For those of you interested in literary history, January 4th is a date that should be noted in the diary as being one of particular significance, marking as it does the anniversaries of the births and deaths of some giants of world literature.
January 4th is also associated with another French author, Albert Camus (who died in a car crash on this day in 1960).
Interestingly, both Camus and Gao have been associated with the philosophy of absurdism, which focuses on the inherent conflict between the human desire to find meaning in life and the impossibilty of finding any such meaning.
Other literary heavyweights who died on this day are TS Eliot (1965) and Christopher Isherwood (1986).
All of the above, with the exception of Isherwood, have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Animal Farm and the Plague of Doodle Bugs
The very fact that it came to be published at all is a testament to its author’s tenacity.
While Orwell was engrossed in writing the novel, London was being pulverized by a steady stream of flying V1 bombs, known as ‘doodle bugs'. When Orwell’s flat was, er, flattened by one of the deadly doodles, the author was forced to rummage in the debris to rescue his tattered manuscript.
TS Eliot, then an editor at Faber & Faber, refused to publish the book, fearful that its anti-Russian themes would be unpopular during the Second World War. Another publisher, having originally accepted the manuscript, was persuaded to rethink his decision after a visit from a shady figure from the British Government’s Ministry of Information. (Interestingly, the agent was later revealed to be a Soviet spy.)
Animal Farm was finally published by Secker and Warburg … and was an instant success.
Mr Men Get a Makeover
Forty years ago this week, in an effort to answer this earnest enquiry from his young son, Roger Hargreaves attempted to sketch the outline of a long-armed, smiley little man, whom he named Mr Tickle. Little did he know then that his innocuous little creation would be just the first in a long line of characters, which would become eventually become known as the now-iconic Mr Men and Little Miss series.“Daddy, what does a tickle look like?”
Despite Mr Tickle’s rather inauspicious beginnings, Hargreaves soon came to recognise the appeal of this type of simplistic character to young children, and set about creating six short children’s books which aimed to convey easily-understandable moral lessons. This collection, which included Mr Tickle, Mr Happy, Mr Greedy, Mr Nosey, Mr Sneeze and Mr Bump, proved to be an instant success, selling over a million copies in their first three years.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Hargreaves worked tirelessly to expand the series in a bid to meet the frenzied demand - which increased significantly when the BBC, recognising the animation potential in his creations, picked up the series for dramatisation. The resulting BBC cartoon show proved to be widely popular and introduced Hargreaves’s colourful characters to a whole new audience, ensuring the series’ continued success.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Mr Tickle’s creation, Adam Hargreaves, now 47, has revamped some to the most popular characters to accurately reflect some of the changes we have seen over the past four decades. Mr Greedy now appears as 1980s investment banker, while Little Miss Chatterbox is now seen nattering into a contemporary mobile phone. However, as evidenced by the series’ enduring popularity, such updates are unnecessary – the originality and simplicity of Hargreaves’s characters will surely guarantee their continued appeal to children for many generations to come.
Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh's suicide was the tragic culmination of years of mental and physical illness. (It has been said that he suffered from epilesy, schizophrenia, a disorder of the inner ear, among other ailments. He was also thought to be addicted to absinthe, the mind-bending alcoholic drink, which was also known as the Green Dragon or the Green Fairy).
The artist left behind a priceless legacy of impressionist masterpieces. His genius, however, went unrecognised in his lifetime. He died a pauper, having only ever sold one of his paintings, Red Vineyard in Arles.
On This Day (15th July)
1606: The Dutch master, Rembrandt, was born in Leiden in the Netherlands.
1799: The Rosetta Stone (which now resides in the British Museum) was found in Egypt by soldiers in Napoleon's army.
1919: Novelist Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin.
1989: Pink Floyd, who were scheduled to play a concert in Venice, were instructed by city officials not to play at any louder than 60 decibels, to prevent any damage to surrounding buildings.
1997: Fashion designer, Gianni Versace, was shot dead on the steps of his Miami home.
2003: Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean-Spanish novelist and poet, died.
Samuel Pepys & The Great Plague
Although he kept a diary for only nine years (from 1660 to 1669, when he was forced to abandon it due to blindness), Pepys' writings have become an invalubale source of information for historians. Aside from his accounts of the devastating Great Fire, his diaries have also provided commentaries on the Restoration, the Second Anglo-Dutch War and, of course, the Great Plague.
It was on this day, June 7th, in 1665, when Pepys made one of his first references to this terrible disease, which would go on the wreak havoc on the beleagured city. He wrote:
“This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a read cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord Have Mercy Upon Us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind . . . that I ever saw."As the summer wore on, his accounts became ever more harrowing. On August 12th, he wrote:
“The people die so, that it now seems they are willing to carry the dead to be buried by daylight, the nights not being long enough to do it."Pepys continued to chronicle the progress of the plague and, as his diary entry for August 22nd suggests, in their efforts to deal with the burgeoning number of dead bodies, the authorities had not the time nor the resources to bestow on the deceased any dignity in death.
“I went on a walk to Greenwich, on my way seeing a coffin with a dead body in it, dead of plague. It lay in an open yard . . . It was carried there last night, and the parish has not told anybody to bury it. This disease makes us more cruel to one another than we are to dogs.”
The Death of Christopher Marlowe
A contemporary of William Shakespeare (he was about 2 months older than the Bard), Marlowe was a prolific writer in the years leading up to his premature death. He published 5 plays, including The Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine and Dr Faustus, as well as numerous translations including a version of Ovid's Elegies.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with controversial historical figures, he has been remembered more for the puzzling aspects of his life and the unexplained circumstances of his death, than for his outstanding literary talent.
On May 18th 1593, a warrant was issued by the Privy Council for Marlowe's arrest. He was accused of having written some material that was deemed 'heretical' by the government of the day. Upon hearing of the warrant, Marlowe duly presented himself to the Privy Council on May 20th, only to be told that the Council was not sitting on that day. He was instructed to make daily reports of his whereabouts to the authorities until his case was heard, an obligation he fulfilled faithfully. Until May 30th, that is, when he got involved in a bar fight over an unpaid bill, during which he was faithfully stabbed.
The mind boggles at the possibilities ...
For more about the Shakespearean authorship controversy, read:
The Nazis Light the Fires of Hate
"You are doing the right thing at this midnight hour—to consign to the flames the unclean spirit of the past…. Out of these ashes the phoenix of a new age will arise…. Oh Century! Oh Science! It is a joy to be alive!"
|Joseph Goebbels delivering his speech|
Interestingly, in a much less publicized but equally significant way , the Allies were also guilty of large-scale book burning. In 1946, during the de-Nazification of Germany, millions of books and artworks by proponents of the Nazi regime were destroyed. That's not something we hear about very often, is it?
The Arrest of Oscar Wilde
When he was released in 1897, his health had badly deteriorated. Penniless and broken, both physically and mentally, Wilde died in ignominious exile in France in 1900. He is interred at the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery outside Paris.
Read an account of his arrest from The Times of London archive here:
I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that - everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.
I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.
|Virginia by Vanessa Bell|
The official cause of death was tuberculosis. However, in the days leading up to his demise, Lawrence (who was dismissive and distrustful of the medical profession) refused to accept any diagnosis proffered by his doctors. Instead, he preferred to believe that his illness stemmed from an entirely different source – literary criticism! Lawrence was convinced that his sickness was the physical manifestation of the endless negativity, scorn and vitriol he was subjected to at the hands of his critics. Pointing to his wheezing chest, the author said to a friend,
"the hatred which my books have aroused comes back at me and gets me here ... If I get the better of if in one place it goes to another."While his theories regarding the cause of his illnesses were undoubtedly outlandish, Lawrence was not overstating the extent of the negative reaction to his work. Despite the fact that the 1920s, with the emergence of the ‘bright young things’, witnessed a liberalisation in attitudes to sex, the literary world was unwilling to abandon its prudish and puritanical ways and unfortunately the later novels of DH Lawrence fell victim to this.
“I do not claim to be a literary critic, but I know dirt when I smell it, and here is dirt in heaps — festering, putrid heaps which smell to high Heaven."
Painters and Poets
On this day, January 19, Edgar Allan Poe, American writer and poet, was born in 1809.
Paul Cézanne, French post-impressionist painter, was also born on this day, in 1839.
Despite being an inveterate dipsomaniac, Joyce produced a considerable body of work in his lifetime, including A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Finnegan's Wake and the collection of short stories Dubliners. Joyce's fondness of the odd drink did nothing to stem the flow of creativity nor did it adversely affect his work ethic - he once said that he spent 20,000 hours working on Ulysses, the stream of consciousness masterpiece for which he is best remembered.
Interestingly, Joyce and fellow modernist writer Virginia Woolf, the two writers most associated with stream of consciousness narrative, share more than a talent for experimental prose - they were also born and died in the same year (1882 and 1941 respectively). Unfortunately, Woolf, who read Ulysses while writing Mrs Dalloway, did not hold Joyce's offering in very high esteem. She wrote in her diary:
"I have read 200 pages [of Ulysses] so far - not a third; & have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested by the first 2 or 3 chapters [...] & then puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. And Tom, great Tom [TS Eliot], thinks this is on a par with War & Peace!"A harsh critic, indeed!