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Axel's Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1931)

av Edmund Wilson

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Published in 1931,Axel's Castle was Edmund Wilson's first book of literary criticism--a landmark book that explores the evolution of the French Symbolist movement and considers its influence on six major twentieth-century writers: William Butler Yeats, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. As Alfred Kazin later wrote, "Wilson was an original, an extraordinary literary artist . . . He could turn any literary subject back into the personal drama it had been for the writer."… (mer)

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Wilson, Edmund. Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931.
Anyone interested in the modernist movement in literature should read Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle. It is much less dated than any work of literary criticism that is almost 90 years old has any right to be. Wilson writes with an almost journalistic clarity about subjects that are themselves sometimes intentionally vague, abstruse, and arcane, and he does so at a time when many of the works he discusses were just beginning to be read and understood in any depth. He writes about James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, for example, when it was still being published in draft pieces. If the romantic poets were reacting against classicism and connecting their own subjective experience to our objective understanding of nature, the late 19th-century French symbolist poets, Wilson tells us, reacted against the objectivity of romanticism and against realism and naturalism. Wilson then locates Yeats in this new symbolist tradition and shows how later in his career he blends it with more realistic elements, as did the early work of Joyce and T. S. Eliot. In discussing Joyce and Proust, he points out that consciousness for them had a much more evanescent quality than it did for the romantics. They needed to catch it on the fly and connect it, not to nature, but to the depths of their own unconscious minds. Language for many of these writers was more important for its suggestive, often private, values than for its denotative connections. This explains, Wilson says, why so many of these works are difficult to decipher. Axel’s Castle is Wilson’s ultimate symbol for language that has become completely self-absorbed and private. He somewhat unfairly, I think, disparages the poetry of Gertrude Stein for this tendency. On a less serious note, Wilson gives me good reason not to read Proust, and suggests that maybe I ought to try to really read all the layers I can in in the palimpsest that is Finnegans Wake. Wilson gets five stars for this one. ( )
  Tom-e | Jul 17, 2020 |
In this 1931 work, Wilson focuses on the Symbolist movement in literature, particularly the works of Yeats, Valéry, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. Eliot was in the prime of his career, and Remembrance of Things Past and Ulysses less than a decade old.

Wilson's writing is crystalline clear (though his use of huge block quotes is sometimes awkward), and it's refreshing to read a contemporary's thoughts on Yeats, Proust, Joyce and Eliot. Because I am reading Remembance of Things Past now, I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Proust, and found insights on the structure which blew me away.

Wilson does become tangled up in his shorts trying to connect advances in theoretical physics with the evolution of literature. I found Wilson's attempts to connect quantum physics and relativity to new forms of art unconvincing; I don't believe that any of these artists understood enough about science to have insights into how Einstein or Heisenberg could inform our views on literature, at least beyond the most surface level. It's both comical and touching to read some of these passages, which I understand had wide currency.

Besides this minor quibble, I really enjoyed my first foray into Wilson's work, and plan to read more. ( )
  Robert_Musil | Dec 15, 2019 |
Somewhere in the previous Wilson I recently read, the critic states that one of his favorite times in life is when he's able to describe a book to someone unfamiliar with such. That ripple of joy is on display here. Often. I truly wish I had read this book 30 years ago. It was probably the number of poets within which discouraged me at that time. Those childish things. A shrinking violet--in flannel. But a flaneur, nonetheless.

Wilson cites the advent of Symbolism as the movement which brought to the fore Joyce, Proust and Stein. The critic then develops a thesis of Romanticism being a response to Classicism. Naturalism then became a conservative easing of the Romantic fire which then led to the insular quest of Symbolism, crafted in a lab by the wonky Mallarmé and other, lesser, lights of contention. I find it odd that Valéry received a chapter but Huysmans did not. The effect of the Great War also appears nebulous in this reasoning.

There was much to learn in this ostensible primer. There was also a great deal of plot description. Some would wager an excessive amount. We can't deny Bunny his pleasure. My personal ax on Axel: not enough Freud and Faulkner. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
I am, virtually without qualification, a huge fan of Edmund Wilson’s essays, if less so of his fiction. While perhaps not at the level of a Macaulay, a Montaigne, a Johnson, a Benjamin, an Emerson, or even an H. L. Mencken, Wilson has written both eloquently and persuasively on a variety of topics. The Triple Thinkers and To the Finland Station come immediately and memorably to mind, even though I read both some thirty years ago.

I can’t express anything like the same kudos for Axel’s Castle. Wilson covers the gamut of interesting personalities and writers (Yeats; Valéry; Eliot; Proust; Joyce; Stein; and Rimbaud – not to mention the Symbolist Movement in general) – but either I lack the necessary enthusiasm for this Movement and these writers or Wilson has simply failed to convince me they’re worth reading.

God knows, Proust and Joyce both have their share of devotees. I’m just not among them. I’ve never read Proust. Joyce certainly proved his writer’s credentials with both Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners.v But I struggled to complete seventy pages of Ulysses before giving up in utter frustration. I’ve never even attempted Finnegans Wake.

And yes, I’ve read much of the poetry of Yeats and T. S. Eliot and found some of it inspiring. But would I feel the same degree of enthusiasm either for Gertrude Stein or for Paul Valéry? I doubt it. Rimbaud, of course, is in a category unto himself.

For the student of the Symbolist Movement, I suspect Axel’s Castle is a worthwhile undertaking. For the dilettante — which I admittedly am — I would suggest it’s not.

RRB
04/17/11
Brooklyn, NY, USA
( )
  RussellBittner | Dec 12, 2014 |
Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 is a 1931 book of literary criticism by Edmund Wilson on the Symbolist movement in literature. It includes a brief overview of the movement's origins and chapters on W. B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. The book's title refers to Axël, a prose poem by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam which is discussed along with the works of Arthur Rimbaud in the concluding chapter. Axel's Castle, truly should be considered one of the formative critical texts of American literary criticism. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jul 12, 2013 |
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Gordon, MaryInledningmedförfattarevissa utgåvorbekräftat
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Published in 1931,Axel's Castle was Edmund Wilson's first book of literary criticism--a landmark book that explores the evolution of the French Symbolist movement and considers its influence on six major twentieth-century writers: William Butler Yeats, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. As Alfred Kazin later wrote, "Wilson was an original, an extraordinary literary artist . . . He could turn any literary subject back into the personal drama it had been for the writer."

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