Spent yesterday evening reading Thomas Merton‘s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Still a young man, he has lost his mother and his father to illness. With no fixed home, he moved from his birthplace in France to America, then back to France, then to England, and now to America. His attention to detail is wonderful, whether describing middle-class English life or American cinemagoers enjoying Charlie Chaplin‘s Modern Times. He is becoming increasingly disillusioned with his literary career, and there are early signs that he will consider monastic life. I’m looking forward to returning to the book as soon as I can: rich in everyday details, it’s a remarkable document of early-twentieth-century life.
I am becoming increasingly fascinated with life writing for its potential to blend historical record, philosophical observation, and literary style. I’m thinking here not only of Merton, but figures like St Augustine, Henri Amiel, and one of my all-time favourites, Jules Renard. Samuel Beckett‘s poignant and dryly humorous letters have a similar quality.
In a recent interview with Neil Badmington, I was reminded of the profound power and solace that that life writing can provide. Badmington reveals that ‘The Mourning Diary is the posthumous text by Barthes to which I return more than any other. Every time I revisit it, I’m struck by the desperate, impossible tension in its brief sighs of sorrow’.
Ivan Hewitt (The Telegraph) reviews David Cooper’s biography of the twentieth-century Hungarian composer
Of all the great modernist composers who shattered the musical consensus in the years before the First World War, Béla Bartók is the most mysterious. He had the lean features of an ascetic, and his frame was as spare and angular as his music. Agatha Fassett, a Hungarian émigré who knew Bartók well in his final sad years in the United States, said that when Bartók made music he seemed absolutely alive; when he stopped playing he seemed to vanish into some silent, private space.
Unlike Stravinsky, who seemed to know absolutely everybody from Charlie Chaplin to Pablo Picasso, Bartók’s circle was narrow. He gravitated towards the Hungarian musicians who championed him, and the Hungarian poets and writers who, like him, were obsessed with finding a true national identity. He was an avowed atheist, insisting that the only immortal part of human beings was the atoms that made up their bodies, yet his passionate attachment to the soil bordered on the mystical. [Read More]