Friday, August 22, 2014

Biography, genius

At the TLS, the ever-brilliant Michael Hofmann on a new biography of Bertold Brecht. I am persuaded that the book is a must-read, but I am not at all convinced it is going to change my mind about Brecht! (Tyler Cowen's thoughts are remarkably similar to my own!) Here is an especially interesting bit:
So we aren’t given Brecht the old unscrupulous automaton, the theatre shouter and “indoor Marxman” (Malcolm Lowry’s phrase, not about Brecht), the arid and grasping authoritarian and hypocrite. Instead we get a wholly fresh and absorbing sense of what it might have been like to be Brecht, from the sickly child to the prematurely old, dismally undiagnosed heart patient. Parker’s book is green, not grey. Certain themes are sounded insistently, implacably and rightly throughout: Brecht “the extravagantly gifted child”, his “extravagant intelligence”, “this hugely gifted boy”, “his extreme talent”. It may sound like a lot, like overkill, even, but it is only just, and anything less would have been remiss. Brecht was a prodigy to set beside Rimbaud and Keats, a superior and controlled and reflexively self- invented being, a “singular sensibility”. Parker is careful not to say that Brecht was brilliant because he was unwell, but unwellness is part of his picture of the man and his genius, as it tends to be part of ours nowadays, no matter the individual.

The way Brecht negotiated his conditions (weak heart, panic attacks, dizzy spells, the twitching and trembling associated with Sydenham’s chorea, renal and urinary tract infections, lack of appetite) was – another one of Parker’s running themes – to pretend all was well, to ration his excesses discreetly after his roaring adolescence and early twenties, and to ask as much of himself as though he had been well. Parker shows how easily Brecht might have become the Late Romantic, private, neurasthenic type of poet he despised; it was what nature had equipped him for, to be a Stefan George, a Gérard de Nerval, a Charles Algernon Swinburne, a poet of Night and Storm and Sickness and Mother. Reading and discipline and mental strength and his own rebellious orientation fixed that. Interest was some where else; originality was somewhere else; autonomy and usefulness were somewhere else. Moreover, emotionalism, the despised “swill of feelings”, simply used him up, leaving nothing, no residue, no achievement. Chopin, Wagner and Dostoevsky were prime instances of unhealthy art; they simply made him ill; Brecht even took his temperature to prove it. He had to run himself carefully, as his life turned into “a gamble played out between weakness and strength”. His “cult of coldness” was actually self-preservation.
Bonus link: my favorite Hofmann review, the devastating takedown of Stefan Zweig! I still haven't read George Prochnik's book, though I have a copy at home - I feel I owe it to Zweig to hear the other side of the story - but I don't think I've ever read a negative review I enjoyed quite so much as this one.

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