Andre Gide

Andre Gide

andre_gideWriter, Fiction
(1869 – 1951)

Andre´ Gide, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, saw a writing career that spanned over six decades and ranged in style from symbolist to classical to biography to political tract. His work often focused on a central character, usually a thinly veiled version of Gide himself, who struggled with reconciling two vastly different sets of morals. Today he is chiefly remembered for his extensive journals and his frank discussion of his own bisexuality at a time when such subject matter was strictly taboo.

A Divided Nature

Andre´ Gide was born in Paris on November 22, 1869, to Paul Gide, a professor of law at the Sorbonne, and his wife, Juliette. They were both of the Protestant upper middle class. After the death of his father when Andre´ was eleven, the boy grew up in a largely feminine environment. In later years Gide often attributed his divided nature to this mixed southern Protestant and northern Norman Catholic heritage. His fragile health and nervous temperament affected his education, which included both formal schooling and a combination of travel and private tutoring. At the age of fifteen he vowed a lifelong spiritual love to his cousin, Madeleine Rondeaux.

In 1891 Gide published his first book, The Notebooks of Andre´ Walter. In it, dream is preferred to reality, spiritual love to physical. It did not succeed in winning Madeleine over, as Gide had intended. During this period he was introduced into the symbolist salons intellectual gatherings of followers of the symbolist movement of Ste´phane Mallarme´ and Jose´ de Heredia by his friend Pierre Louy¨s. The influence of the salons and symbolist thought can be see in Gide’s next works, Treatise of the Narcissus (1891) and Le Voyage d’Urien (1893).

In 1893 Gide set out for North Africa with his friend Paul Laurens hoping to harmonize his sensual desires with his inherited puritanical inhibitions. Gide fell ill with tuberculosis there and was forced to return to France, where he was shocked to find the symbolist salons unchanged. He retired to Neuchaˆtel for the winter and wrote Marshlands, a satire on stagnation that broke with symbolism.

Unconventional Lifestyle

220px-Gide_by_LaurensAfter returning to France, Gide married his cousin Madeleine. Gide described their attachment as ‘‘the devotion of my whole life,’’ but the marriage was traumatic for them both. Gide expressed an overwhelming spiritual need to share his life with his cousin, and she provided him with a source of stability, but her strict Christian values often conflicted with his unconventional lifestyle. He specifically separated love and sexual pleasure.

In 1895 Gide returned to North Africa, where he met Oscar Wilde and Lord Douglas. Wilde encouraged Gide to acknowledge his love of young men, and Gide passionately gave in. This was a pivotal year for Gide as it also brought the death of his mother and his marriage to Madeleine, who continued to symbolize for him the pull of virtue, restraint, and spirituality against his cult of freedom and physical pleasure. Gide’s life was a constant battle to strike a balance between these opposing imperatives.

Middle Years

Gide wrote his doctrine of freedom in 1897. Fruits of the Earth is a lyrical work advocating liberation through sensuous hedonism. Five years later, Gide published The Immoralist (1902), a novel consisting of many autobiographical elements. In it, the author dramatizes the dangers of his male protagonist’s selfish quest for freedom and pleasure at the cost of death to his pious wife. In this, perhaps Gide’s greatest novel, as in many of his other works, the portrait of the virtuous, devoted heroine was inspired by Madeleine. Conceived at the same time as The Immoralist, Strait Is the Gate (1909) is a critique of the opposite tendency toward excessive restraint and useless mysticism. Also patterned after Madeleine, the heroine renounces her earthly love to devote herself entirely to God and the spiritual life. Read the rest of this entry

Isak Dinesen

Isak Dinesen

isak-dinesenWriter, Fiction
(1885 – 1962)

Isak Dinesen is best known for Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and the autobiographical novel Out of Africa (1937). Acclaimed for her poetic prose style, complex characters, and intricate plots, Dinesen was concerned with such themes as the lives and values of aristocrats, the nature of fate and destiny, God and the supernatural, the artist, and the place of women in society. Hailed as a protofeminist by some critics, scorned as a colonialist by others, Dinesen is chiefly regarded as a masterly storyteller. Ernest Hemingway once remarked that the Nobel Prize in Literature he received in 1954 should have been awarded to her.

Born Karen Christenze Dinesen on April 17, 1885, in Rungsted, Denmark, Dinesen led a happy childhood until tragedy shattered her comfortable existence. In 1895 her father, Wilhelm, hung himself. Dinesen had always been very close to her father, and his suicide was a shock. Dinesen later reflected: ‘‘It was as if a part of oneself had also died.’’ Dinesen’s brother Thomas, with whom she remained close as an adult, later speculated that their father had suffered from syphilis, a disease that Dinesen herself would contract years later.

Literature for Fun

Tutored at home by a series of governesses, Dinesen showed early artistic promise and as a teenager studied drawing, painting, and languages at a private school in France. In 1903 she was admitted into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. There she developed her affinity for painting, an interest that would later be reflected in the rich descriptive style of her writing. Dinesen dropped out of the academy after several year’s study and soon thereafter took up writing. Mario Krohn, an art historian Dinesen had met at the academy, read her work and encouraged her to take writing seriously. Krohn also arranged to have some of her stories read by Valdemar Vedel, editor of one of Denmark’s most distinguished literary magazines, Tilskueren.

During these years Dinesen spent much of her time in the company of her upper-class relatives and soon found herself deeply but unhappily involved with her second cousin, Hans Blixen-Finecke. The failed love affair had a great impact on Dinesen. Extremely depressed, she left Denmark in 1910 to attend a new art school in Paris. When Mario Krohn visited Dinesen in Paris and asked her about her literary ambitions she answered that she wanted ‘‘all things in life more than to be a writer travel, dancing, living, the freedom to paint.’’ When she returned to her family estate at Rungstedlund several months later, Dinesen turned to writing as a pleasant diversion.

When Blixen-Finecke abandoned her for a fiance´e eight years younger, Dinesen decided to marry Hans’s twin brother, Bror. Bror is said to have been competitive, the kind of man who would enjoy winning his brother’s sweetheart. This rash determination to reach the object of her desire through a substitute would later be represented allegorically in many of Dinesen’s stories, which deal with the theme of vicarious achievement.

Africa and Syphilis

stiahnuťWith the encouragement of relatives, Dinesen and Bror embarked on a grand plan to start a pioneer coffee farm in East Africa. Little is known about their courtship, except that Bror later gave Dinesen credit for the idea of going to Africa. They were married in 1914 in Mombasa, on the coast of British East Africa. They set up housekeeping on seven hundred acres of woodland, twelve miles southwest of Nairobi. The farm lay at an elevation of sixty-two hundred feet, near the Ngong Hills, a range of low mountains forming a barrier against the Rift Valley. Only a year after her marriage, sometime in the early months of 1915, Dinesen learned she had contracted syphilis, a venereal disease. Later she told her family that her husband had given her the illness; he had evidently been unfaithful to her.

The couple separated for a time after this incident. Her letters suggest that she made a suicide attempt in February of that year. Several weeks later she turned up in Paris, looking for a specialist in venereal diseases. She eventually made her way through war-torn Europe back to Denmark, where a venerealogist found her to be suffering from syphilis and poisoning from the treatment (mercury tablets, an earlier form of syphilis treatment) given to her in Nairobi. Through a series of injections of intravenous arsenic Dinesen grew better. Reexaminations in 1919 and 1925 revealed no further evidence of syphilis; however, despite the doctor’s assurances, Dinesen continued to believe she would never recover from the illness. Syphilis appears time and again in Dinesen’s writings and features prominently in the popular myth that gathered around her after she rose to literary prominence. She could not escape the irony that she had been victimized by the same illness that had led to her father’s suicide. Read the rest of this entry

Robert Campin

Robert Campin

Robert_Campin_PortraitPainter
(1376 – 1444)

Robert Campin (d. 1444) exemplifies the late medieval urban artist, with his middleclass connections and civic activism. A highly respected resident of Tournai, in Flanders, Campin held the positions of dean of the Guild of St. Luke (the guild of painters), member of the stewards (a committee entrusted with the accounts and finances of the city), warden of his parish, bursar of his church, and captain of the city militia. He was probably already a recognized painter in 1406 when his name first appears in the city archives.

He received commissions from the local bourgeoisie, city officials, and clergy members, and he also lent his talent to the city by creating banners, coats of arms, and costumes for civic events. Formerly referred to by modern scholars as the Master of Flémalle (from a set of paintings wrongly ascribed to the Abbey of Flémalle on the Lower Rhine), Campin is well known for the realism of his work and especially for his inclusion of domestic details, such as those in his Salting Madonna of about 1430.

Merode Altarpiece(Merode Altarpiece)

His best known work, a triptych (three-panelled altarpiece) called the Merode Altarpiece (dated about 1425, now in the Cloisters Museum in New York), presents significant aspects of Flemish art. Filled with religious symbolism, this work comprises a wealth of domestic details painstakingly depicted with special care for realistic textures, surfaces, and portraits, generous draperies, and an intuitive use of perspective. In placing his religious subjects in domestic interiors, Campin brought a sense of actuality and reality to the divine that spoke more directly to his lay audience. This innovative way of treating religious scenes also echoes the contemporary piety that required a more “down to earth” and tangible experience of the divine.

Campin collaborated with other important artists such as Jacques Daret and Rogier van der Weyden, whose careers flourished respectively in France and Flanders during the fifteenth century. His work remained influential well into the sixteenth century when a number of his compositions were still being copied or imitated.

Euripides

Euripides

euroTragic playwright
(280 B.C. –  204 B.C)

There are more than twice as many surviving plays of Euripides than of either Aeschylus or Sophocles (eighteen as compared with six or seven apiece of the others). There is also a parodic portrayal of the playwright in Aristophanes’ Frogs and a fanciful biography of him written in the third century B.C.E. which relied on details from the playwright’s own works as well as various other spurious sources. Even so, it is difficult to discern the facts of the playwright’s life, and ultimately there is as little known about him as about most famous people from antiquity. Euripides was born to a wealthy family in the Athenian deme of Phyla, though there were stories that he came from modest origins as well, most likely because he often portrayed humble people in his plays.

The tale that he isolated himself in a cave at Salamis to write his plays probably more reflects his lack of interest in politics or public life than an actual physical isolation. He first competed at the City Dionysia in 455 B.C.E. He won fewer first prizes—only four—than did Aeschylus or Sophocles during his career, but the story that he fled Athens for Macedon in disgust at his lack of popularity is undoubtedly false. Nevertheless, he did die at the court of King Archelaus of Macedon in approximately 406 B.C.E.; the story has it that he was torn to pieces by the king’s guard dogs, which echoes his propensity in tragedies to include unusually violent deaths for his characters, such as the demise of King Pentheus in Bacchants, who is ripped apart by a raving band of maenads led by his own mother. Euripides had three sons, one of whom, also named Euripides, may have produced some of his tragedies after his death.

Eighteen of Euripides’ plays survive. (A nineteenth, the Rhesus, is of doubtful authorship.) The plays securely attributed to Euripides include: Medea (last place in 431 B.C.E.); Electra (417 B.C.E.); Trojan Women (second prize in 415 B.C.E.); Bacchants and Iphigenia at Aulis (first-prize winners produced together posthumously in 405 B.C.E.); and a satyr play, Cyclops (date unknown). In addition, there are substantial fragments of eleven others, including Oedipus, Cretans, and Archelaus, written for his patron in Macdeon. Euripidean drama focuses on individual characters and their personal circumstances, the paradoxical nature of human life and its vicissitudes, and the internal struggle that the tragic hero undergoes. As a consequence, the structure of his plays sometimes follows a predetermined plot to its foreseeable, if regrettable, outcome; at other times, his plays swerve as unpredictably as his characters do. Euripides featured characters who commit the most extreme acts humans are capable of—incest, rape, betrayal, murder—and allowed them to stand up for themselves. Read the rest of this entry

Elias Canetti

Elias Canetti

415509Novelist, plays
(1905 – 1994)

In 1981, Bulgarian-born author Elias Canetti received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his body of work that crossed many disciplines and contained insights and analyses of crowd dynamics and obsessive behaviors. His bestknown books are Auto-da-fe´ (1935–1936) and Crowds and Power (1960).

Elias Jacques Canetti was born in Russe, Bulgaria, on July 25, 1905, the oldest of the three sons of Sephardic merchant Jacques Canetti and his wife, Mathilde, ne´e Arditti. The Canettis and the Ardittis were descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. Many of these Jews had settled in countries in eastern Europe. While the Jewish population in Bulgaria was small relative to other eastern European countries, Jews had a special status there with much self-administration led by a chief rabbi. Mathilde Canetti, the most influential person in her son’s childhood and adolescence, used her enthusiasm for literature, notably dramas and novels, as a medium for Elias’s education and inspired him to become an author and intellectual.

At home, Canetti’s family spoke Ladino, the language of the Sephardim in the Balkan states and around the Mediterranean. Ladino is derived from medieval Spanish and contains elements of Hebrew and non-Jewish languages. In addition, Canetti was exposed to Bulgarian, Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Romanian, and Russian. His parents spoke German with one another as their intimate language and as a code when they did not want their children to understand what they were saying. The German language thus assumed a special fascination for the young Canetti, and he later adopted the language for his intellectual and literary pursuits.

Literature at Heart of British Education

56-205878-screen-shot-2013-07-18-at-15.24.37When Canetti was six years old, his father escaped the oppressive situation of working in a family business in a small eastern European town by joining his brother-in-law’s business in Manchester, England, then still a center of industry as it had been since the late eighteenth-century beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Mathilde Canetti welcomed the move. She was eager to remove her children from the influence of her Orthodox in-laws, and she liked England because of its democratic tradition.

Young Elias learned English without difficulty and was able to start school. In Manchester, his father introduced him to literature and the life of the imagination, discussing what the boy read, including The Arabian Nights Grimm’s fairy tales, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719–1722), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), tales from William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615), the works of Dante, and Friedrich von Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell (1804). He later said that he was grateful to his father for never telling him that fairy tales were untrue.

Moved to Continent after Father’s Death

In October 1912, Jacques Canetti died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Around the same time, the Balkan Wars of 1912 to 1913 began, posing an increasing threat to the families in Bulgaria. The wars were fought in eastern Europe over who would control the balance of power in the area as the Ottoman Empire reached its final decline. Unable to tolerate life with her husband’s brothers, Mathilde Canetti moved the family to Vienna in May 1913. Convinced that Elias was destined to become a prominent author, his mother encouraged him in his intellectual aspirations. In 1916, the family moved again to Zurich,

Switzerland, to avoid the ravages of World War I. Caused by increased tensions in the Balkans, entangling alliances, and the final catalyst of the assassination of the Austro- Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand, the so-called Great War enveloped nearly the whole of Europe in the mid- to late 1910s and saw massive loss of life. Despite the horrors of the conflict, the Swiss capital was a safe haven for Canetti during his formative years. At the age of fourteen, he completed his first literary work, a historical tragedy titled ‘‘Junius Brutus.’’ Much to Canetti’s dismay, in 1921, Mathilde Canetti moved to Frankfurt with her sons. Read the rest of this entry