Does “September 1″ ring any bells? It should.

September 1st, 2014
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September 1, 1939.  The day has peculiar resonances if you are Polish, for reasons obvious in the 1939 headline above. The anniversary of the Nazi blitzkrieg almost slipped by me, were it not for my Polish friend Artur Sebastian Rosman‘s interesting and controversial post on the subject over at his blog, Cosmos the in Lost, in which the Czeslaw Milosz scholar discusses Timothy Snyders internationally acclaimed Bloodlands, which we’ve discussed before here and here and here and here. While Artur acknowledges that the Holocaust has become almost a “metaphysical measuring stick of humanity’s capacity for radical evil,” he reminds us that Hitler had even bigger plans in mind:

snyderBloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin puts the Holocaust within its Central European context. What’s frequently lost is how Snyder’s international bestseller suggests the Holocaust is not some ahistorical transcendent metaphysical essence, but rather a contingent historical event. First of all, Snyder’s book puts the Holocaust within the context of the genocides perpetrated against other populations stuck between Germany and the Soviet Union. Second, Bloodlands gives a thorough account of the Generalplan Ost: the secret German plan to exterminate the Slavs so that Germans could repopulate their lands and take advantage of the Ukrainian breadbasket.

The extermination of the Slavs was Germany’s main plan. What they did not anticipate was the strength of the Soviet resistance and how the herding of Jewish populations would cause the Nazis logistical problems. The rapid accumulation of large populations in ghettos led the Germans to send them to preexisting concentration camps. These camps were first used to systematically kill Catholic clergy, Polish resistance fighters, and Communists.

Read the whole thing here.  Of course, we couldn’t let the day go by without a mention of W.H. Audens September 1, 1939 (we’re glad that Artur didn’t forget it, either), which begins:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Right again

Sock it to us, Wystan.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

I’ve thought a lot of the last two lines of this excerpt in recent days – there’s plenty in the international news to remind us. What remedy? What remedy? How about the man who insisted that goodness properly understood is not passive, but active – that the world requires individuals who not only refrain from harming others, but energetically seek out those in need of help? Sir Nicholas Winton saved 669 Czech children from certain death in the Holocaust – about 6,000 people are alive today because of his efforts. He turned 105 years old last May, with an international celebration at London’s Czech Embassy; The Guardian wrote about that event here. “I am always surprised every time I come here to see all kinds of people who have come really very great distances to say hello,” Winton said. “As far as I am concerned, it is only Anno Domini that I am fighting – I am not ill, I am just old and doddery.”

wintonHis daughter has just published a book about her father – The Guardian wrote about that over the summer too, here. “Like her father, Barbara Winton is not sentimental; she lets the story tell itself,” writes Emma Howard. “Both father and daughter resist hero worship. The book’s title is a nod to his often-repeated motto: ‘If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.’” An excerpt that tells the story:

“Nearly 6,000 people in the world today are alive because Winton responded to a phone call from Prague in December 1938. The call was from his friend Martin Blake, who was engaged in helping Jewish refugees and was asking for Winton’s assistance. On arrival in Prague, Winton immediately took action, setting up an office in his hotel in Wenceslas Square. He persuaded the German authorities to let a number of Jewish children leave, and identified British foster families who would open their homes to them. (In November 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, parliament approved a measure that would allow the entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, if they had a place to stay and provided that £50 was deposited to pay for their eventual return to their own country.) He then organised eight evacuations on the Czech Kindertransport train from Prague to London’s Liverpool Street station. He spent only three weeks in Prague – the maximum length of time he could get off from his job as a stockbroker in the City – though he worked in the evenings during the following eight months to complete the mission.

“For half a century, Winton knew nothing of the nearly 700 people who now call themselves ‘Nicky’s children’. He did not seek them out after the war and rarely spoke of the episode. But the details were waiting to be found – in a scrapbook crammed with documents, photographs and a list of every child he saved. It was not until the BBC got hold of the scrapbook in 1988 that the story came to light. Invited by Esther Rantzen to sit in the audience of her show That’s Life!, Winton was overwhelmed when she announced live on air that the people in the audience around him were the children he had saved.”

Here’s how he found out he’d become a hero. It’s an awwwww video, for a little hope on a grim anniversary:

What matters: reflections on a 9-year-old girl with an Uzi

August 30th, 2014
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Zeitgeist

Earlier this week, an instructor was training a nine-year-old girl to shoot with an Uzi, aiming at the image of a man some yards away. She inadvertently killed a real one, her instructor. A terrible occurrence on so many levels, but for the moment let’s consider the video that was inadvertently taken of what turned out to be a slaughter. It went viral. In other words, the accidental video of a man being killed functioned on some level as some sort of lurid entertainment (I can’t see any other purpose in watching such a video – and no, I won’t even reproduce the photo).

On a Facebook thread, as my friends and acquaintances expressed horror of the popularity of the video, I pointed out that this was perhaps not so surprising in a culture where a contemporary idol such as Kim Kardashian rose to fame with a video of herself engaged in sexual intercourse – or was that Paris Hilton? Or both? The femmes du jour become interchangeable at this point. The common point of reference is that sex and death have become casual entertainment for voyeurs, which is all of us. (One can include, I suppose, simulated sex and death in movies and TV shows, since part of the brain does not distinguish between reality and the filmed recreation of it – if you experience horror or arousal at either, you prove my point.)

The idea that the human person has any kind of innate dignity, that we draw a veil over at least sex and death (as well as bowel movements), that any kind of human activity might be private or intimate – increasingly strikes people as arbitrary and an anachronism, especially if sex, death, or a marriage proposal are click-bait. We are losing a language to even discuss such matters in a culture where the greatest fear is boredom and becoming fat. People are feeling increasingly uncomfortable at any kind of depth, any view of their roles as something other than a consumers of videos, electronics, sports, as “seekers” of the most shallow and transient kind of “happiness.” We’re a long, long way from Antigone, who sacrificed her life to honor and bury her slain brother – she disappeared in the rear-view mirror decades ago.

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Zen-inspired Dutchman

Here’s where I’m going: a few days ago I said the maiden name of ISIS is nihilism, and a few readers quibbled with me. The ISIS murderers have religious beliefs that impel them, and therefore they have “values” – of course, I responded that the religious beliefs are the merest fig leaves for mayhem. As William James wrote, “for all sorts of cruelty, piety is the mask.” Few people will express absolutely no value for anything – and such masquerades can easily be disproved. Hold a man’s head under water for a minute and he gets real pretty fast. (I love telling that to my non-dualist friends and others who deny the existence of the real.)

A few years ago, back when I imagined I still had room somewhere in my home for another book or two, I was rummaging through the $1 bin at the Stanford Bookstore and I ran across this quote in a small book:

“A much abridged symptomatology of modern Nihilism would include: disregard and detachment of all values except the immediate satisfaction of the narcissistic individual and herd impulses … atrophy of all notions of relatedness and responsibility to other humans, to animals, plants, the earth … degeneracy of the sense of beauty, truth, goodness, hence total mistrust of disinterested service … degradation of all fellow beings to the status of Things … progressive debility of all the higher functions by unrelenting and total bedevilment by electronic noise and imagery, media trivia, spectator sports, laugh shows, quizzes, commercials, propaganda for whiskeys, presidents, celebrities, gadgets, space trips…. Unavoidable consequences: alientation from self and environment – consumer addiction – identity crisis – existential vacuum – depression – mass psychosis – violence – sexual depravity – drug and alcohol addiction – teenage and all other categories of suicide, including our own’s collective incubation.”

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Out of Africa

The book out of Woodstock, Vermont – What Matters – was written by a guy I’d never heard of, Frederick Frank (1909-2006), a Dutchman who served as a doctor on Nobel peace laureate Albert Schweitzer‘s staff in Africa, and was also an artist. He went on to publish 30 books about Buddhism, especially focusing on the Zen variety, and also a memoir, Days with Albert Schweitzer. Not normally my thing, but I thought he was dead-on about our times.

Here’s more:

“All consistent egocentricity is insane. Nihilism is the collective and endemic form of this insanity.

Whosoever, by ineffable grace, or sheer good luck, has survived this century of insanity, of Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Papa Doc, Pinochet, of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, of Bhopals and Love Canals, yet still underestimates the contagious virus of Nihilism as Absolute Evil, hardly merits his survival.”

***

“In our nihilistic chaos every national, every ideological collectivity has dishonored itself utterly. Gulag, gas chamber, torture cellar, apartheid, induced famine, nuclear holocaust, have routinely been justified with an ad hoc gnosis of ideological twaddle and demonic hypocrisy.”

***

“The difference between ‘democratic’ and ‘totalitarian’ Nihilism is the difference in semantics, in ritual, in rhetoric and in categories of victims.”

***

mirror

Guess who?

So I wonder … René Girard writes that opponents come to resemble each other more and more, all the while insisting on their differences. “They” cover their women in body bags, “we” think “freedom” is putting them in string bikinis and encouraging them to starve themselves to death so they fit into them. Same disease, different symptom. We both have a fascination with weaponry, used in a way that devalues human life and responsibility. I’m not going to belabor the equivalence with a terrorist, genocidal, wannabe state that beheads children and crucifies those it dislikes – it would be obscene to do so. While you may not have full-blown leprosy … what’s that funny spot on your back? How long has it been there? Maybe you want to check it out.

Nihilism? Maybe we ought to look in a mirror.

Robert Hass, Tracy K. Smith win big prizes – very big

August 29th, 2014
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What to do with all the money?

It’s always fun when friends win prizes. So with great pleasure I announce what you may already know (I just found out): former poet laureate Robert Hass has just won the $100,000 Wallace Stevens prize for “outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry” from the Academy of American Poets. We’ve written about him here and here and here, and for San Francisco Magazine here, and for Stanford Magazine here. It’s been a good year for the Hass family – Bob’s wife Brenda Hillman won the Griffin Award in Canada earlier this summer (we wrote about that here).

Bob is a MacArthur Fellow, and won a National Book Award in 2007, and a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, and two National Book Critics Circle Awards, among other prizes. (Read two of his poems here.) We met over a common interest: Czesław Miłosz. Bob, who met the Polish poet at Berkeley in 1978, became his foremost translator into English, and diverted much of his own creative energies to collaborate with the elderly poet laureate. “So by accident, in the course of this, at an age when I was really too old to have a master anymore, I got to apprentice myself to this amazing body of poetry,” he told me.

When I received his manuscript for Time and Materials, I predicted it would go on to win every possible national prize, and it did. In the 2008 San Francisco Magazine piece, I ask: “Hass’s latest poems remind us that to be fully human is itself an act of political subversion. What could be more Californian?”

From my piece:

VermeerAll morality is banal. To write that war is bad, honesty is the best policy, death imminent for us all is to court cliché. It’s all true, but to make it felt? The art of poetry is making the obvious become lovely and new again, coaxing it into memorable speech. Robert Hass’s poems, especially in his long-awaited fifth collection, Time and Materials: Poems 1997–2005, can have just that effect.

“Art and Life,” for instance, an extended riff on Vermeer’s “Woman Pouring Milk,” explores art, restoration, light, paint, and rebirth—almost in one long, miraculous breath. Hass, who teaches at UC Berkeley, resists the quick quote or easy quip: the wonder of this remarkable poem is how it quietly circles round and round back into itself over three-plus pages.

What’s rarer still is the quiet moral authority that speaks through the new poems, the assuredness of a voice that can take on the horrors of war and the huckleberries of Inverness in the same measured way, without hysteria or hyperbole. Each poem resists the obvious showstopper line, instead incorporating slow effects that build momentum over the whole collection, measuring our actions and choices against a backdrop of silence and death. Hass has always attempted to link the historical moment with the intimate, but here the fusion is close to perfect. The voice that speaks through these poems is wiser, more seasoned, more certain of itself and its terrain.

smith

More champers, please.

 

Tracy K. Smith, who in 2012 won the Pulitzer Prize for “Life On Mars,” is also a winner in the same award cycle. The Academy of American Poets also announced the winners of six other awards, including Tracy K. Smith, who won the $25,000 Academy of American Poets Fellowship.  Rigoberto González, who won the $25,000 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Read about other awarded poets here.

When I interviewed her after her Pulitzer, she was bubbly and courteous.  She had celebrated the Pulitzer on her 40th birthday, with champagne.  She talked about her upbringing and her father, who had been one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Science and space infuse and inform her poetry.  From her oft-quoted “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” in which the universe is:

nasa

Our great error (Photo: NASA/ESA)

. . . sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.

Or this, from the same poem:

Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,

Award winners will be honored at a ceremony on Oct. 17 at the New School in New York City.

Helen Pinkerton names “possibly the greatest novel I have ever read.”

August 28th, 2014
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Helen, me, and the late, great Turner Cassity

Helen, me, and the late, great Turner Cassity

We’ve known poet and historian Helen Pinkerton for ohhh, a zillion or two zillion years. We’ve written about her on the Book Haven here and here – and also for a Stanford Magazine article here. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and just received this email this week. We thought it was worth a share with you. You will recognize the book she mentions from our plug for the NYRB Classics’ “Classics and Coffee Club” here.  We showed the book. We showed our cup of coffee. We even had a nice quote from the book: “Life’s grace and charm can never be erased by the powers of destruction…” But alas, we actually haven’t had the time to actually read the book. Not yet. But soon.

Meanwhile, here’s Helen’s mini-review, and more:

“About a year ago Steven Shankman recommended to me Vassily Grossman‘s novel, Life and Fate, and had sent me several essays he has written on it. I finished it recently and found it possibly the greatest novel I have ever read. He creates a world – actually, two worlds, the Russian and the German – of believable human characters, who try to live worthy lives under a totalitarian government that is structured to destroy their humanity by bringing out the worst in each of them. Chapter after chapter unfolds individual dramas, wherein moral choices are made that are lived with and often died by.

nyrb“Meanwhile, spurred by Grossman’s vision, I have been catching up on the history of the period 1917-1945 in Russia, Poland, and other Eastern European countries. I haven’t read Robert Conquest‘s great work, but I know what he has revealed about those years. And I have read some Solzhenitzyn, Winston Churchill‘s history of that period, and others, in a search into what actually took place during the years that I was growing up in Montana, sheltered from those far-off terrors. Now, in my old age, at least I’ve become sharply aware of a potential repeat in our time of the great evil that human beings can inflict on one another, when driven by a false and monstrous ideology. We are this very week presently confronted with the apparition of an Islamic Caliphate, announced by Bakr al-Baghdadi, which is appallingly similar to the rise of Hitler in 1933. I congratulate you on your perception and your ability to write with such good judgment about what is going on. And I agree that ‘nihilism’ is a most appropriate word for the intellectual root of it all. Keep it up!”

The Islamic Caliphate?  That is sooooo last week!  Helen is referring to my discussions of the parsimonious, reluctant, and even timid use of the word “genocide” in the last month here and here, and the grisly slaughter of American journalist James Foley. (Believe me, they’re off to a much faster start than the Nazis were. The Nazis weren’t sending off snuff videos and films of mass executions as part of their world debut.) As for “nihilism” … more on that in the next day or so.

Meanwhile, “Life’s grace and charm can never be erased by the powers of destruction…” But they’re trying. Really they are.

R.I.P. Simin Behbahani, “lioness of Iran” and first recipient of Stanford’s Bita Prize for Literature and Freedom

August 26th, 2014
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“To stay alive, you must slay silence … / to pay homage to being, you must sing.”

Iran’s leading poet Simin Behbahani died last week in Teheran, of natural causes at the age of 87. This is no small accomplishment in post-1979 Iran.

According to the New York Times obituary here: “In 2006, the Iranian authorities shut down an opposition newspaper for printing one of her works. In 2010, when she was 82 and nearly blind, she was barred from boarding a Paris-bound plane and interrogated through the night regarding poems she had written about Iran’s 2009 elections, which were considered fraudulent by government opponents.”

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“I have put my poems forward for everyone to see.”

Her literary awards include the 2013 Janus Pannonius Poetry Prize from the Hungarian PEN Club, which carries a 50,000-euro prize. She was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. She also was awarded a Human Rights Watch-Hellman/Hammett grant in 1998 and, in 1999, the Carl von Ossietzky Medal for her struggle for freedom of expression in Iran.

But there was one award not mentioned in the obituaries: in March 2008 she was the first recipient of Stanford’s Bita Prize for Literature and Freedom. The $10,000 prize was part of the Daryabari Persian Studies Fund, endowed by Bita Daryabari to support and promote teaching, research and scholarship relating to Iran, including the area formerly known as Persia, and people of Iranian or Persian heritage. I wrote about it here. Here’s what I wrote way back then:

Behbahani is one of the most prominent figures of modern Persian literature and one of the most outstanding among contemporary Persian poets, as well as a leading dissident. She is Iran’s national poet and an icon of the Iranian intelligentsia and literati, who affectionately refer to her as the “lioness of Iran.” Her poems are quoted like aphorisms and proverbs.

Behbahani was born in 1927 in Tehran. Her father was a writer and newspaper editor; her mother was a noted feminist, teacher, writer, newspaper editor and poet. Behbahani started writing poetry at 12 and published her first poem at 14.

She has expanded the range of the traditional Persian verse forms and has produced some of the most significant works of Persian literature of the 20th century. While many poets of her time embraced free verse, Behbahani’s signature writing focused on the traditional ghazal form and took it to new lyrical heights—with a modern twist in perspective and voice. For example, while the form traditionally is a male poet courting a woman, in Behbahani’s verse the man is the object.

She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1997. She also was awarded a Human Rights Watch-Hellman/Hammett grant in 1998 and, in 1999, the Carl von Ossietzky Medal for her struggle for freedom of expression in Iran.

Behbahani said: “I have put my poems forward for everyone to see. What can they be from the year 1979 onward? We wrote our books not with ink but with blood. No doubt, the same is true about the works of every other poet.”

As she has written in one of her poems: “To stay alive, you must slay silence … / to pay homage to being, you must sing.”

I dropped in for the award ceremony six years ago. I didn’t stay long – I had another appointment, and the proceedings were in Farsi, anyway – but she was a grand presence, gracious and magnanimous. She seemed to me a Persian Anna Akhmatova.

Joseph Brodsky on “the spirit of tolerance, the spirit of intolerance”

August 23rd, 2014
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We liked the “merciless honesty” of the Avedon photo, too.

NEWS FLASH! Newly discovered 11-year-old review says great things about Joseph Brodsky: Conversations! Bless you, Theo, whoever you are! Much to our surprise, we just learned that long ago, on September 23, 2003, we got a nice write-up in a blog called Private Intellectual, which still exists today (though Theo seems to have disappeared from it) – this is not something to be taken for granted in the blogosphere, which has much deadwood floating in it. We ran across the review when we were looking for an article on Madame de Staël, of all things.

Theo lamented that the book was not published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, he wished it had been reviewed by Michiko Kakutani, he decried the lack of public notice (well, we got a little notice, in the Times Literary Supplement, among others…) What can we say? We love him.

Here‘s what he wrote, way back when, a year after the book was published:

The role Edward Teller played in freeing Joseph Brodsky, is told rather briefly in the single most rewarding tome of what the darkening Atlantic skies over Providence, Rhode Island, tell me has already been my summer reading.

In San Francisco two months ago, I picked up Joseph Brodsky. Conversations, at City Lights Bookstore (Ferlinghetti was winding down, in the background, from preaching in the Beatnik mode: a Jeremiad against this country in the name of this country – the classic exemplum being Ginsberg‘s “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. /America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956. (…)/America when will we end the human war?/ Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb /(…) America when will you be angelic?” ).

The book is a compilation of interviews with the poet recorded throughout Brodsky’s short life, collected from wide and far by Cynthia L. Haven. Because many of the pieces are from small literary magazines and many of the questions are outright stupid – no literary publisher – not even JB’s own Roger Strauss (not a publisher, more like my living room, JB said), seems to have wanted to bring them out. Not even the merciless honesty of the cover photo by Richard Avedon caught the eye of Manhattan’s literati. One wonders whether if this book would have been brought out by FSG, it would have been hailed by Michiko Kakutani as “monumental, of the essence, the poet continues to speak from beyond the grave”, etc. but since it comes from the Mississippi State University Press [No – the University Press of Mississippi's "Literary Conversations" series – ED.]  it has been utterly neglected – a decadent snobbery of the worst kind; for I daresay this is a posthumous collection of perhaps the greatest poet who lived on earth when we did (born as we were, after Auden and Celan‘s deaths).

Mississippi

Mississippi (Photo: Bengt Jangfeldt)

At the end of the day, Brodsky being a blues singer of sorts (one of his rare poems in English is even titled Blues – “Eighteen years I’ve spent in Manhattan,” it starts), it’s just as well that the little book’s from Mississippi. [We might also note JB's beloved cat was named "Mississippi" – ED]

Ask a stupid question, as the saying wrongly goes, get a stupid answer. Brodsky answers some of the most embarrassing and awful questions (an interviewer asking about his internment for manual labor in the polar circle as if it was a trip to Disneyland), in ways only he could. They are mostly unedited, and brilliant. I give one little excerpt, since no one anywhere seems to have discussed a book that deserved much more attention. I am struck by the following, from as far back as the pivotal year 1989:

InterviewerAndre Malraux said that the twenty-first century will be either spiritual or it will not be at all.

André_Malraux_1933

He said lots.

Brodsky It may be … Well, Malraux said so many things.The French are very fond of making up reasons, ever since La Rochefoucauld, and presumably before, I don’t know. Milosz thinks that we are entering, the world is entering an entirely nihilistic stage. I am not so sure of that, although on the face of it, reality doesn’t conform to any ethical standards, as we see it. It’s getting rather paganistic. I think what may emerge – and this is on of my greatest apprehensions – what may emerge is a tremendous religious strife, not exactly religious, between the Moslem world and the world that is vaguely Christian. The latter won’t be able to defend itself, the former will be terribly assertive. It’s simply for the numerical reasons, for pure demographic reasons, that I perceive the possibility for such a strife. I am not a sage, I am not a prophet, I can’t presume to say what the twenty-first century is going to be like. To say the least, I am not going to be there, for one thing, so why would I bother … And it was easier for Malraux, it was clear that he wouldn’t be there, so it was easy to fantasize … The foreseeable future, that is, foreseeable by me, which again can be terribly erroneous, is precisely the conflict of the spirit of tolerance with the spirit of intolerance, and there are all sorts of attempts to resolve that conflict now. The pragmatists try to suggest that there is some equivalence between these principles. I don’t believe that for a minute. I think that the Moslem notion of universal order should be squashed and put out of existence. We are, after all, six centuries older than the Moslems spiritually. So, I think we have a right to say what’s right and what’s wrong …

Perhaps Michiko would like to review the Italian edition, which my publisher tells me will be coming out next year with Adelphi.

Book Haven remembers World War I – send us some un-famous poems, letters, reminiscences

August 21st, 2014
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George in WWI

A Cambridge man.

A few days ago, we discussed Philip Larkin‘s “MCMXIV” as a candidate for the iconic poem of World War I, as we commemorate the centenary of that war’s beginning.  Others had other nominations. Joseph Koczera wrote, “I always think of Wilfred Owen‘s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ as the WWI poem, though I like Larkin’s more – it’s kind of an apples-and-orange comparison, though, as they reflect very different perspectives and voices. Given its content, I can kind of see how ‘MCMXIV’ fits the spirit of the centenary more exactly than ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ would.” Shirley Huang wrote, “Paul Fussell’s ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’ does a good job of exploring WWI and lost innocence as reflected in literature and language.” Book Haven penpal George suggested Robert Graves’s “Recalling War,” A.E. Houseman’s “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenary Soldiers,” and Thomas Hardy’s “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations.’”

Then Lisa Trei (she’s written guest posts on Estonia at the Book Haven here and here) sent me something privately – a poem her grandfather had written at 21, while serving in France. Lieutenant George P. McNamee, Jr. served in the 50th Artillery Coast Artillery Corps of the U.S. Army. He had been a student at the University of Oregon from 1914-17, then volunteered in the Oregon National Guard, which became part of the U.S. Army during the war. He was stationed in Abbeville, France, when the Armistice was signed in November 1918. After the war, he attended Fitzwilliam College at Cambridge. The San Franciscan died in 1990 at the age of 97. “He was very proud of his service in the U.S. Army,” Lisa wrote.

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Granddaughter

That gave us an idea: We welcome any poems, letters, or other reminiscences of World War I, for the rest of the the month of August – maybe longer, we’ll see. Yes, yes, yes – we know we’re late to the table. The big centenary events happened earlier this month. But 2014 is still a hundred years after 1914, and will be till the end of the year, by our reckoning. And, for that matter, it’s still August. This is not a literary contest. We won’t be judging or awarding prizes. Our aim is simply to commemorate the soldiers and civilians of that long and terrible war – in particular, those who haven’t been quoted in articles or interviewed on TV,  those who haven’t written books, or been written about in books. We’re looking for, as Lisa put it, the un-famous poem, or letter from the front, or reminiscence.

Like this one:

Grandpa's poem

“Mom, Mom, it’s me, Jim.” Remembering James Wright Foley, 1973-2014

August 20th, 2014
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“We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people,” said Diane Foley, mother of the murdered photojournalist James Wright Foley. “He was an extraordinary son, brother, journalist and person.”

As everyone has heard by now, Foley was beheaded by ISIS (or ISIL, or the Caliphate, or whatever it’s calling itself – I prefer calling it by its maiden name, nihilism). He had been kidnapped in northwestern Syria in November 2012. Being the kind of people his captors are, they released a gruesome snuff video to accompany their death announcement. A Facebook friend of mine who had known Foley pleaded on her status line: “I will remember James Wright Foley as I last saw him: laughing, engaged life, intelligent. He was executed today by ISIS. Please, for the love of all things decent and human, do not post or ‘share’ any images from his beheading. I’m begging you. Please allow this courageous journalist the dignity and respect he so deserves. Rest in Peace, James.”

James Foley, Aleppo, Syria - 07/12. Photo: Nicole Tung. Authorized use: alongside article on James Foley's kidnapping in Syria only.

Foley in Aleppo (Photo: Nicole Tung)

Following her lead, I thought the best way to commemorate him might be excerpting some of his writings and a few videos I could find online. Here’s a prophetic one from the Global Post on September 27, 2011, “Why They Fight Muammar Gaddafi”, explaining why some soldiers continued to fight for Gaddafi, a month after the fall of Tripoli. Many fought to protect their families, for others:

The threat of civil war is also likely motivating many soldiers to continue fighting. Omran [a soldier] said that a strong central leader like Gaddafi was needed to prevent the break up of the country.

Even outside observers, and leaders in the West, have expressed concern that Libya could fall into civil war after the last remnants of Gaddafi’s army are defeated. Power struggles between rebels based in the western part of the country and rebels based in the city of Benghazi in the East have already been well documented.

“From the beginning, Gaddafi told us, ‘If I fall down, everything will collapse into tribal and civil conflict.’ I was afraid of city against city, so I was loyal on this matter,” Omran said.

Ibrahim said he didn’t think it was possible for Libya to remain stable without Gaddafi at the helm.

“After two or three years, you will see this … a very sad future under east, west, south — Libya will be split up,” he said.

Muftah Sadik, a loyalist soldier from Sirte who surrendered in July, said those officers who are members of Gaddafi’s tribe in Sirte would never surrender. He guessed that at least two Gaddafi battalions had pulled back from the eastern front to further defend the city.

“Some have the idea, if I’m going to die, let’s fight to the death,” he said.

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In Syria, 2012 (Photo: Manu Brabo)

In April 2011, Foley was detained in Libyan military detention center while working for Global Post. Here’s an excerpt from his short piece for his alma mater, at the Marquette University magazine about his 44-day detention, published

Each day brought increasing worry that our moms would begin to panic. My colleague, Clare, was supposed to call her mom on her birthday, which was the day after we were captured. I had still not fully admitted to myself that my mom knew what had happened. But I kept telling Clare my mom had a strong faith.

I prayed she’d know I was OK. I prayed I could communicate through some cosmic reach of the universe to her.

I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. 
I said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused.

Clare and I prayed together out loud. It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone.

Later we were taken to another prison where the regime kept hundreds of political prisoners. I was quickly welcomed by the other prisoners and treated well.

One night, 18 days into our captivity, some guards brought me out of the cell. In the hall I saw Manu, another colleague, for the first time in a week. We were haggard but overjoyed to see each other. Upstairs in the warden’s office, a distinguished man in a suit stood and said, “We felt you might want to call your families.”

I said a final prayer and dialed the number. My mom answered the phone. “Mom, Mom, it’s me, Jim.”

Read the whole thing here.  Requiescat in pace, James Wright Foley.

Tobias Wolff on race: “None of us would admit to a prejudice—why should we? we didn’t have any.”

August 17th, 2014
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Toby explores race and illusion. (Photo: Sonia Lee)

With chaos and curfew in Ferguson, Missouri, race has been everywhere in the news this weekend. A few wise words are welcome, so please don’t miss award-winning author Tobias Wolffs “Heart of Whiteness,” his powerful piece on race in this week’s New Yorker. It opens with Toby going through stacks and stacks of old correspondence, including letters from writer Raymond Carver – “the tone so immediately and unmistakably his that I felt almost as if he were reading them to me.” Funny, that’s exactly what I felt about reading Toby’s own words. We work together on Stanford’s “Another Look” book club  (I’ve written about it tons – try here and here and here and here and here), and I could hear his voice behind every phrase.

He continues: “Then I put the file aside and began glancing through some of my own. And I was disheartened by what I found there. Clumsy, effortful wit. Vulgarity. A racist joke. Sitting there alone, reading my own words, I felt humiliatingly exposed, if only to myself; naked and ashamed.” He recalls his early gifts as a clown and satirist, with “plenty of company in this line of banter.”

None of us would admit to a prejudice—why should we? we didn’t have any—and the atmosphere of right-mindedness could become so absolute, so cloying, that one was sometimes compelled to say the unsayable just to break the spell, make some different music. But this was always done with a dusting of irony. After a black family bought a house on Ray’s block, an unredeemed neighbor complained to him that “a certain element” was taking over, and the word “element” immediately entered our lexicon as an irresistibly sublime piece of swamp-think. So, too, the word “Negro,” as if delivered by an out-of-touch white alderman seeking votes from that highly esteemed, if underserved, corner of his ward.

Could I have played with these words if I had been a racist? No—I couldn’t be a racist. Even as a boy I had been shocked by what happened in Little Rock, the spectacle of pompadoured thugs and women in curlers yelling insults and curses at black kids trying to get to school. With my brother, I joined the March on Washington. We were there.

When I joined the Army, at eighteen, I was trained by black drill instructors, marched and pulled K.P. and showered and bunked and jumped out of airplanes with black troops. If it hadn’t been for a black sergeant I served with in Vietnam, I doubt that my sorry ass would’ve gotten shipped home in one piece.

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James Baldwin with Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte are also in the crowd.

I read Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes and, especially, James Baldwin—“Jimmy” to my brother, Geoffrey, who was his friend when they both lived in Istanbul. I even almost met Baldwin! He was supposed to drop by the apartment in New York where Geoffrey and I were staying, Christmas of 1963. We waited all night, drinking, talking nervously, but he never showed up; one of the great disappointments of my life. It turned out that he’d been stopped by the white doorman.

Yet there was that joke. And a couple of other cracks.

I didn’t like meeting the self I had been when writing these letters—still playing the rake, tiresomely refusing to toe the line and speak the approved words in the approved way. Mostly I didn’t like the sense of exertion I found here, the puppyish falling over myself to amuse and impress another man. The result was coarse and embarrassing. I wanted to think that this wasn’t really me, just some dumb, bumptious persona I’d adopted, which, to some extent, it was.

But I had, after all, chosen this persona rather than another. And I had to wonder why. When we speak with a satiric voice, in mimicry of the unredeemed neighbor, aren’t we having it both ways? Allowing ourselves to express ugly, disreputable feelings and thoughts, under cover of mocking them? I didn’t want to believe that there was anything of me, the real me, in this voice, but, given the facts of my past, looming in piles around me, how could there not be?

It’s a beautifully written piece. Please do read the whole thing here.

 

 

When life resembles art…

August 15th, 2014
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A candid photo of a fight in Ukranian Parliament is as well-composed as the finest Renaissance art …  (Via Twitter)

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