31 Slices
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A Critical Consciousness: Heinrich von Kleist

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A Critical Consciousness

H  K

Heinrich von Kleist’s life was ‘rich in incidents of being unlike’.

Born into a military family in , he soldiered in his teens and left the army in  as a second lieutenant. He engaged in a brief, intense period of study, principally of Kant and Rousseau, that was to provide him with much of the intellectual material he would mull over in his writing career – a bare nine years. It was a time of social unrest: Napoleonic levies went from one side of the continent to the other; in their wake went Kleist. A stay in Switzerland produced his early dramas, an event memorialised a hundred years later by Robert Walser in his story about the idyllic summer spent by Kleist on the Delosea Island in the River Aare near Thun where

‘he wants to abandon himself to the entire catastrophe of being a poet’. Kleist considered fighting both for and against the French, and travelled to Boulogne in the hope of invading England in ; in the years that followed he was arrested more than once by the

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The Continuing Adventures of Mr Ross Hall, Esq. (& Madam Zell)

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The Continuing Adventures of Mr Ross Hall, Esq.

(& Madam Zell)

W should we make of him? Like William Godwin, father of

Mary Shelley, he was a pedagogue incapable of practising what he preached. He wrote a treatise known to every educated person at the end of the eighteenth century on how to educate a young boy and left his own five children with the Foundling Hospital in Paris.

Edmund Burke observed that his often-expressed ‘love of humanity’ was a charade which excused him from any real concern with the suffering of men and women. Contemporary humanitarianism follows his impulse, allowing the heart and not history to lead it towards causes that can do no wrong: it doesn’t care for human beings too much but it likes to take care of them. As

Flaubert had to remind his mistress Louise Colet half a century later: ‘Don’t imagine that the pen has the same instincts as the heart.’ Rousseau was hopelessly dependent on his gouvernante

Thérèse Levasseur, not to speak of poor Madame de Warens, and yet proclaimed his proud ‘Roman courage’ and his defiant independence: if he had a need it was for a lack of binding attachments.

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The Road Not Taken

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The Road Not Taken

F  S  C

Arriving at the former edge of the known world by plane almost entirely disqualifies me from writing from Santiago de

Compostela, although I can plead one mitigating circumstance for my aberrant choice of transport. My gazetteer – ‘in a new English translation, from the original Latin of the twelfth-century

Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela, the earliest account of the pilgrim routes through France and Spain to the shrine of

St James’ – is so bulky it couldn’t possibly fit into a knapsack.

Imagine the ignominy of collapsing somewhere under the weight of a book as big as a paving stone! Stones clutter the landscape for an exceedingly long time and don’t need to shorten the life of those beneath them.

Anyway I’m forgetting; this is a book not just about Santiago, but about the places where the trail originates in France: St-Denis,

Vézelay, Le Puy and Arles. These are the tributaries that converge like a reverse delta on Puenta la Reina to form the Camino de

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Third Person to Herself: Marguerite Duras

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Third Person to Herself

M D

Her life was her best novel, and M.D. – or ‘La Duras’ as even she referred to herself in old age – knew it. She kept ransacking it, covering her tracks, refining her ability to confuse the issue, ‘for having us believe lies she then ended up believing herself’. So says

Laure Adler – historian, French television pundit and acquaintance of the older Duras – in her scrupulous biographical reconstruction not just of M.D.’s life but of the many other visible and not so visible lives subsumed in  books and nearly  films.

One of the last sacred monsters of French cultural life, award of the  Goncourt Prize for her most conventional novel The Lover

– it sold more than a million copies and ended up as a film she detested – brought M.D. fame. So much, in fact, that a writer who believed writing was the opposite of telling a story had to resign herself to the maddening way a personal truth tends to reveal itself

– in the breach: The Lover was read as her life story.

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Russia and the End of Time

Iain Bamforth Carcanet Press Ltd. PDF

Russia and the End of Time

Natasha’s Dance, the title of Orlando Figes’ brilliant diorama of

Russian culture, in eight thematic chapters from Pushkin to

Stravinsky, derives from a tense scene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace

(). Natasha Rostov, filigree product of the largely French education favoured by the Russian aristocracy, finds herself with her brother in the home of a distant relative who has embraced the ‘narod’ and taken a peasant wife, as many Russian intellectuals were to do after the emancipation of the serfs in . Once the homely meal is finished, ‘Uncle’ strikes up a melody on his guitar, and although Natasha has never learned to dance in the Russian way, this slim, graceful, French-speaking countess finds herself, to her relief and general applause, doing ‘the right thing’. She dances, self-surrendered, with perfect atavistic poise.

Written in the very long shadow cast by the French invasion of

, Tolstoy’s recounting of Natasha’s dance is a fine illustration of his aim to construct a patriotic epic illustrating the fundamental unity of the Russian people. Napoleon’s advance on Moscow, which had been razed on the orders of General Kutuzov to deprive the Grande Armée of provisions (a devastating typhus epidemic was to follow), introduced a new sense of ‘the nation’ based upon the virtues of the common man. The standard European upbringing had corrupted the nobility, many of whom could hardly speak more than a few words of Russian; salvation, if it were to come, could only come, like all things organic, from below.

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