A review of TS Eliot A Short Biography by John Worthen.

This was an impulse borrowing from my local library. It’s not bad and the fact that it’s reasonably short adds to the appeal for anyone looking to learn a little more about Eliot’s life but who doesn’t want to get too in-depth (and as a lot of Eliot’s life was quite  a troubled affair that can be no bad thing). As a basic primer on Eliot’s life, and as a means of shedding light on the circumstances surrounding the composition of his key works, it’s quite a useful volume.

Several years ago I read Peter Ackroyd’s 1980’s biography of the poet, which notably cites none of the poems since permission was not granted by Eliot’s widow and executor Valerie. Nonetheless, that remains a superb biography and I can heartily recommend that if you want to put gentility aside and ‘dig deep’. Worthen’s book, by contrast, quotes liberally from the poems but is shorter and more limited in scope. What Worthen seems to do is to quote the poems as a means of trying to explore how the poems reflect Eliot’s life and key preoccupations at the times of composition. Of course he also touches on some of the wider themes present in the poems, but for the most part this is quite a traditional literary biography in that it doesn’t get too technical in its exploration of the verses, and assesses them for the most part in terms of the basic context of the author’s life.

Along the way he touches on several of the controversies that inevitably crop up when discussing Eliot’s life, work and ideas. Just how bad was his first marriage? Unsurprisingly Worthen concludes that it was a disaster all round, but like others he contends that Eliot’s torrid marriage acted as a catalyst for some of his greatest work. Was Eliot gay? Worthen concludes that he doesn’t think so because there’s not enough evidence to prove it. Was Eliot an anti-Semite? Yes, he undoubtedly some poems whose tone is anti-semitic, and yes he was anti-semitic to a degree, but, he contends, that doesn’t mar the whole Eliot canon or make it as over-archingly anti-semitic as others say it is.

After reading Worthen’s book I went back to the poems once more and quickly realised that, as far as I am concerned, there’s far, far, far more to a poem as vast as-say-  The Waste Land than we can account for by inferring what was going on in Eliot’s head and heart at the time of its composition. I guess it is possible for the literary equivalent of a detective or psychologist to relate most if not all of it to what we know of Eliot and his life. But for me that is to place a limit on what the poem is capable of expressing. So on one level it is one man’s ‘rhythmical grumbling’ (to use Eliot’s phrase). But on so many other levels it is so much more. Take lines like these: “On Margate sands./ I can connect nothing with nothing.” Alright, so for some it might conjure the image of a sad Eliot in a deckchair in said seaside town trying to get his head together, but that is only one of many possible meanings that these rich lines spark in the mind.

To his credit a writer as good as Worthen knows this. As Eliot himself also stated (which is a fact he seemed to revel in) no-one, least of all the poet himself, can possibly account for the sum total of a poem’s meanings. So a decent little primer on Eliot then, but like al criticism it’s certainly not the last word on the poems themselves. Instead it serves as a good inspiration to go back to the works themselves.








Review: Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity.


Stefan Zweig in happier times looking very relaxed (in complete contrast to how I felt reading his book). 


I read Beware of Pity at the end of May, but have only just got round to finishing my review, which if it tells you anything indicates that sometimes it takes me longer to get my thoughts down than it does for me to finish reading a novel, which itself is often very slow indeed.

Not so Beware of Pity. I read it in a state every bit of frenzied and feverish as the hapless narrator of this book. If this tells you anything it indicates that a) this novel is a real page turner and b) I was indeed frenzied and feverish since quickly after finishing the book I was laid up in bed with the flu.

Zweig’s Beware of Pity was published in 1939 at the outset of the Second World War, but it is actually set in those months leading up to the Great War in 1914. In many respects it is a broad political allegory, although in ways which I find very hard to fathom and express. Perhaps keener students of Zweig, Austrian history and the First World War can do this better than me. Suffice to say that I think it’s a broad allegory about the mindset of the ruling and military classes that led Austria to war.  However, I think that it is first and foremost a tale about one man’s tortured emotions and the exceptionally delicate social web he finds himself caught within. This lends the book a wider relevance that all of us can relate to in some degree.

The main character is Toni Hofmiller, a 25 year old second lieutenant in the Austria-Hungary cavalry. At the beginning of the novel Zweig supplies a useful note, which goes a long way to describing the degree of constraint imposed by the Officer’s Code by which Hofmiller must live and act as an officer in the Empire’s army. Stricter than the code governing, say, the British, German or French armies at the time, Hofmiller is bound by rigid conventions on how to act among his men, his fellow officers, and when out and about in society as a whole.

The actual plot is quite straightforward. Hofmiller finds himself invited to the home of the richest man in the district in which he is garrisoned. One evening at a dance at the man’s home, he notices that his daughter is not dancing and that no-one has asked her. Thinking it his duty as an officer to do the gallant thing, he cordially invites her to dance.

She reacts hysterically. How was Hofmiller to know that the girl was disabled and completely unable to dance? It was a faux pas of sorts, but Hofmiller feels it far more deeply than that. Feeling that he has not just embarrassed himself  but his whole regiment, he feels a deep sense of shame and feels he must try to make good on what he has done.

Hofmiller is utterly mortified and crushed by the embarrassment. In an attempt to make amends he sends flowers by means of an apology. This is accepted and in turn he finds himself invited back to the house. By twist of fate, he immediately finds himself invited back again and again, until his daily visits are expected by all the members of the family, above all by the young disabled girl.

Hofmiller is drawn there by a sense of duty, born out of the pity he feels for the girl and her situation. While on one level she is conscious of this, knowing that Hofmiller is in a very real sense humouring her, she cannot prevent herself on a deeper emotional level from seeing his attentions as indicative of a deeper emotional bond, and she falls in love with the young officer. And this is where the screw tightens on Hofmiller.

Zweig takes this basic situation and examines it at length. You wouldn’t think it’d make for a good novel, or even a great one, but it does, owing principally to Zweig’s skill at making the narrator’s explanation of his thoughts and feelings every bit as interesting and the awkward social situation and emotional deadlock he finds himself in.

Bound by a sense of honour and pity to visit the girl, horrified at the increasing emotional bonds tying her to him, yet feeling utterly powerless to extricate himself from the situation, how on earth is Hofmiller to escape?

This is crux of the novel, and this is what will keep you reading.

So beware of Beware of Pity. It’s guaranteed to grip you and put you too through the emotional wringer (it won’t necessarily give you the flu though, so at least that’s okay).