Boyd Tonkin (NYRB) visits the Van Gogh and Britain exhibition at Tate Britain. He reflects on the painter’s religious background, his oft-overlooked writing talents, his interest in marginalised and working-class figures, and Victorian London as a European metropolis:

“Young Vincent often felt a failure. He endured loneliness and dejection—though nothing like the bouts of anguish and panic that would seize him in Provence—but he also felt the bittersweet melancholy of a dreamy, wandering outsider. He could go into raptures about autumn days in London, ‘especially in the streets in the evening, when it’s a bit foggy and the street-lamps are lit,’ while fading elm-leaves turn ‘the colour of bronze.’ His letters from England crackle with the descriptive and affective force of what, should he have chosen another fork on that pilgrim road, we would surely now call a born writer. Foggy Victorian London, where literature far outshone in status both the visual arts and music, helped make Van Gogh the artist he became and remained, even when the golden fields and cobalt skies of Provence blazed across his canvases.

‘He was a writer before he was a painter,’ insisted Carol Jacobi, as crowds flowed around us on the first day of public access to Van Gogh and Britain, the exhibition she has curated at the Tate Britain in London, next to the river Vincent loved to walk beside. ‘”Writing is like painting”: he says that thirty or forty times,’ she reminded me. Through his apprentice years, his writer’s pen obeyed him as his crayon or brush could not. Jacobi, curator for British Art 1850–1915 at the Tate, mentions an 1880 drawing titled Miners in the Snow at Dawn, completed in Belgium, where Van Gogh had gone to live and preach among the poor. It’s an early token of his new-found artistic ambitions. The ‘word picture’ that partners it in a letter is ‘beautifully accomplished, influenced by Dickens and Zola,’ she said. ‘But he’s struggling to express these things in visual terms.'”

Source: The New York Review of Books

“Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street, at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice. The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers’ and grocers’ trades became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do. The Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor’s household should; and even the little tailor, whom he had fined five shillings on the previous Monday for being drunk and bloodthirsty in the streets, stirred up to-morrow’s pudding in his garret, while his lean wife and the baby sallied out to buy the beef.”

— Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Carol’

Woke early this morning but did not get up straight away. Lay in bed for some time and watched the light move gradually across the wall. A beautiful day. After a light breakfast, Jennifer and I went cycling around Cardiff Bay barrage. We found a bench overlooking the water and talked for awhile. Bright blue cloudless sky.

On returning, I settled down to read a few articles and blog postings. One of the finest literary blogs around is Cynthia Haven‘s The Book Haven, hosted by Stanford University. The site covers a rich variety of topics in a lively and accessible way, and includes reviews and interviews alongside thought-provoking essays. In addition, Haven is alert to the political and cultural turmoil that continues to shape contemporary American consciousness. In a recent post, she draws on the words of American writer James Baldwin to examine how literature can lead to greater empathy and understanding between people and communities:

There’s a direct line between our moral and social crises and the collapse of the humanities. […] Here’s one reason: literature is our chance to explore the world of  the “other,” to enter into some head other than our own. You can’t read The Brothers Karamazov without being able to understand multiple ways of living and thinking in the world, and some quite alien to one’s own p.o.v. That’s precisely what’s lacking in today’s public life, and that’s the understanding that should have been grounded in our educational system.

James Baldwin put it in his own insightful way: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”

— Cynthia Haven, The Book Haven

John Mullan examines what today’s TV dramatists can learn from the masters of the trade (Source).

Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis
From an interview between Dan Gunn and the writer and translator Lydia Davis, published in The Quarterly Conversation

Dan Gunn: Proust’s narrator deduces that, to convey the priority of sense-impressions over pre-formulated conclusions, he needs to write à la Dostoevsky. When I read your work I am, in fact, made to think less of Dostoevsky than of Kafka, and of the way in which the familiar becomes strange in his work—his story “Hands” for example, where his narrator’s two hands appear suddenly to be alien and potentially at war with one another. If one may provisionally call such writing “phenomenal,” do you feel that part of your own work which is “phenomenal” to be working within a tradition? Or is it rather something that you developed privately and intuitively?

Lydia Davis: I think influence is a complicated thing. I am influenced by a kind of writing because I am drawn to it, open to it. I am drawn to it because there is already an affinity between my own sensibility and sense of formal structure and those of the author I am reading or studying. I would not be influenced by a writer alien to me. I really see an ongoing process that starts in earliest childhood. The very first picture books and nursery rhymes have their effect, as do songs and the lyrics of songs. My sensibility as a child is affected by these and then my changing sensibility and sense of structure show in my writings, even the stories written as assignments in grade school. And of course the influences of interactions with family and friends and teachers continue to have their effect. (more…)

David Lean on location for Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
David Lean on location for Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The Criterion Collection profiles the many sides of the epic filmmaker
For many cinephiles, the name David Lean signifies grand moviemaking—sweeping epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. But the long and eclectic career of this legendary British director encompasses arresting intimacy as well, as evidenced by the films of his in the Criterion Collection. Among those are pictures that he was responsible for editing, early on in his work in film: some of his national cinema’s greatest hits, including Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard’s Pygmalion, Gabriel Pascal’s Major Barbara, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 49th Parallel. In the forties and early fifties, having moved to directing, he made several luminous films, including adaptations of such classic and important contemporary works from the stage and page as Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit and Still Life (Brief Encounter, in the film version), and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. All are graced by evocative, shadowy black-and-white cinematography and elegantly restrained compositions. Summertime, his gorgeous 1955 Technicolor trip to Venice with Katharine Hepburn, marked a turning point in his career: the sun-dappled location shoot was galvanizing for Lean, and the remainder of his films, from The Bridge on the River Kwai to A Passage to India, could be considered outdoor spectacles. Yet Lean’s deep interest in complex characters, his brilliant way with actors, and his classic sense of storytelling were never trumped by scale. [More at The Criterion Collection]