A powerful antidote to the current election cycle

May 25th, 2016

grossmanLike so many Americans, I am disheartened by the current election cycle and its dispiriting daily news. Here’s one antidote: instead of the political blogs, try reading Vasily Grossman‘s Love and FateIt has been sitting on my bookshelves for about a year, awaiting the right moment. Try the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviet gulags, and the Nazi death camps, to give you a sense of scale.

Here’s Grossman take on the times being out of joint, a bracing reminder that we all can’t roll with it, all the time. Who, after all, would want to be the man of the hour in the U.S.S.R. of Joseph Stalin?

“There is nothing more difficult than to be a stepson of the time; there is no heavier fate than to live in an age that is not your own. Stepsons of the time are easily recognized: in personnel departments, Party district committees, army political sections, editorial offices, on the street … Time loves only those it has given birth to itself: its own children, its own heroes, its own labourers. Never can it come to love the children of a past age, any more than a woman can love the heroes of a past age, or a stepmother love the children of another woman.

“Such is time: everything passes, it alone remains; everything remains, it alone passes. And how swiftly and noiselessly it passes. Only yesterday you were sure of yourself, strong and cheerful, a son of the time. But now another time has come – and you don’t even know it.”

Anyway, I’ve already voted by mail in the primaries. Wake me up in November. Meanwhile… back to my book.

Robert Conquest remembers Solzhenitsyn: “How should one judge him?”

May 21st, 2016
Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Conquest at work in 2010 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Next month, I’ll be giving a talk about Robert Conquest – the legendary historian of Russia’s Stalinist period, and also a very fine poet. The occasion will be the West Chester Poetry Conference outside Philadelphia. Tonight, I’m working and thinking about Bob, who died last year at 98. While checking dates on the internet, I found this article from him about his collaboration with the larger-than-life Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

You can read it in its entirety in the Wall Street Journal here. Or settle for a couple excerpts below:


He’s working too, at Hoover Institution Archives.

Those of us who had long been concerned to expose and resist Stalinism, in the West as in the USSR, learned much from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I met him in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1974, soon after he was expelled from the Soviet Union – the result of … The Gulag Archipelago, being published in Paris. He was personally pleasant; I have a photograph of the two of us, he holding a Russian edition of my book, The Great Terror, with evident approbation. He asked if I would translate a “little” poem of his. Of course I agreed.

The little poem, Prussian Nights, turned out to be 2,000 lines! Thankfully, he and his circle helped. It was an arresting composition, increasing our knowledge of him and his times – something worth reading, and rereading, for its stunning historical background.

Solzhenitsyn was one of the most striking public figures of our time. How should one judge him? As a writer, up there with Pasternak? As a moralist, up there with Czeslaw Milosz? But he should also be judged as one who might have won two Nobel prizes – not just for Literature, but also for Peace.

In his public capacity, he felt bound to stand forward as the conscience of his people. He said, in a July 2007 interview in Der Spiegel, “My views developed in the course of time. But I have always believed in what I did and never acted against it.” Yet above all, he saw himself as a writer – a Russian writer.
For most of us, Russian literature is like a triangle around Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and ChekhovTolstoy is in his own class. Solzhenitsyn, on the strength of August 1914 alone, competes in the Tolstoy lane.



“Class of his own.”

Some giants of Russian literature appear more preachy than is common in the West, a trait that brings us to what many see as weaknesses in the Russian tradition. First is the feeling, without basis, that one is somehow being cheated – as in Gogol; second is a tendency to exaggerate or invent. Yet along with these weaknesses there is also painful honesty.

I did not sense the weaknesses when I met him. He was religious and Russian, but without exhibition – though it became clear he embodied Fyodor Tyutchev‘s famous dictum that “Russia can neither be grasped by the mind, nor measured by any common yardstick – no attitude to her other than one of blind faith is admissible.”

He remained staunchly anticommunist, noting in the July 2007 interview in Der Spiegel that the October Revolution “broke Russia’s back. The Red Terror unleashed by its leaders, their willingness to drown Russia in blood, is the first and foremost proof of it.” He also hoped that “the bitter Russian experience, which I have been studying and describing all my life, will be for us a lesson that keeps us from new disastrous breakdowns.”

Incidentally, I would never call Milosz “a moralist” – he certainly would not have considered himself as such, and was far too aware of his fallibility. Nevertheless, read the whole thing here.

Photographer Lena Herzog: “I fall into breathing with the world…”

May 19th, 2016

Herself. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Russian American photographer Lena Herzog is a phenomenon – well beyond the books she has published and her international exhibitions. She’s witty, incisive, profound, and thoroughly original. You can read for yourself in my Q&A with her at the Music & Literature website – here

I caught her during a recent trip to San Francisco, while she was visiting on break for her tours with her newly published Strandbeests: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen. Lena Herzog spent seven years tracking the evolution of a new kinetic species, intricate as insects but dwarfing its creator, a scientist-artist, in size as they roam the beaches of Holland. 

But this particular visit to the City wasn’t a solo visit: her husband Werner Herzog was in town for Stanford’s Another Look book club event, in which Herzog joined author Robert Pogue Harrison for an onstage conversation (we wrote about that here and here). Robert met the Herzogs a few years earlier, when he interviewed Lena for his Entitled Opinions radio show.

But I consider it a privilege to have had a short squished hour with Lena alone, before the Herzogs headed back to their Los Angeles home.

Here’s an excerpt:

strandbeestsHaven: So how do you capture a moment that is movement? With the Strandbeests, you’re trying to take a still photograph of something that is essentially motion, by definition.

Herzog: By definition, yes. That’s the whole point of it. One of my first two books was about dance—Flamenco: Dance Class in 2004. By the way, it was dedicated to a great Flamenco dancer Yaelisa of Spanish decent, the daughter of the great Flamenco singer Isa Mura. Yaelisa lives and works in the Bay Area. I had a similar challenge with her and her troupe, how do you photograph something that is all about motion? Or anything that’s alive, really? A dancer is not a breathing, living being in my photographs, but, I hope, you get a sense of her, of her dance. A photograph is not a calcification. For me, it’s capturing the spirit of something, a tree, a person, an object, a moment. At its best, a good shot is the opposite of clarification—it is a mystery.

I normally photograph at a regular speed, 125 fractions of one second. So it’s one second divided by 125 times. That’s the slice of the time I use to capture something. I click when I feel something—when my heart sinks for a brief moment. Everything that constitutes me, coalesces, dances with that moment.

flamencoThat connection is what matters, what makes me take a picture. That’s why, for example, I don’t use tripods. I have them, I just haven’t used them. I realized that even when I’m photographing a tree or a mummified human specimen in the Cabinet of Wonders I need to be one with my camera. The lost souls are not moving, but I am moving. My soul is moving. It’s breathing. It feels like I fall into breathing with the world. And then I click.

I need that last breath, that sense of becoming the thing I’m photographing—as if my soul jumped out of me and into that person. I need that brief second, that possession, and so that last breath is crucial. When I am responding to motion, to a dance or to Strandbeests, that’s what I’m reflecting—something that’s in me. It’s not technically photographing something and making sure the viewer understands this motion. It’s this after-image effect, the moment when your heart sank because you saw that. And it translates. It’s a mystical moment. I don’t know why it translates, but I know that it does.

Well, you can read the whole thing online here

Has entertainment turned our minds into jello and our politicians into clowns? Vargas Llosa thinks so.

May 16th, 2016

Mario Vargas Llosa in NYC with interlocutor John King at right. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

We’ve written about Peruvian Nobelist Mario Vargas Llosa before (here and here and here). Now it’s The Guardian‘s turn. Vargas Llosa has just come out with a new collection of essays, Notes on the Death of Culture. (This isn’t a new article, but perhaps you also missed it when the book was published last year.)

From The Guardian:

llosa-bookVargas Llosa has long been known as a public intellectual as well as a novelist in the Spanish-speaking world – and indeed in the UK, where he lived in the 1980s. One-time contender for his country’s presidency, a cultural liberal who wants value in the arts, ideas and literature to rule over easy relativism, the register of price and the “civilisation of spectacle”, he worries over the dangers to democracy the latter group poses. He’s at home with the giants of French theory, from Guy Debord, inventor of situationism, to Jacques Derrida and his archival fever. Their impact, he notes, has hardly been salutary. Meanwhile, neither artists nor critics, journalists nor politicians value judgment or intelligence.

By succumbing to what Marshall McLuhan called an “image bath”, he writes, the 21st-century west has ushered in a time of “docile submission to emotions and sensations triggered by an unusual and at times very brilliant bombardment of images that capture our attention, though they dull our sensibilities and intelligence due to their primary and transitory nature”. A shallow levity has taken over. The ethics of Hello!, which he reminds us was originally a Spanish magazine, rule. Entertainment is all. Translated into the political sphere, this means our politicians increasingly become clowns, prepared to do anything to capture media attention. The press, whose freedom is crucial, is more symptom than outright cause of this regrettable phenomenon.

Read the whole thing here.

Editor extraordinaire Daniel Medin: he’s “raise-your-eyebrows smart”

May 13th, 2016

Man Booker award-winner László Krasznahorkai’s with Daniel Medin at last year’s ceremony. (Photo: Hans Balmes)

One of our favorite people is international literary tastemaker and editor extraordinaire Daniel Medin of the American University in Paris. We’ve written about him here and here and here, among other places. It’s been a pleasure to watch his rise as a truly great editor and homme de lettres, fostering literary excellence wherever in the world he finds it.

Fortunately, our good taste is contagious. An article on the Washington University of St. Louis’ The Source called him “an evangelist for outstanding contemporary foreign-language writers.”

Case in point: Medin is a judge for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The annual award honors a fictional book translated into English and published in the United Kingdom. The winning title earns a lofty £50,000 ($75,800), split equally between author and translator.

...and his admirer

Literary evangelist

Medin and the four other jurists pored over 160 novels and met several times throughout the winter and early spring to create the prize’s longlist and then select the winner. “What I’m doing doesn’t feel like work,” he says. “It’s a privilege.”

Warm, self-effacing and raise-your-eyebrows smart, Medin works in three languages — German, French and English — allowing him to read fiction by authors famous in their own countries but underrepresented or completely unknown by Anglophones.

When a novelist or poet impresses him, Medin gracefully labors to expose that person’s prose to English-language readers. He publishes translated selections of their work in Music & ­Literature, The White Review and The Cahiers Series, the three literary ­magazines that he helps edit. He also sends copies to publishers, critics and writers all over the world.

“Reading these books is a pleasure,” Medin says. “It’s similar to having something delectable to eat; the delight is enhanced by sharing it with others.”

Read the whole thing here. The only thing I’d fault it for is that it doesn’t mention Daniel’s long stint at Stanford, which is where our paths finally crossed.

Philip Gourevitch: “People want to speak so as not to be annihilated.”

May 11th, 2016


The English Department at Stanford, along with its Creative Writing Program, regularly hosts five-star writers to the Stanford campus, but to my mind they’ve outdone themselves this spring with the dynamite team of Philip Gourevitch and his wife, Larissa MacFarquhar, both of The New Yorker.  

Gourevitch is best known for his first book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (1998), which was honored with, among other awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and, in England, the Guardian First Book Award. In 2011, We Wish to Inform You was included in the Guardian’s list of the hundred greatest non-fiction books from the past 2,500 years. He has returned to Rwanda in recent years and is working on a new book about the country, You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know. He gave a reading from it a few weeks ago – it was an unforgettable experience. 

Today at a 11 a.m. colloquium, he fielded questions from the Stanford community. Fortunately, he had Elizabeth Tallent provide the introduction. She’s a powerful essayist (and fiction writer) in her own right. Here’s what she said:


Signing books in 2008. (Photo: Larry D. Moore/Creative Commons)

At a PEN America panel, talking about his reportage on the genocide in Rwanda and its aftermath, Philip Gourevitch said:

“Three words that motivate the political reporting I’ve done on the aftermath of political violence: unimaginable, unthinkable, and unspeakable, reflexive words that give voice to the magnitude without actually addressing it. They are words with which the press gives you permission to forget about and ignore things. They are the words by which we let ourselves off the hook…These words were almost universally applied to Rwanda. ‘Unbelievable’ was the casual form of all three words put together. But: believe it. What else is a writer supposed to do but think and speak. And imagine.”

A little later he added:  “People want to speak so as not to be annihilated. Often in situations where there’s a sense of crushing forces very, very close to the bone, people want to speak simply to exist.”  …

About We Wish To Inform You, the Guardian’s reviewer Rory Stewart wrote, “Gourevitch’s book insists on being always articulate. In the hardest situations, his reactions can remain uncannily precise.”

gourevitch-bookAgainst, counter to, conventions of authority and detachment, We Wish to Inform You offers a humane, troubled voice that meticulously documents its uncertainties and offers moments of self-disclosure. After having been taken through a hospital ward full of the mutilated survivors of machete assaults, he has to lie down on the cool cement of the hospital corridor.

A vigorous style characterized by vivid small separate acts of noticing. In We Wish to Inform You, Philip Gourevitch has a series of conversations with a doctor who is a survivor of the genocide, and about one of these conversations, she wipes at her eyes, and he writes, “It was the only time she wept in telling me her story. She covered her face with one hand, and the fingers of the other tapped a fast pulse against the table. Then she said, ‘I’m going to get us some sodas.’”

Philip Gourevitch’s careful, forceful, sustained search for the reality of our—of humanity’s—varied, sometimes truly horrific struggles enlarges the share of available reality for each reader of his work. If the reality we gain from reading Philip Gourevitch is sometimes an intractable or wounding reality, we are offered, in his clarity, in his searchingness, in his repeated defiant decisions to keep looking, a model of what it may be like to resist conventional evasions and do, instead, the hard work of finding the horrors we have inflicted on ourselves imaginable, speakable, thinkable.

Last call! Joseph Conrad’s late novella The Shadow-Line tomorrow night!

May 9th, 2016

conrad5Last call! On Tuesday, May 10, the Another Look book club will weigh in on Joseph Conrad‘s late novella, The Shadow-Line, written by one of the darkest and most prophetic voices in English fiction. The panel will be moderated by Another Look director Robert Pogue Harrison, an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature. Harrison is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the host for the popular radio talk show Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by drama Professor Rush Rehm, artistic director of the Stanford Repertory Theater, and Monika Greenleaf, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature. Read more about the event here


1,180 pages of Abigail Adams’s letters: war not as backdrop, but context

May 7th, 2016

Edith Gelles

At the recent “A Company of Authors” event, which has been called a “speed-dating for books,” one presenter had a particularly good reason to be pleased, beyond the nature of the charming annual occasion itself. Under her arm, Stanford scholar Edith Gelles carried the Wall Street Journal, which had that weekend given a whole front-of-section page to her 1,180-page Abigail Adams: Letters, newly published by the Library of America series. And what a glowing review it was: Gelles, the author of four books on the second First Lady, has “a historian’s eye on the world of events and a biographer’s ear for voice and character,” as reviewer Jane Kamensky notedAbigail Adams is perhaps the best-known woman of the Revolutionary War period, a champion for women, and certainly coined a phrase as famous as any by her husband, President John Adams, when she enjoined him to “remember the ladies.” (He didn’t.)

An excerpt from “The World Turned Upside Down”:


She remembered the ladies, always.

War is no mere backdrop but rather the essential context of the Letters. Adams was born into war, in 1744, as Massachusetts hemorrhaged men to fight in the conflict known as King George’s War in the colonies and as the War of the Austrian Succession in Britain, which she, like her fellow provincials, called “the Mother Country.” She grew to womanhood during the nine-year conflict that would come to be called the Seven Years’ War. The Sugar Act, the opening chapter in a disastrous litany of imperial legislation occasioned by the cost of Britain’s victory in that war, took effect less than a month before her October 1764 marriage to a distant cousin, the young lawyer John Adams. A decade later, the multiplying consequences of Britain’s miscalculations drew her husband to a grand Continental Congress for more than a year. While he beavered away in Philadelphia, she witnessed the onset of another war in all but name. There followed, after the bloodshed at Concord and Lexington, a second congress—another long leave-taking—and then, once revolution began in earnest, a series of diplomatic posts that removed John from his “dearest friend” for the better part of a decade, during much of which he had two of their sons in tow.

“If the Sword be drawn I bid adieu to all domestick felicity,” Adams told her husband in October 1774. The sword was drawn, and domestic felicity shattered. In her letters, she is by turns proud, fretful and furious. “How did my heart dilate with pleasure when as each event was particularized; I could trace my Friend as a Principal in them,” she wrote, looking backward, at the end of 1783, shortly after the Treaty of Paris was signed and the existence of the United States ratified. Such greatness, but at what cost? “It was he; who tho happy in his domestick attachments; left his wife, his Children; then but Infants; even surrounded with the Horrours of war; terrified and distresst, . . . Left them, to the protection of that providence which has never forsaken them.” How long had she run the household? She kept score: “Two days only are wanting to campleat six years since my dearest Friend first crost the Atlantick,” she wrote in February 1784, some months before she at long last sailed to join her husband in Europe. So much time had passed that she failed to recognize her eldest son, John Quincy; the boy who had left Boston’s Long Wharf had become the man she met in London. “I had thought before I saw him, that I could not be mistaken in him,” she wrote to John, “but I might have set with him for some time without knowing him.”


Remember her too, please.

Kamensky called for Library of America, too, to “remember the ladies”:

Surely there is room to remember more ladies in this fine fashion. Start with Adams’s friend Mercy Otis Warren, who was the first great historian of the American Revolution. Add the political theorist Judith Sargent Murray, the poet Phillis Wheatley and the Pennsylvania diarist Elizabeth Drinker. Issue the novels of Adams’s New England neighbors Susannah Rowson (her Charlotte Temple was the best-selling American novel until Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Hannah Webster Foster. Find their friends. Mark their words. Then and only then will we begin to hear something like the harmonies within which Abigail Adams sang those famous lines, not as a solo but as part of a dissonant chorus, still fighting for listeners.

Read the whole thing here.

Antidote to the election blues: two minutes of Shakespeare

May 4th, 2016

shakespeareHere’s a powerful antidote to the dispiriting election news this year: The Guardian‘s “Shakespeare Solos.”

This year is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare‘s death, and the British Guardian is commemorating with its top actors and actresses performing 2- and 3-minute video clips, distributed on Facebook, Youtube, and the Guardian website. It’s terrific stuff.

Here are my favorites so far … from the sublime to the profane:

Laura Carmichael as Portia in Merchant of Venice: ‘The quality of mercy’

Paterson Joseph as Shylock in Merchant of Venice: ‘You call me misbeliever’

Damian Lewis as Antony in Julius Caesar: ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’

David Threlfall as Prospero in The Tempest: ‘Our revels now are ended’

Sacha Dhawan as Shakespeare’s Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well: ‘Are you meditating on virginity?’

Economist Myra Strober and the “gentlemanly smile”

April 29th, 2016

Still smiling … Myra today.

At the time she began her career in economics, the Myra Strober was one of the very few women in the field. “I had no idea it was so male. None,” the Stanford labor economist told a crowded audience at the Bechtel Conference Center on April 19. She went on to become the founding director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research (then the Center for Research on Women, or CROW) and first chair of the National Council for Research on Women, a consortium of about 65 U.S. centers for research on women.

The subject of her April talk was her new book, Sharing The Work: What My Career And Family Taught Me About Breaking Through (And Holding The Door Open For Others). Myra told me about her writing her memoir some time ago, so in a sense I’ve known this book since it was a baby – little more than a thought in Myra’s mind.

Her story is inspiring, but the tale I remembered best is the one that takes place in 1979, when she returned to CROW as director, and had a new boss, the vice provost for research, Jerry Lieberman. It shows us that maybe we have indeed come a long way.

From her book:

From the start, it’s clear that Jerry is extremely supportive of CROW and wants to serve as my mentor. Jerry and I are both from New York, and he says he needs to explain to me why he had to change his New York style to be successful at Stanford, and why I will have to change mine. In New York, he tells me, people can just argue outright, and the loudest screamer wins. Not so at Stanford, he counsels, with a smile. He had to learn to argue “like a gentleman,” softly, and I have to learn that, too.

“Everything at Stanford is understated,” he says. “Tough, but gentlemanly and understated.”

I understand what he’s saying. I’ve also noticed a big difference between the New York and Stanford styles. I appreciate this conversation with Jerry, and it becomes a source of humor throughout our relationship. Whenever either of us bargains hard and loudly, we admonish the other to “put away” the New York style and become more Stanford-like.


In 1972, Jerry Lieberman, my former boss at CROW and now the university’s provost, asks me to chair a new ad hoc committee he is forming on the recruitment and retention of women faculty. Women now make up 16 percent of the Stanford faculty, twice the percentage they were when I first arrived, but still low compared with our peer institutions. Jerry wants me to lead the committee in figuring out what Stanford can do to raise that percentage and keep it growing.

The committee’s charge is broad, and its male and female members, prominent faculty from all over the university, have quite varied opinions. After several meetings, we decide to focus our efforts on junior faculty. We break up into groups of two or three, with at least one woman and one man in each, and conduct focus groups with both men and women assistant professors.

What we hear is disturbing. Junior faculty tell us that they feel the absence of what committee members begin to term a “culture of support.” Although Stanford departments make heroic efforts to recruit the very best junior faculty they can, including young scholars from other countries, once those faculty arrive and take up their posts, senior faculty in their departments often pay them little mind, perhaps not even reading their work. Both junior women and junior men tell this tale. On the other hand, there are several problems unique to women: encountering the extra scrutiny given to people in the minority, fending off sexual harassment, and being underpaid.

The committee feels that the charges of underpayment are serious, and I bring up the matter in a meeting with Jerry, remembering his counsel years earlier that I negotiate “like a gentleman,” not like a former New Yorker.

“In our focus groups, a lot of the women faculty we talked to said they feel they’re underpaid, but we can’t verify that the university pays women less than men at the same stage of their career unless we have salary data by gender for each school.”

Serra House

The Clayman Center at Serra House.

No way,” he says. “Salary information is confidential.”

Well, that may be,” I say in my most gentle way, “but you appointed this committee to make suggestions about improving the hiring and retention of women faculty, and it looks like one reason women may be leaving Stanford is that they feel underpaid.”

OK, I’ll take a look at the data and see.”

Jerry, you can look at the data anytime. But you appointed a committee to help you with this. We need to look at the data.”


We don’t need names, you know, just numbers.”

I smile my most “gentlemanly” smile.

After several go-rounds, we compromise. Jerry agrees to provide a series of scatter plots of full professors’ salaries, by years of experience, in five fields: humanities, social sciences and education, science, clinical medicine, and nonclinical medicine. In each scatter plot, any dot that represents a woman is circled in black. That way, we can see the overall distribution of salaries in a particular field as well as the distribution of women’s salaries. No such plots have ever been prepared, but Jerry asks members of his staff to create them.

He allows only three members of our committee to look at the data with him, and he won’t permit any of us to take the plots out of his office. What we see is crystal clear, and we don’t need much time or analysis to understand the pattern. At all levels of experience, women are overrepresented in the lowest quintile of the salary distribution and underrepresented in the highest. I’m not at all surprised, but Jerry is, and so are many of the deans to whom he shows the plots. Indeed, the creation of those simple quintile plots becomes the first step in Stanford’s emerging efforts to redress salary discrimination. Jerry creates a fund that deans can draw on for salary equity raises, and over the next few years, many women faculty, including me, find that our paychecks are substantially increased.

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