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The writer cast out

“The phenomenon of writers ignored, abused, cast out, disgraced, not for the disaster of their writing but the disaster of their politics,” writes Adam Thirlwell, “is one contribution the twentieth century has made to the history of literature.” And yet the three figures he goes on to cite, the Franco-Romanian Emil Cioran (“There is no present-day politician I see as more sympathetic and admirable than Hitler.”), Kipling and Gorky, don’t quite seem to bear his point out. Cioran was lucky to have been in Paris rather than Bucharest when the communists took over after the war. Yet, though he became something of a recluse, he was nevertheless honoured rather than disgraced in France: one eminent figure called him “the greatest French writer to honour our language since the death of Paul Valéry” and he has continued to be feted by literary intellectuals since. Rudyard Kipling (“Today there are only two divisions in the world ... human beings and Germans.”) was both popular with readers and admired by the intellectual and aesthetic elite: Henry James thought him the most complete man of genius he had ever known. On his death, his coffin was carried by his cousin, the prime minister Stanley Baldwin, and his ashes are in Westminster Abbey. It is true that the postwar sensibility did not much care for his imperialist views, but that can have scarcely bothered him very much as he was dead. Maxim Gorky had some acute political insights in his earlier life (“[Lenin is] a cold-blooded political trickster who spares neither the honour nor the life of the proletariat.”), but his shaky health compelled him to live away from the home of socialism in Sorrento in (fascist) Italy for most of the 1920s. His return to Russia in 1932 was perhaps ill-advised. He was given a mansion and wrote a well-received book about the slave-labour-built White Sea-Baltic canal, which he described as an example of the successful rehabilitation of the former enemies of the proletariat. But by 1936 everyone unfortunately was an enemy of the proletariat and Gorky died, it is suspected at the hands of the NKVD.

Most of Thirlwell’s essay is about the German writer Gottfried Benn, who is like many foreign writers unheard of in the Anglosphere, but is still a considerable figure in Germany, in spite of his entanglement with the Nazis in the 1930s. One is not sure what point Thirlwell is making about disgrace. Nevertheless his essay on Benn is an interesting one.

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