliked grandiose male assertions of heroic status. “Painting is like making strawberry jam, really carefully and well,” she once told me. She valued what she called “dailiness”: the common cabbage is her rosa mystica. It appears in the 1975 portrait of her friend, the historian and religious thinker Anne Fremantle, as well as proudly on its own.

The era of new age spirituality makes it hard to find the right language to describe the journeys of the mind Carrington undertook, and her odd mingling of tone: she was serious about the inner dream worlds she explored but punctured them with black comedy. The commercialised hokum of US west coast mysticism since the 1960s – the crystals and amulets and synthetic quoting from the world’s adepts – and the widespread decadence of mythological borrowing (mostly from Jung and Joseph Campbell) make it difficult to find a vocabulary for Carrington’s questing that does not sound like a circular from the Personal Growth Movement. Jane Miller commented on this difficulty in a review of Carrington’s first novel, The Stone Door. “In spite of all its waywardness and intimations of profundity,” she wrote, “the novel is finally a good deal more like a prettily embroidered sampler than some gravely worked cabbalistic banner, for its eclectic, not to say magpie, snatching at bright detail and unexplained incident is controlled by a tastefulness and sense of design which are old-fashioned and charming rather than portentous.”

A sculpture by Carrington on a street in Campeche, Mexico.
 A sculpture by Carrington on a street in Campeche, Mexico. Photograph: Alamy

Edward James, the surrealist patron who collected her work during the many lean years, wrote of Leonora’s images that they were “not merely painted, they are brewed”. It is an apt choice of word, and describes her writings too: these small and concentrated potions in which the oddest elements from metaphysics and fantasy, daily routine and material life are simmered together and mischievously served up. Her witchcraft, which had so enchanted the surrealists, entered another phase in the surroundings of lo real maravilloso americano, in the phrase of the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier: the marvellous (Latin) American reality.
Alongside her friends, the painters Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo, Carrington came to seem the voice of that Latin imagination, in many media: in Mexico City, she wrote plays and designed masks and costumes; and she was commissioned to celebrate the people of Chiapas, descendants of the Aztecs, in a vast mural for the Regional Museum of Anthropology and History of Chiapas. She continued to defy convention, too, opening her house to meetings during the student action of the 1960s and participating in the beginnings of the women’s movement.
In many changes of shape, Carrington fulfilled, over nearly a century of work, the task of art as defined by Paul Klee: to make visible the invisible. She conveyed her consciousness, its complex of memory, fantasy, desire and fear, reaching for the apt metaphors to hand from a rich deposit of learning. “The matter of our bodies,” she said, “like everything we call matter, should be thought of as thinking substance.” As Doris Lessing, one of Carrington’s favourite authors, wrote: “The longest journey is in.”
 The Debutante and Other Stories is published by Silver Press