A Great Literary Friendship
Goethe’s long friendship with Schiller was in many ways the most striking in the history of literature, writes Jeremy Adler in the TLS this week. In comparison with competitors for this title, like that of Wordsworth and Coleridge, it lasted through more than a thousand letters and 600 meetings and “an astonishing array of literary works—poetry, epics, drama, fiction, essays and translations, aesthetics, and science.” And yet, for all the years the two writers worked together, the much shorter time, a mere few hours, in which Goethe, famed creator of Young Werther, discussed his bestseller with Napoleon has a concentrated magic of its own. A new book by Gustav Seibt, one of two under review, describes how the political and literary titans met at the high point of Napoleon’s career, in the margins of the Congress of Erfurt in 1808. Goethe recalled later that he had been first asked his age and been complimented that, at 60, he was “well preserved.” The two men went on to analyze the weaknesses perceived by the military genius in one of the most celebrated literary works of its age.
William Trevor’s Mastery
William Trevor is the greatest living master of the short story, a title examined by Rónán McDonald through the publication of two new selections from his work of the past four decades. Trevor is a silent and watchful figure in the literary world, greatly respected and admired, McDonald argues, but also an outsider, “excelling in a form often dismissed as the poor sibling of the novel.” Popular indifference to the short story is in a sense appropriate in that, as a literary genre, it tends to be peopled by overlooked, marginalized, mediocre characters. In his brief introduction to the Folio Society edition, Trevor quotes Frank O’Connor’s argument that the short story is a form typically without heroes where the dominant mood is loneliness. The short story is the home of the homeless, the vulnerable, the quiet failures and thwarted dreamers, characters who are inarticulate in one way or another, ignored or derided because they are unable to identify themselves or communicate their needs. Trevor's reponses to the violent Troubles of Northern Ireland in the 1970s and '80s, “The Distant Past” and “Beyond the Pale,” are just two of his well-known evocations of that time which justify the placing of his tales without heroes before a new generation of readers.
In times of trouble long ago, the art of the gem carver was to create attractive stones of value as well as objects of beauty. Some of the finest survive among the Marlborough gems, a collection once held at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, and now the subject of a book reviewed by Kenneth Lapatin.
Exquisite agates and cameos, the engraved gemstones, first cut by ancient Near Eastern craftsmen in the fifth millennium BC, have long captivated collectors. The virtuoso skills of gem cutters were extolled by Greek and Latin writers, who praised names such as Dioskourides and Tryphon alongside Pheidias, Polykleitos, Zeuxis and Apelles. Unlike the masterpieces of celebrated ancient sculptors and painters, which are known today only dimly through literary descriptions, later copies, and ancient representations in other media, fine original engravings in hard stone survive—often in virtually the same condition in which they left the craftsman’s studio. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the father of modern art history and an avid connoisseur of carved stones, declared that the development of ancient art could best be traced in this medium, “because the stages of art are found to a much greater extent in a collection of engraved gems than can be discerned in the larger monuments that are left to us.” And as for storing value against economic catastrophes, Lapatin notes the famed Tazza Farnese, originating in Alexandria 2,000 years ago and the pride of Naples today. Lorenzo de Medici's accountants valued it once at a hundred times the price of their master's finest oil painting.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.