Category Archives: Letters

The Worst Kind of Irreligion: George Eliot on the Reception of Daniel Deronda

I am reading George Eliot’s journals and letters alongside her novel Daniel Deronda.  In a letter dated the 29th of October, 1876, she describes to her friend Mrs. H.B. Stowe her surprise that Daniel Deronda has not met with more resistance because of its Jewish subject matter.  She describes the shameful racism and bigotry she witnesses among her own class:

As to the Jewish element in ‘Deronda,’ I expected from first to last, in writing it, that it would create much stronger resistance, and even repulsion, than it has actually met with.  But precisely because I felt that the usual attitude of Christians towards Jews is—I hardly know whether to say more impious or more stupid, when viewed in the light of their professed principles, I therefore felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as to my nature and knowledge could attain to.  Moreover, not only towards the Jews, but towards all Oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us.  There is nothing I could care more to do, if it were possible, than to rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs.  But towards the Hebrews we western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment.  Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called “educated” making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their own social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting?  They hardly know that Christ was a Jew.  And I find men, educated, supposing that Christ spoke Greek.  To my feeling, this deadness to the history which has prepared half our world for us, this inability to find interest in any form of life that is not clad in the same coat-tails and flounces as our own, lies very close to the worst kind of irreligion.  The best that can be said of it is, that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness—in plain English, the stupidity —which is still the average mark of our culture.

The U.K., of course,  is not the only country in which racism, bigotry and xenophobia are a persistent, national problem .  Eliot’s words are just as relevant today, unfortunately, for the culture of racism that the current leadership in the U.S. has incited which is horrifying, shameful and disgusting to witness.  I am glad that Eliot does not mince words and calls it what it is—ignorance and stupidity.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Letters

Breaking and Beginning Again and Again: Simone de Beauvoir on Giacometti

Tall Woman IV, 1960-61, Bronze; Monumental Head, 1960, Bronze; Walking Man I, 1960, Bronze.

Last month I visited the fantastic Giacometti exhibit currently on at the Guggenheim.  I was exhausted, in a good way, after spending hours viewing his sculptures, sketches and paintings. I was fondly reminded of the exhibit when, this weekend, I started reading a collection of letters written by Simone de Beauvoir to her lover Nelson Algren.  In a letter dated the 5th of November, 1947,  she describes Giacometti’s messy studio and slovenly personal habits as well as his rejection of money and fame in favor of artistic integrity.  I was so amused by her candid portrayal of his artistic process and his private life:

I don’t think I happened to speak about a very good friend of us who is a sculptor, though we see him often and he is maybe the only one we always see with pleasure.  I tried to describe him partly in Le sang des autres.  I admire him as an artist immensely.  First because he does the best modern sculpture I know; then because he works with so much purity and patience and strength.  He is called Giacometti, and will have a big exhibition of his works in New York next month.  Twenty years ago he was very successful and made much money with a kind of surrealistic sculpture.  Rich snobs payed expensive prices, as for a Picasso.  But then he felt he was going nowhere, and wasting something of himself, and he turned his back on snobs; he began to work all alone, nearly not selling anything but just what was wanted to live.  So he lives quite poorly; he is very dirty in his clothes.  I must say he seems to like dirt: to have a bath is a problem for him.

Head of a Woman, 1926, Painted Plaster.

Yesterday I saw his house and it is dreadful.  In a nice little forgotten garden, he has an atelier full of plaster where he works, and next door is a kind of hangar, big and cold, without furniture nor store, just walls and roof.  There are holes in the roof so the rain falls on the floor, and there are lots of pots and pans to receive it, but there are holes in them too!  He works 15 hours a day, chiefly at night, and when you see him he has always plaster on this clothes, his hands and his rich dirty hair; he works in cold with hands freezing, he does not care.  He lives with a very young girl whom I admire much for accepting his life; she works as a secretary the whole day, and coming back just finds this hopeless room.  She has no coat in winter and shoes with holes in them.  She left her family and everything to come to Paris and live with him; she is very nice.   He cares much for her but he is not of the sweet kind at all, and she has some hard moments to get through.  What I like in Giacometti chiefly is how he could one day break into pieces all that he had done during two years: he just broke it and his friends thought it dreadful.  He has his idea about sculpture, and for years he just tried and tried, like a maniac, not show anything, breaking and beginning again and again.  And he could easily have got money and praises and a good name.  He has very peculiar, interesting ideas about sculpture.  Well, I think that now he really achieved something; I was deeply moved by what I saw yesterday.

Hands Holding the Void, 1934, Bronze.

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The Soul One Must Learn to Know: Tolstoi’s Love Letters

In 1923 The Hogarth Press published a translation of series of love letters that Tolstoi wrote to his first fiancé, Valeria Arsenev.   In the introduction to this collection of missives,  Paul Biryukov explains that, although Tolstoi didn’t mind having these letters published, his wife Sophia objected to having them read by other people until after she died.  Biryukov respectfully and gladly followed Sophia’s wishes.

The letters were written between 1856 and 1857 when Tolstoi was twenty-eight years old and engaged to the daughter of one of his neighbors.  There seems to have been a case of love at first sight between them and many parts of the letters show the author’s deep affection for Valeria.  In a letter dated Nov. 2nd, 1856 he writes:

I already love in you your beauty, but I am only beginning to love in you that which is eternal and ever precious—your heart, your soul.  Beauty one could get to know and fall in love with in one hour and cease to love it as speedily; but the soul one must learn to know.  Believe me, nothing on earth is given without labour, even love, the most beautiful and natural of feelings.  Forgive me this silly comparison: to love as the silly man does is to play a sonata without keeping time, without accents, always with the pedal down, with emotion, thereby giving neither oneself nor others true pleasure.  But in order to give oneself up to the emotion of music, one must first check oneself, labour, work, and, believe me, there is not a delight in life that can be had without work.   But the more difficult the labour and hardship, the higher the reward.  And there is a great work ahead of us—to understand one another and to preserve each other’s love and respect.

Tolstoi decides that he needs to put their love to the test, so he goes off to Petersburg for several months and hopes that, through their letters, they will get to know each other better.   In the same letter he writes:

I guard my feeling as a treasure, because it alone is capable of uniting us firmly in all our views of life, and without this there is no love. I expect our correspondence to do a great deal towards this.  We shall discuss calmly; I shall try to fathom each word of yours, and you will do the same, and I don’t doubt that we shall understand one another.  All the conditions are favourable, and there is feeling and honesty on both sides.  Argue with me, explain, teach me, seek explanations.

This separation is a calculated risk that ultimately fails in part, I think, because his personality is such that he cannot carry on a relationship merely through letters.  He fails miserably at discussing anything “calmly.”  When he doesn’t receive letters back from her he begs her to write and becomes an emotional mess.  He begins to get jealous because of a rumor of her flirting with another man.  In additional he is prone to lecturing her in his letters which she really doesn’t seem to appreciate, to say the least.  And finally he becomes cold and indifferent, or at least feigns these emotions,  because of his anger.  He repeatedly has to apologize for his bad behavior towards her in his letters.  It’s comforting, somehow,  to see that even a great genius like Tolstoi is not immune to Cupid’s arrows.  One of his last letters to her reads:  “You know my nasty, suspicious, changeable character, and God knows if there is anything that could alter it.  Perhaps, strong love which I have never felt and in which I do not believe.  Among all the women whom I have known, I loved and love you best of all, but all this is yet not enough.”

The book credits S.S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf as the translators; although she didn’t know Russian, Woolf spent a great deal of time working with the letters to make them accessible to an English speaking audience.  As a result of learning this about Woolf, not only have I been side tracked by reading her essays about Russian literature but I have also been thinking about what a translator’s job entails. Although she was not familiar with Tolstoi’s original language, Woolf’s work with this text justifies her credit as its co-translator.

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Filed under Hogarth Press, Letters, Russian Literature