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Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne

January 26, 2016 10 comments

Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1819-1820) French title: Lettres à Fanny. Translated by Elise Argaud.

As far as they regard myself I can despite all events but I cannot cease to love you.

keats_fannyI don’t remember how I came to buy Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. It was probably on a display table in a bookstore and since I enjoy reading letters…

I knew Keats by name but had never read him. I’m not used to reading poetry, even in French. And in English, well, it’s very difficult. Reading his letters to Fanny was an opportunity to read about Keats, his life, his untimely death. What a waste of talent, like Pushkin or Petőfi. It’s disgruntling to think of all the poems he could have left us if he had had more time. It pushed me to get a bilingual edition of a collection of his poems. I read them after the letters and I thought there was a contrast between the sheer ethereal beauty of the poems and the relative plainness of the letters. We’re talking about Keatsean plainness, which means it’s still beautiful literature for anyone else.

These letters have the usual moans, angst and happy moments that you expect in love letters. Looking for signs. Playing his own game of she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not. Keats complains about giving away his heart and freedom and not liking it.

Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom.

These letters seem written by someone insecure, someone who’s not sure his love is requited. If the foreword hadn’t told me that Keats and Fanny met almost daily at the time, I would have sworn that they were apart. There is no mention of their meetings, their story sounds mostly epistolary when it was not.

The most moving aspect of Keats’s letters are his declining health. He’s ill, most of the time. It cripples him and gets in the way of his love, his happiness and his relationship with Fanny. He’s not well enough to party and he doesn’t want to imprison her, to deprive her of the fun she deserves at her age. (She’s only 18)

I would never see anything but Pleasure in your eyes, love on your lips, and Happiness in your steps. I would wish to see you among those amusements suitable to your inclination and spirits; so that our love might be a delight in the midst of Pleasure agreeable enough, rather than a resource from vexations and cares.

We reader know that Keats will die soon. And we read his letters knowing his fate while he suspects it but obviously doesn’t know the actual term of his life. It adds to the emotion and to the impression of fleeting moments that need to be cherished.

My edition of the letters includes an informative foreword by Laurent Folliot. He explained that when they were published in 1878, it was a scandal. The letters showed a side of Keats that the Victorian society wasn’t ready to see. He’s needy, in love and this love is not just cerebral and poetic. Fanny is not a poet’s muse. She’s disconnected from poetry and Keats doesn’t want their love to be a literary relationship or more precisely, a relationship based upon her admiration for his poems.

I must confess, that (since I am on that subject) I love you more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else. I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.

Fanny is not a Laure, a Beatrice or an Hélène. She’s a flesh and blood love. She’s wife material; meaning she sees him fully. Not just the poet façade or the thrill to be associated to a poet. He wants to be loved for himself. I find this consideration very modern. It is a pity that Fanny’s letters are lost to us. Keats destroyed them. I wonder who she was, what she looked like, how she moved. I wonder about her wits, her conversation or her dispositions.

I’m not comfortable with writing about Letters to Fanny Brawne and I hope I didn’t write anything stupid. Since I know nothing about poetry at the time, I’m sure I’m missing their invaluable worth. I can’t read between the lines and connect one detail or the other with a poem or an element of Keats’s life. For me, it was a reconnaissance, images and information to store and use for further exploration of his work.

Next billet will be about my experience with reading the actual poems and till then let’s read Bright Star, a poem allegedly written for Fanny. Enjoy.

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —

No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

 

Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski

August 2, 2015 22 comments

Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski 2011. Sadly, it’s not available in French, so it goes into the Translation Tragedy category.

Swiercynski_Fun_GamesFun and Games opens with an amazing high-speed chase in the Hollywood Hills on Decker Canyon Road. It’s steep, full of hairpin turns and dangerous. The actress Lane Madden is driving like a maniac, trying to escape whomever is following her and trying to push her into a car accident. Her moonlight drive is a lot less romantic than Jim Morrison’s song.

At the same moment, Charlie Hardie is on a red-eye from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where he’s expected to housesit the mansion of a famous composer. Hardie used to work for the cops in Philadelphia until a tragedy changed everything. He’s now living a wandering life, going from one house-sitting job to the other, trying to forget and go by. When he arrives on site, the house isn’t empty and Lane is inside, bruised and battered, hiding from Them, who attempted to kill her.

As it happens, Them are The Accident People, a secret society with connections in the right places and specialized in rewriting events or erasing unwanted witnesses from embarrassing scenes. They are discreet, efficient and provoke death that look accidental and fitting with the victim’s background. With Lane Madden, they aimed at a timely OD in her car. Only Lane fought back, using what she learned when she trained for stunts in the action movies she’d been doing.

For Hardie, this is a bad case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. He should get away from this house and literally run to the hills. But he encounters the brain of this operation and realizes she knows about his past. And suddenly, things become very personal. Why do they want Lane dead? How did they manage to get info on him so quickly?

I won’t say more about the plot to avoid spoilers. This is a fast-paced pulp novel, one you don’t want to put down and it would make a fantastic movie. The characters are well drawn and their past is revealed slowly through the book. Don’t read the summary on Goodreads, it gives away too much of Hardie’s background. The man is a survivor and his survival instinct is out of the ordinary.

Swierczynski has a punchy style that highlights the twists and turns of the plot. See a sample here:

When life finally stops kicking you in the teeth, you don’t whine and count the gaps. You see the fucking dentist and move on.

There aren’t any breathing time as we follow Hardie from one attack to the other. Swierczynski seems to have an bottomless well of creativity in ways to eliminate people. And it works.

Fun & Games is the first volume of the Hardie trilogy that continues with Hell & Gone and Point & Shoot, reviewed by Guy. You can find his review of Fun and Games here and I recommend it, he’s a lot better than me at writing about pulp fiction.

For French readers who’d be interested in Swierczynski, try The Blonde, it’s excellent.

This is another read from my #TBR20 project. Now I want to read the two other volumes. So, after the #TBR20 is over, I already plan to buy the two other books of the Markaris trilogy and the two other Swierczynskis. Hmm. I’m afraid the #TBR20 gig will be followed by a book buying spree, followed by another #TBR20. When will that stop? 🙂

Letters to Lou Andreas Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke

November 12, 2011 18 comments

Letters to Lou Andreas Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke. 1897-1926

Your being has been the door that allowed me to reach fresh air for the first time.

Rilke met Lou Andreas-Salomé in 1897. He was 22, she was 36. Their love story lasted until 1901 and turned into a friendship that only ended with Rilke’s death in 1926. The little book I’ve read is composed of letters coming from their correspondence. The first one dates back to 1897 and the last one was written a fortnight before he died.

The first letters are beautiful love letters. Once I wrote that I didn’t envy Albertine for being loved by the Narrator as he seemed complicated and difficult to live with. Nothing like that with Rilke. These letters are sunny despite the absence and how much he misses her. His love is a gift; it doesn’t claim anything else that what he already receives. These letters are full of acceptance, of loving Lou just the way she is. She loves him back, he’s happy. Their fierce passion isn’t a tortured one.

I think of you at any time of the day and my worried thoughts accompany all your steps. The slightest breathe on your forehead is a kiss from my lips and each dream speaks to you with my voice. My love is like a coat wrapped around you to protect and warm you up.

In 1897, Rilke stopped signing his letters René (his firstname) and became Rainer. His meeting with Lou was his rebirth.

The following letters are more about him and his creating process. One of them, written in 1903, describes his life and sufferings in Paris. I recognized the raw material he will use in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Rilke suffers from acute sensitivity. He’s a sponge, he absorbs the outside world to such a point that it hurts him. He perceives the mood, the emotions of his environment. He has no filtering system and it hits him badly every time. He’s a disquiet man, disturbed by fears and anguish. What fascinates me is that despite his disquiet, he manages to describe his fears in a lucid way. He doesn’t complain although he somatizes a lot and has a poor health. In a way, he tries to tame his pain and at the same time cherishes it as he knows part of his work will come from it. For the reader, his fears sound real, painful but he doesn’t sound unbalanced.

When reading these letters, the reader witnesses his artistic quest. He admires Rodin for his work, his ability to materialize his inner mind into statues, into art. He chides himself for not being able to concentrate and work as much as he should. He gropes around, aware that he’s piling up ideas, sensations, characters, observations in his soul and in his mind. But he’s not able to reach them and turn them into art. Yet. It’s fascinating to read about his quest. It’s obviously painful but he doesn’t complain. He takes the pain, doesn’t wallow into it but probably sees it a step to creation. He’s also lucid about his failure as a husband and as a father. In French, we say être mal dans sa peau, literally, to be ill-at-ease in one’s skin to say to feel bad about oneself. Rilke was literally like that and his skin reacted to it.

In the last letters, he has found the inspiration and managed to let out the work he was sitting on. The joy when he writes the Elegies, the Sonnet to Orpheus is palpable. His health declines, he talks a lot more about physicians. He also thought about doing a psychoanalysis but preferred to keep his demons as part of his creating process. He’s a man who suffered from a poor health all his life and never rebelled against it, took it as the way life was for him and lived day by day.

All these years, Lou became his distant spine, his anchor in life. She immediately saw him as a gifted writer and he trusted her judgement. She believed in his talent, thought highly of his work and that gave him the strength and the confidence he needed. She was his confidant, his safe – she received a copy of his work –, his living diary. Would we have Rilke’s work without her? I’m not sure. These letters had the same effect on me than Letters to a Young Poet and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: a profound fondness for the man who wrote them, awe for his literary gift and sadness for him that it should come with so much pain. When I read Kakfa’s letters to Milena, I heard his pain but I never really sympathized with him. He sounded complicated and whimsical. I sympathized with Rilke, deeply. He was a man I would have loved to meet.

Wisdom from an Older Poet

September 13, 2010 7 comments

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. Read by Denis Podalydes.

 In 1903, Franz Kappus is a cadet in a military school. He writes poetry and wonders whether his poems are good and if he is meant to be a poet. When he learns form one of his teacher that  Rainer Maria Rilke is an alumnus of the same school, he decides to write to him and ask for an opinion on his poems. A long correspondence will follow, and Franz Kapuss had Rilke’s letters published years later, leaving his own in the shadow.

 I have borrowed the audio book of Letters to a Young Poet at the library. The voice of Denis Podalydes was sometimes musing, sometimes firm, and always warm, soft and convincing. Rainer Maria Rilke has a calm wisdom which applies a soothing balm on one’s mind.

In the first letter, Rilke answers to Franz’s interrogations. He gives his vision of being an artist. How do you know if you are meant to be a writer ? The answer is simple: if you can imagine your life going on without writing, then you are not a writer. He advises Franz to turn his attention to himself to find in his inner life the roots and the raw material for his art. Critics from journalists, magazine owners and readers are not relevant to evaluate the worth of his poems. He shall find this answer in himself. No one can teach him how to write, something I agree with. (I’ve always wondered what Americans teach in writing classes). He needs to find his voice as a writer, and this voice comes from deep inside.

The other letters are more guidelines for life than writing counsels. The experience of the artist is solitary and to bear its loneliness with forbearance is a way to strengthen and reveal one’s personality. Rilke thinks a period of solitude is a mandatory step to discover who we are and that if we throw ourselves in the world without caution, we shall never know ourselves deeply. Solitude is a mean to shut out the futilities of life and concentrate on the essentials. It will give us solid roots to face the tempests of our existence.

His vision of women suits me and is insightful for the time. He points out that men and women are more similar than it seems (Remember, we are in 1903 and women have the rights of children). The greatest worldwide innovation will occur when men and women will not consider themselves as opposites but as human beings. Women should no be individuals defined in comparison to men but as themselves, a feminine human being. Rilke perceives that love relationships will be affected by this transformation and men will be surprised. Love will consist “in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other”.

To Franz who seems to have lived some hard times, he says sorrows should pass through him. The sadness which crosses someone nourishes them but when it stagnates, it putrefies and pollutes their soul. Fate is not external to men but within. The future is immobile, we are moving and imagining that events fall on us. But we just fail to listen to our inner minds and detect the coming events. It is that way that the future penetrates in us.

On courage, Rilke writes that the only true audacity is to welcome the unusual, the new, the strange as a benefit. “…perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”  Perhaps the ability to adapt to changes and new events is indeed the route to happiness, if happiness can be defined as a state of “non-suffering”

Rilke’s personal telescope is pointed on life from an fresh corner. These peaceful letters are the sort of book you want on your bedside table. They are a kind comfort for bad days, a silent shelter from the tumultuous outside world.

For another review, read Caroline’s fascinating take on these letters.

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