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Selected highlights from the April 2014 issue:
Donald Sassoon on a new life of Bertolt Brecht
ONLY HALF MARX
What a predicament it is to be an artist or a writer. You are never fully in control of your productions. You paint a cheerful Florentine housewife and, a few centuries later, some jumped-up critic decides she is a castrating femme fatale. You write an opera on Switzerland's national hero and the overture is endlessly used in stuff like The Lone Ranger and Yankee Doodle Daffy. The worst fate is that of the playwright. You write a text with, at most, a few notes on scenery and cast (exits, enters). Then the product is snatched from your hands by actors, designers and directors. It becomes their play. You sit in a corner sulking or, more frequently, you turn in your grave. Pity, then, Bertolt Brecht, who regarded himself, with considerable justification, as the great dramatist of his age, yet was condemned to have so little control of his plays and of his life. His health was poor; his erstwhile communist comrades disagreed with him about what political theatre should be; he was forced into exile in Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the USA, all places where staging his works proved difficult. Read more.
Anne Somerset on Shakespeare's nemesis
OUT, DAMNED NIGHTSPOT
William Shakespeare had good reason to hope that 1596 would prove a prosperous year for him. At great expense the impresario James Burbage had recently acquired and refitted a magnificent theatre where Shakespeare's works could be staged. Unlike the premises at which Shakespeare's theatrical company was then based, the new theatre at Blackfriars was not open to the elements, so plays could be put on even in winter. Large sums had been invested to provide excellent lighting and special-effects technology. Seats would be pricey and Shakespeare would be entitled to a share of the profits. Unfortunately for Shakespeare the venture incurred the disapproval of Elizabeth, Lady Russell, a venerable Blackfriars resident who set about organising a petition against the theatre. She prevailed upon almost all her neighbours to sign it, including her friend Lord Cobham. Read more.
Simon Heffer on Roy Jenkins
MORE CLARET THAN RED
All of us have seen marriages in which one partner changes while the other stays resolutely the same, and the result is usually unhappy. It will start to matter to a wife that her husband does not hold his knife and fork properly as her friends become smarter, or insists on believing that the Beatles represent the highest form of musical achievement when she has discovered Beethoven and Mozart. So it was with Roy Jenkins and the Labour Party. Even before the Bennite Left made it impossible for Jenkins to stay in that company, he found it embarrassing to hear talk of 'socialism', or to be associated with people who would not see the benefits of extending choice or who regarded what we now call the European Union as a bunch of dirty, unpleasant and, quite possibly, criminal foreigners. Such a realisation would be hard enough for someone who had committed a lifetime to the Labour Party and served nearly thirty years as one of its MPs. But Jenkins, the son of a senior union official on a south Wales coalfield who was imprisoned during the General Strike, was more or less born into the party, so for him it should have felt more like an amputation. Read more.
Elif Shafak on Turkish writers' lives
IN THE TURKISH TUNNEL
'When it comes to the misfortunes of nations, we must not forget the dimension of time,' Milan Kundera said. 'In a fascist dictatorial state, everyone knows that it will end one day. Everyone looks to the end of the tunnel. In the empire to the East, the tunnel is without end.' There are many tunnels in many countries but, as Kundera observed, they are of varying lengths, and this makes a considerable difference, 'at least from the point of view of a human life'. Turkey, my motherland, is one seemingly endless tunnel of political uncertainty. From one year to the next there is little progress in our juvenile democracy, even though no two days are the same. Read more.
Jonathan Keates strolls among Italy's lemon groves
Goethe's 'The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister', a neglected masterpiece if ever there was, is known nowadays for a single line from a ballad sung by Mignon, the daughter of a wandering musician. 'Know'st thou the land where the lemon trees bloom?' begins her mysterious song, describing an imagined world of blue skies, marble statues and thunderous waterfalls, not without a lurking menace beneath its beauty. When Wilhelm asks her where she heard it, Mignon answers, 'Italy! If thou go to Italy, take me along with thee; for I am too cold here.' Read more.
Seamus Perry on the humane philosophy of Bernard Williams
Bernard Williams was undoubtedly one of the greatest minds of his age. He also won most of the big prizes of British academia, including a fellowship of All Souls, a spell as provost of King's College, Cambridge, and election to the White's Chair of Moral Philosophy at Oxford - he was even knighted. He also enjoyed the more ambiguous honour of being asked by the government to participate in a number of prominent commissions of public inquiry: he chaired the committee that produced an important and enlightened report about pornography in 1979 and he sat on several other committees established to cogitate upon issues of ethical perplexity, such as gambling, drugs, social injustice and English public schools. 'I did all the major vices,' he is reported to have said. Read more.
Eric Kaufmann on surnames and social mobility
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Why is Mr Neville richer than Mr Smith? Will your children go to Oxford? Who should you marry if you want to win at the game of life? Gregory Clark, a Scottish economist at the University of California, Davis, offers some answers in his fascinating new book, The Son Also Rises. In short, he argues that the contribution of distant relatives matters as much as our parents in implementing our fate. Read more.
Seamus Deane on Echo's Bones by Samuel Beckett
'Echo's Bones', as the editor Mark Nixon tells us, was received by Samuel Beckett's editor at Chatto & Windus when he asked Beckett to add to his collection of short stories More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), all ten of which were short indeed, individually and cumulatively. 'Hooray too if you can manage that extra story,' the editor, Charles Prentice, told him. Prentice had already rejected Beckett's first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, in 1932. He was a perceptive and courageous editor, but even his almost surreal politeness did not prevent him from responding to the receipt of 'Echo's Bones' with a horrified candour. 'It is a nightmare ... It gives me the jim-jams ... I am sorry, for I hate to be dense, but I hope I am not altogether insensitive. "Echo's Bones" certainly did land me with a wallop. Do you mind if we leave it out of the book?' Beckett did mind, but he could do little. He took some material from the rejected story and added it to 'Draff', the last story of More Pricks Than Kicks. Prentice welcomed 'the new little bit at the end'. Beckett recycled the title for his first collection of poems in 1935, but Belacqua Shuah, the protagonist of More Pricks Than Kicks, remained dead. One of the slight difficulties in expanding the volume had been the need to revive the grotesque hero and provide him with suitable ruminations on his recent death, the disadvantages of which he was doubtful about anyway, wondering 'if on the whole he had not been a great deal deader before than after his formal departure, so to speak, from among the quick'. That's Belacqua. Never an enthusiast. Read more.
Adrian Turpin on The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne
SMELLING A BACCARAT
In the casinos of Macau, a corrupt English solicitor masquerading as 'Lord Doyle' burns through a pile of stolen cash. His game of choice is punto banco, a version of baccarat requiring no skill, so his future lies in the hands of either mathematical chance or the supernatural. Which is it? The question will literally haunt the protagonist of Lawrence Osborne's new novel. In turn, Doyle will cast an increasingly spectral shadow on those around him. It is no coincidence that Cantonese slang for foreigner is gwai lo, which translates as 'ghost person'. Read more.