Like T.J. Clark, I too had the strange experience last year of walking through Auerbach’s London, thinking of his paintings, and suddenly coming across the artist himself (LRB, 10 September). He told me the story of Michael Podro giving a lecture in Berlin, having spent weeks polishing his German – only to be asked questions at the end in flawless English. I regret now not asking Auerbach if he still speaks or reads German, as it has always seemed to me that his paintings have a strong, if complex, connection to German painting. Clark makes a strong case that Auerbach belongs to a French tradition of painting as encapsulating a moment of perception, a record of pure vision (he puts it much better). William Feaver once asked Lucian Freud why, contrary to the idea that his painting stemmed from Germanic sources, he preferred to claim French painting as his point of origin. ‘Because it happens to be better,’ Freud answered, and perhaps Auerbach would make the same reply. But this seems to me only half the story.
Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931 to Jewish parents, and arrived in England in 1939 on the Kindertransport. He went to a school for German Jewish children in Kent and then, after a period of studying with David Bomberg, to St Martin’s School of Art, where he met Leon Kossoff and Gustav Metzger – both had occupied the Camden studio where Auerbach still works. During the 1950s Auerbach became close friends with Lucian Freud, another émigré. In terms of a German context for Auerbach’s work, this is all of course circumstantial compared to the evidence of his paintings. The way his pigment conveys light, or a lack of it, reminds me as much of Dix and Nolde as Pissarro and Van Gogh. The way the paintings are built of brushstrokes, like girders on a building site, makes me think of Kirchner and Scharl as much as Cézanne or Braque. Perhaps even more so, just that little bit more of Mitteleuropa. Auerbach’s are not paintings of luminescence or weightlessness, but rather the opposite: heavy nature, an ecstatic experience of people and places. As for his peers, Gerhard Richter, in his thick abstract surfaces and bold gestures, and Anselm Kiefer, with his volcanic cuisine, stand as the most interesting comparisons.
Jenny Diski’s account of the horrors of chemotherapy set my memory working (LRB, 2 July). I was diagnosed with cancer shortly after my 75th birthday. There was a big tumour in my kidney, then they found an offshoot in my left lung, and then two more in the right. But where I live, in Belgium, the surgeon was dismissive of chemotherapy. ‘We don’t like the side effects,’ he remarked. Instead, their way of dealing with cancer is to cut it out with sharp knives. So I had four serious surgical operations in the space of seven months. I couldn’t say there were no after-effects: I felt weak for some time. But muscles recover, and strength comes back. I wonder whether there is a debate in Britain about the relative merits of chemicals and surgery for removing cancers – is one side or the other causing unnecessary suffering to its patients? – or is this just a matter of idiosyncratic national preference, like the right temperature for serving beer?
Having observed and helped shape Robert from the beginning, I feel compelled to summon up as much dispassion as possible and comment on his article (LRB, 10 September). I must confess to practising some degree of procrastination, but I have always seen this as a symptom of the need to seek to be perfect, particularly in writing. If I have a letter from a friend to which I need to respond I can spend days, even weeks, mulling over what I intend to say. My mind becomes saturated with ideas and events that I must relate but then I spend time thinking out how to develop a connecting theme, however unrelated the topics may be. This perhaps has its origins, in my case, in a Nonconformist upbringing in a South Yorkshire mining village – a need to achieve moral superiority. As for alleviating the condition, I find, particularly during periods of lethargy or listlessness, that deciding on limited, practical steps to achieve minor goals inspires a sense of achievement and can lead on to larger things.
In Robert’s case, responsibility for his going into journalism lies at the door of his mother and myself, although we were well aware of the frequent times we had seen in his writing exercise book in junior school a title but nothing else. We encouraged him to apply for the post of crossword editor at the Independent, not long after it was founded. He applied and that was the start of his journalism.
Robert Hanks should make the acquaintance of Expeditus, patron saint of procrastinators, who is also invoked for the purpose of accelerating protracted legal proceedings. His feast day is 19 April. In Rome a few years ago I happened across a shrine to Expeditus in the church of Santa Maria di Loreto, close by Trajan’s Column. Sculpted as a Roman centurion, he holds aloft in his right hand a cross inscribed hodie (‘today’), while his left foot crushes a raven with a scroll/speech bubble squawking cras (‘tomorrow’), representing the devil’s failed attempt to put off his conversion. Alas, notwithstanding his alleged martyrdom in Armenia in 303 under Diocletian, Expeditus may be no more than the embodiment of a pun: he probably never got round to actually existing.
Lauren Elkin quibbles with ‘the assertion that Oulipian constraint is necessarily arbitrary’ (Letters, 10 September). For the Oulipians, the devising of the constraint consists in the creation of a function which has the potential to generate, or create, texts. The invention of the constraint is a purely formal exercise, and as such, the constraint is necessarily arbitrary (i.e. without reason or sense). Indeed, from the outset, the Oulipians differentiated between inventors of constraints generative of potential literatures, and poets, whose application of the constraint consists in the writing of an actual text. The inventor always has priority over the poet, to the extent that the poet is forced to follow the rules of construction determined by the constraint. As François Le Lionnais, a founding member of the Oulipo, wrote: ‘Method is sufficient in and of itself. There are methods without textual examples. An example is an additional pleasure for the author and the reader.’
Elkin goes on to claim that the missing ‘e’ in Perec’s La Disparition ‘is not an arbitrarily missing vowel, but a homonym for eux’. Whether or not that is so, and whether it should be understood as signifying those who went missing in the Holocaust, are questions of textual interpretation. They have no pertinence to the generative arbitrary constraint, or to its invention.
Thomas Keymer claims that there are no Frances Burney novels ‘from the moment when the shock of political revolution transformed the genre’, and that ‘her early proto-feminism had hardened into conservatism’ (LRB, 27 August). Burney began work on The Wanderer in the late 1790s, after the publication of Camilla, although it was not published until 1814. I can’t think of a book more marked by the French Revolution: set during Robespierre’s ascendancy, the nameless heroine disguises herself as a black woman in order to flee from France, only to discover in England a repressive social system where she comes under more insidious forms of attack. It would surely be truer to say that few writers were more engaged with the revolution’s challenges to identity, gender relations and every other social structure. Burney claimed to eschew politics, but made clear in the book’s dedication how well she understood the relation between political history and the contemporary situation: ‘To attempt to delineate, in whatever form, any picture of actual human life, without reference to the French Revolution, would be as little possible, as to give an idea of the English government, without reference to our own.’
Readers bemused, as Frances Burney seems to have been, by Mrs Schwellenberg’s frogs and their ladders might be interested to learn of the 17th and 18th-century German fashion of keeping tree frogs to forecast the weather. The idea was that, mimicking their behaviour in the wild, as good weather approached the frogs would climb the thoughtfully provided ladders to catch insects that flew higher in such conditions. The frogs were, in effect, supposed to function like primitive barometers. W.G. Sebald makes reference to these weather-forecasting frogs in his poem ‘Barometer Reading’:
Nothing can be inferred
from the forecasts
are ignoring their ladders
I understand that German weather forecasters are still known as Wetterfrosch (‘weather frogs’).
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire
Eoin Dillon mentions the rumour that Anthony Blunt was sent after the war to Schloss Kronberg to retrieve documents detailing arrangements between Edward, Duke of Windsor, and the Nazis (Letters, 10 September). I spent 18 months in the Windsor Castle archives, researching a biography of The Other Victoria (1981), Queen Victoria’s daughter, who married the crown prince of Prussia. Victoria’s letters to her daughter were retrieved from Schloss Kronberg by Blunt, along with the Duke of Windsor’s correspondence with his German princely cousins, some of whom held high office in the Nazi party. Prince Wolfgang told me that corrupt American Military Police had seized most of the valuables and papers from the castle before Blunt’s timely arrival.
I have some more suggestions to add to Christina Allison’s in response to Sigrid Nunez’s demand: ‘Who can name a major novel by a canonical writer, male or female, that takes motherhood for its main subject?’ (Letters, 10 September). How about Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell, which dramatises questions around good and bad mothering, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which motherhood is reinvented by a male scientist and the novel even takes the shape of a pregnant body, one story contained inside another. Motherhood, or the lack of it, is at the heart of the orphan Jane Eyre’s story too.
John Sibbald chides Adam Smyth for saying that access to the English Short Title Catalogue 1475-1640 is restricted (Letters, 10 September). Confusion has perhaps arisen between how to gain access to the catalogue and how to get at the books themselves online. The latter are available only through Early English Books Online, access to which normally requires an institutional subscription, which isn’t cheap. Last year I was researching a historical thriller and needed to read some of the books printed in England in 1597. I am partially disabled, and find travelling to the British Library difficult. I have no association with higher education, and no public library in East Sussex is an EEBO subscriber. I was fortunate that, in the end, Sussex University Library came to my aid.
St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex
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