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Compulsive Writers and Diverted Readers

by Frances Wilson

Pub Date: July 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-312-26193-4
Publisher: St. Martin's

English critic Wilson's study of several notoriously intense couplings shows how certain literary obsessions—assimilating the world through reading, sustaining oneself through writing—become interchangeable with heterosexual passion.

Perhaps the most famous example of literary seduction, that of Robert Browning by Elizabeth Barrett, stands in Wilson's introduction for the kind of relationship she is not investigating. Although it offers a very clear case of a passion for someone's writing can be transferred to the author's self, the Barrett-Browning affair resolved itself into something too fully personal to illustrate the kind of conflation of literary with physical engagement that Wilson has in mind. Instead, her model case is the far stormier relation between Byron and Caroline Lamb. Psychoanalysis and the mythic preoccupations of literary Modernism provide the background for the entwining narcissisms of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, as well as for the mutually devouring ideals of Robert Graves and Laura Riding. The chapter on Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam considers these drives in the very different climate of totalitarian political repression, where the very literal struggle between artistic power and physical force compelled poets to become their poems, and readers to become their sarcophagi. A final note on Yeats finds a rather unexpected opposition between the spiritual appeal of compulsive writing and obsessive romanticism. Although Wilson is not addressing an academic audience, she occasionally presumes on a wider literary culture than should be expected of a general reader; conscientious editing would have yielded more straightforward exposition and textual examples, and some needed brevity. Her arguments are, nevertheless, passionate and absorbing, and the overall aim to infuse the acts of reading and writing with a sense of mystery and urgency is laudable.

A fascinating, sometimes bumpy ride through the more grotesque regions of literary experience, for lovers of the half-rhyme between books and sex.