Alexei Navalny: “I am of sound mind. So if something happens to me, don’t believe it was suicide.” A smuggled message, a P.E.N. petition, as thousands take to the streets.

January 23rd, 2021
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Demonstrations today in support of Alexei Navalny

Thousands took to the streets of Russia in anti-Putin demonstrations, and several thousand of them were arrested. The flashpoint is the recent arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with a nerve agent while traveling last August and barely survived. On his return to Russia a week ago, he was immediately detained by the government. A message was smuggled out of his detention center: “I am of sound mind. So if something happens to me, don’t believe it was suicide.” The petition below from P.E.N. in Moscow has been making the rounds, most recently in The Los Angeles Review of Books:

Navalny arrested in 2017 (Photo: Evgeny Feldman)

We, the members of PEN-Club Moscow and the Free Word Association, in according with the principles formulated in the Charter of PEN-International — an obligation to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression — call for the Russian government to stop the persecution of Alexei Navalny under trumped-up and inadequate charges. The proclamations of the biggest Russian functionaries and politicians who called Navalny “a traitor, a turn-coat, and an agent of the US State Department,” testify to the fact that Navalny is being persecuted because of his civil actions and not because of any transgressions against the law. Firstly, these proclamations are in themselves an offense against the rule of law, being an extrajudicial accusation and, what’s worse, a call to lynching. Secondly, these texts make obvious the government’s real motivations and goals: an unprecedented pressure is being applied on civil society for the purpose of political manipulation.

War is being declared: not just on Navalny, but on the whole of Russian civil society. The actions of the power structures clearly express their barefaced desire to intimidate anyone who dares to criticize the existing regime. The moral atmosphere of the worst era in the history of our motherland is coming back.

We demand protection of the falsely accused and of the dignity of the country, which is humiliated and disgraced by the regime’s actions.

We demand freedom for Alexei Navalny!

The members of PEN-Club Moscow and the Free Word AssociationSt Petersburg PEN-Club, and other individuals have signed the petition, which has been translated by author and PEN-Club Moscow member Maria Rybakova.

From Twitter below. НЕ МОГУ ПЕРЕСТАТЬ СМОТРЕТЬ – “Can’t stop looking.”

Stanford poet, jazz saxophonist Michael Stillman: “Most poets are forgotten, but I remember his singular work.”

January 21st, 2021
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Mike Stillman and friend.

I learned of Michael Stillman’s long illness when Stanford Prof. Makota Ueda died last summer. The prominent haiku scholar was a critic and biographer of Japanese poets. But one link in the chain of connection leads to another: the Japanese professor was also a mentor and  inspiration for poet Michael Stillman, who died on Jan 12 at 80 years old, having survived the decade into 2021. Mike studied the haiku tradition under Ueda.

I had met Mike a dozen years ago at (of all places) Stanford’s  Archive of Recorded Sound. We quickly discovered we had a mutual friend in Dana Gioia, former California poet laureate and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (and also a Stanford alum).  Mike was eager to show me his musical and literary preoccupations – as he wrote me: “not only the recordings project but the publications and activities associated with the Stanford Jazz Workshop and the Computer Center for Research in Music and Acoustics [a.k.a. CCRMA]. You may not be aware that I have published about twenty poems in prominent journals and textbooks, including “In Memoriam John Coltrane,” which now appears in about seven anthologies, one of them edited by Dana Gioia and X. J. Kennedy. Also I’ve been making recordings of soprano saxophone jazz and duo performances with piano that you might like to hear.” He had his fingers in a lot of pies, to put it mildly. Our long-ago acquaintance was all-too-brief.

Dana has written a short remembrance for a poet he thinks should stick in the public memory longer:

The poet Michael B. Stillman was one of the truly talented poets I knew at Stanford back in the 1970s, though he gradually wandered away from poetry.  He was also a terrific saxophonist and a doctoral candidate in English. He never finished his dissertation on Charles Tomlinson.

Mike played sax in a jazz duet around the Bay Area with a guitarist, Tuck Andress. One night Tuck met and fell in love with Patti Cathcart to form the famous Tuck and Patti duo. Mike ended up in Las Vegas playing back-up for rock bands. He had other jobs. He and his wife Sally helped run the Montalvo Arts Center and the Djerassi Foundation. They never stayed anywhere too long; they were bohemians. At the time of Mike’s death they were living in rural Washington. Mike was still playing music professionally. (He lived to see their sixtieth wedding anniversary.)

At Stanford Mike worked on a dissertation under Donald Davie. In the familiar manner of graduate students, he did everything but write it. He was house master of Branner Hall. He played jazz at Ironworks on El Camino. He recorded visiting speakers at Stanford.

His tapes are now in the Stanford Library. He even issued a series of superb long-playing records of poets and novelists reading their works. This series documents many of the best writers the Stanford community has produced– such as Yvor Winters, Janet Lewis, N. Scott Momaday, J.V. Cunningham, and Donald Davie. He also captured visiting writers, including Adrienne Rich and John Hawkes. Each LP had a fine short essay about the writer on the back cover.

Many fingers, many pies. (Courtesy Sally Stillman)

He also recorded an interview I did with John Cheever that was published in a short form in Sequoia. The full version appears in my book of literary memoirs, Studying with Miss Bishop. I sent him an early copy.

At Stanford Mike studied with the haiku scholar Makoto Ueda. He used to carry Ueda’s anthology, Modern Japanese Haiku around with him as his personal vademecum. Mike began to write almost entirely in haiku for several years. He produced a remarkable book of haiku, An Eye of Minnows, which I actually reviewed for the Stanford Daily in 1976. He did something remarkable with the form.

He used the haiku as a stanza for lyric poems–keeping its imagistic structure but allowing it to form larger units of meaning. The book, now completely forgotten, was remarkable.

I have consistently anthologized one of Mike’s poems, which has been picked up by quite a few other editors over the years. Here is the sort of work that Stillman once did. Like so many multi-talented people, he couldn’t focus on one thing for too long. Each stanza is a haiku. I was glad to lodge one of his poems into public memory.

In Memoriam John Coltrane

Listen to the coal
rolling, rolling through the cold
steady rain, wheel on

wheel, listen to the
turning of the wheels this night
black as coal dust, steel

steel, listen to
these cars carry coal, listen
to the coal train roll.

Jazz duo Tuck & Patti (Photo: Thisisshun)

As a poet, Mike has been forgotten by the world. Most poets are forgotten, but I remember his singular work. He wrote a great deal of fine poetry which has never been collected in books.

Postscript: Jazz scholar Ted Gioia also shared a story about Michael Stillman, elaborating on the jazz duo: “Michael was responsible for the famous husband-and-wife- jazz duo Tuck and Patti meeting—when he hired guitarist Tuck Andress and singer Patti Cathcart for his band. Years later Tuck and Patti were not just a married couple but a hit musical act, with their debut album on the Windham Hill record label rising to the top of the jazz radio airplay chart. Mike might have shared in that success, because he wrote lyrics to a jazz song that they recorded for the album. But at the last minute the track had to be dropped from the album because the estate of the composer refused to give permission. Without rights to the song, Tuck and Patti couldn’t feature Mike’s lyrics. I can’t help thinking this was emblematic of Mike Stillman’s career—he was involved in so many seminal creative pursuits, but almost always behind the scenes, and getting very little credit himself.”

Ismail Kadare: how life is like a dream, and nightmares are just like life.

January 18th, 2021
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“Kadaria” – a land where the weather is always awful.

I missed the news last October:  Ismail Kadare has been awarded the Neustadt Prize for Literature, often considered a precursor for the Nobel. The award came to my attention because of Princeton’s David Bellos’s article in the current issue of World Literature Today. Why should we read the Albanian writer? Here’s why, he says:

If you read Ismail Kadare, you also cover all the ages since the invention of script: from Cheops building the Great Pyramid to arguments over the succession of Enver Hoxha in 1980s Albania, and on to events and situations that take place in western Europe after the fall of communism.

The largest number of Kadare’s stories are set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Broken April takes place in the 1930s, Chronicle in Stone in the 1940s, The General of the Dead Army in the 1950s, Agamemnon’s Daughter in the 1970s. These tales allow you to read the history of Albania—and of the world—through the prism of fiction. That’s one good reason why you should read Kadare, and why I love to do so. He has created, so to speak, a parallel universe, with a deep relationship to the one we live in. It is the whole world in literary form.

Kadare has created, so to speak, a parallel universe, with a deep relationship to the one we live in. It is the whole world in literary form. …

One of the most striking and constant features of Kadare’s world is the looming presence of certain myths from ancient Greece: not the whole of Greek mythology, but those myths that dramatize family hatreds and the intoxicating, corrupting, and fearsome effect of proximity to power.

The second thing that is always present in Kadare are Balkan folk tales. I call then “Balkan” rather than simply Albanian because these folk tales exist in many other languages of the region as well. Indeed, Kadare dramatizes precisely this question of the ethnic origins of Balkan cultures in The File on H, one of the most entrancing of his tales, based on the historical exploits of American folklorists in the Albanian borderlands in the 1930s.

The third dominant feature I want to mention is that Kadare explores in almost every one of his stories the relationship between the personal and the political. Not politics in the sense of topical or party-political issues, but politics in the broadest sense, that is to say, how groups and individuals manipulate others and exercise power over them.

Another characteristic of the world of Ismail Kadare—let’s call it Kadaria—is the weather, which, as others have said, functions almost like a character in its own right. The weather in Kadaria is always ghastly, and it makes the climate of Scotland seem by comparison as balmy as the Italian Riviera. As a reader, you quickly catch on to the almost comical dimension of Kadare’s climatic notations (fog, drizzle, rain, snow, cold, cloudy), since Albania’s climate is in fact more like the Italian Riviera than the banks of Loch Lomond. They are not plausible settings of any actual scene, but key signatures to the mood, which tells you that this is not going to be a happy story. But they do much more than that: they tell you that there are not going to be any blonde maidens sitting astride gleaming tractors bringing in the sun-ripened harvest of grain, and that the work will have no truck with the norms imposed on Albanian literature by Soviet doctrines of socialist realism. It is really a very sly way of carving out a uniquely critical position within a society where criticism was, shall we say, seriously underappreciated.

Many of Kadare’s human characters are often not sure whether they are awake or asleep. Typical introductions to the inner lives of protagonists begin: “it seemed to him that . . . ,” “he wasn’t quite sure whether . . . ,” and so on. The borderline between being able to see clearly and not being able to see clearly is never clear-cut. So that when you have finished reading a novel, whether it is the retelling of a legend like The Ghost Rider or a quasihistorical reconstruction like The General of the Dead Army, you are not quite sure whether you’ve had a dream or not. Kadare constantly nudges us toward doubting the difference between waking and dreaming, and makes us reflect on the ways in which life is like a dream, and in what way nightmares are just like life.

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on 1/20 from Dana Gioia, former California poet laureate and NEA chairman: “What wonderful news that Kadare won the Neustadt Prize for Literature, one of the great international awards. He is such a powerful writer. Once I read “The General of the Dead Army,” I knew I was in the presence of a great novelist. I went on to read half a dozen other books. But I probably wouldn’t have read him at all had not one of my sons given me a copy of the book. Kadare remains too little known in the U.S. I keep hoping he is better known in Stockholm.”

Was John Milton less dour than we imagine? He may have been a fun kind of guy.

January 13th, 2021
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Poet and translator A.M. Juster reviews Nicholas McDowell’s Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton in The Los Angeles Review of Books:

As a young teenager, John Milton set out in a fiercely determined way to become not just a successful poet, but a poet the literary world would regard as a peer of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch. He organized his life around this goal with a demanding plan that required close reading of a prodigious number of texts — an approach that would puzzle today’s burgeoning guild of poets, who too often spend a few years in MFA programs learning about erasure poetry, liminality, and their depressing professional prospects. Even before matriculating at the University of Cambridge at the age of 16, Milton wrestled with whether greatness required him to write in Latin or in English, and for many years his uncertainty about this question caused him to hedge his bets by writing in both languages. …

Nicholas McDowell’s erudite Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton helps us understand why and how Milton pursued poetic glory. He lays out in clear prose what we know of Milton’s family life and education, and he describes in detail the intense curricula at St Paul’s School and the University of Cambridge, which focused on fluency in languages, both modern and ancient, along with critical approaches to literature, history, theology, and other disciplines. He also shows us that Milton’s teachers and professors were adamant that the lives of Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch demonstrated that wide and deep reading in the humanist canon is a necessary precondition for success as a true poet.

McDowell’s judicious weighing of the historical evidence relating to the young Milton’s religious and literary development serves as a welcome reminder of a common flaw in Milton scholarship, the tendency to paint a reductionist portrait of the mature Milton and then to fit the younger Milton into that same narrow interpretive frame.

Juster makes some unusual connections between Milton and theater – and concludes that, after all, the author of Paradise Lost might have been a fun kind of guy:

My only criticism of this admirable biography is that I would have liked to have seen the author push a little harder against certain scholarly misconceptions. … Not long ago we learned that Milton’s father — with whom he was close — had been part-owner of the Blackfriars Playhouse. Last year, Jason Scott-Warren identified extensive annotations (including proposed improvements) in a Shakespeare First Folio as those of Milton. It is time for scholars to look harder at the plays performed at his father’s theater (some of which were edgy for the time) and to determine if any of the language or ideas from plays performed there echoed through Milton’s work.

I would also have liked to have seen more pressure-testing of the standard portrayal of the young Milton as almost as dour as the later Milton. “Miltonic humor” might seem as unpromising as a Bill Clinton lecture on the virtues of chastity, but Milton seems to have been popular in his Cambridge years, and he even acted as the master of ceremonies for a student satirical event known as a “salting.” His epistolary elegies to his best friend, Charles Diodati, demonstrate his capacity for amiable teasing, but there is also a subversive wit in his other Latin poetry. Did this sense of humor evaporate, or are there satirical traces we have not noticed in the later works because we braced ourselves for grimness?

McDowell ends this book shortly before Milton’s doomed marriage to his first wife, but in the last paragraph adds that “the second half of Milton’s life is the story of how this gleaming vision of the poet’s powers became darkened, but not overshadowed, by the experience of revolution.” I take that assertion as a promise of a second volume — which is great news for lovers of this great poet.

Read the whole thing here.

How did restaurant critics become “insult comics”?

January 7th, 2021
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Is it really that bad? “Promiscuous hyperbole has consequences.”

I’d been alerted to check out Theodore Gioia’s review of restaurant reviews over at The New Republic.  It’s good. Check it out … even if, like me, you are a vegetarian and can’t eat half of what’s on any menu, anyway, whether or not it’s “oleaginous” or “dessicated.” Gioia’s writing is spunky and sassy, and his  spirit thoughtful and generous as he describes the current fashion of “smackdown reviews.” (And yes, he is Dana Gioia‘s son – don’t get them confused.)

Why no trophies for glowing reviews? Gioia concludes that “entertainment comes from cruelty.” No argument there. He continues: “These gladiatorial takedowns are not really excellent writing about food—but rather about pain. Cuisine is merely the vessel of vitriol, the muse of literary malice.” He compares restaurant reviewing to “insult comedy.” Here’s why: “Negative reviews often read like a standup act, with dozens of disconnected puns and laugh lines that entertain for the moment but rarely culminate in a larger argument.”

He begins:

Last February, I had the honor of being publicly snubbed by Jay Rayner, the fiery restaurant critic for The Guardian, who dismissed my essay about the “crisis” of the American restaurant review as “staggeringly parochial.” Apparently, my essay did not say enough about the British restaurant review. Rayner sketched a broad distinction between the somber American critic driven by “civic duty” with a “respectful and solicitous” tone (not adjectives commonly associated with the Stars and Stripes) and the Brits, who are the “writerly equivalent of bare-knuckle fighters.” While tame Americans write descriptions such as “creamy slips of uni” or “a fragrant lake of oil,” the English understand the simple joy of comparing a rude waitstaff to an “unlubricated colonoscopy.” Rayner ended his column with an appeal to un-seriousness: “Learn to relax a little. After all, we’re not war reporters. We’re only writing about lunch.”

Gioia: smacking the “smackdown reviews”

Then the pandemic hit. As restaurants across the world were forced to close, the value of Rayner’s style of blitzkrieg criticism became a fraught question. While American reviewers reacted to the shutdown with broader assessments of the state of the restaurant industry and its future, the major British critics spent the lockdown taking “trips down Memory Lane” and “becoming emotionally attached to frying pans.” Then in June, Rayner declared an indefinite hiatus from negative reviews, announcing, “If I can’t be broadly positive I simply won’t be writing anything,” even though the shift “risks making me less readable.”

Actors who play for applause lose their subtlety and daring. In the same way, self-indulgent hit pieces make bad writers, eventually:

Promiscuous hyperbole has consequences beyond provocation and imprecision. At the literary level, these grotesque metaphors and overcaffeinated insults are the linguistic equivalent of junk food. While there’s nothing wrong with a little bathroom humor in moderation, a steady diet of car-bomb and condom similes will ruin any author’s expressive palette. Left unchecked, food critics often develop an unhealthy craving for offensive, high-conflict imagery and start to seek out extreme comparisons over more balanced options. For instance, you find Rayner describing a mussel that “looks like the retracted scrotum of a hairless cat,” a croquette “the size and color of a cat’s turd,” and a puree that makes him wince “like a cat’s arse that’s brushed against nettles.” After getting hooked on such Red Bull rhetoric, reviewers gradually spoil their taste for subtler flavors of thought and feeling.

Why does it matter? Because the restaurant industry is crumbling as we speak, thanks to COVID.  “This pledge of blanket positivity comes at a moment of unprecedented hardship and uncertainty for the restaurant industry. Now is not the time for phony optimism or mandatory applause but righteous rage and indignation—yet redirected from problems in table décor toward problems in kitchen culture. Contemporary dining teems with contentious issues crying out for serious discussion: widespread unemployment among food workers, sexual misconduct allegations in top kitchens, hazardous labor laws, a lack of diversity in food media, record food insecurity in the U.K. and the U.S., to name a few. Any of these questions would benefit from a critic’s incisive intellect and informed reporting. Yet traditional reviewers remain trapped in the simplistic binary of barbaric putdowns or mindless praise.

Read the whole thing here.

Pop open the champagne! Happy Public Domain Day! 🍾

January 1st, 2021
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Ralph Barton’s illustration for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” It’s also in public domain now.

For those of us who keep an eye on such things – including bloggers, everywhere – we have some exciting news, and it rolls around every New Year’s Day. (So if you didn’t send cards this year, you’ll have another opportunity on January 1, 2022.) Happy Public Domain Day! What? You’re not excited? Well, am.

As of today, F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby is up for grabs. So is Virginia WoolfMrs. Dalloway,  Ernest Hemingway‘s In Our Time, and Franz Kafka‘s The Trial (in German). Excerpt as much as you like. Be my guest.

Plenty more books published in 1925 have entered the public domain, as of today.  According to Jennifer Jenkins, a law professor at Duke University who directs its Center for the Study of the Public Domain. “And all of the works are free for anyone to use, reuse, build upon for anyone — without paying a fee.”

“Works from 1925 were supposed to go into the public domain in 2001, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit a 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years Now the wait is over,” Jenkin’s writes on the Duke website.

1925 was the year of seminal works by Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein, Agatha Christie, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Aldous Huxley … and, among musicians some works by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, among hundreds of others. And 1925 marked the release of important works by silent film comedians Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

According to NPR:

Free! Free! Free!

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of having work in the public domain. For example, can you imagine the holidays without It’s A Wonderful Life? That movie happened to be unprotected by copyright, so it was able to be shown — a lot — for free, contributing to its establishment as an American Christmas classic.

It also means books can be published more cheaply and made available for free online; that old “orphan” films can be preserved by archivists; that scholars can access and publish material more easily; that musicians can sample and experiment with the songs of an earlier generation and that classic characters can be given new life and new interpretations.

While the most successful creators often leave behind legal estates to manage the care (and finances) of their famous books, plays, operas and so forth, most aren’t so lucky. “For the vast majority of authors from 1925, no one is benefiting from copyright protections,” Jenkins tells NPR. Having their work enter the public domain is a way to keep it circulating in the culture for artists and historians to use for education and inspiration.

Overlooked Anita Loos

May we throw in our own bid for greater circulation? This year also marks Anita Loos‘s underrated classic and comic masterpiece of the Flapper Era, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional LadyHere’s what I wrote when we featured the book at Stanford’s Another Look book club for forgotten, overlooked, and otherwise neglected books way back in May 2013:

Edith Wharton called Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes “the great American novel” and declared its author a genius. Winston Churchill, William Faulkner, George Santayana and Benito Mussolini read it – so did James Joyce, whose failing eyesight led him to select his reading carefully. The 1925 bestseller sold out the day it hit the stores and earned Loos more than a million dollars in royalties. …

Everyone, of course, has heard of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the short novel’s fame was eclipsed by the 1953 movie of the same name, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Once the bombshell blonde vamped “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the effervescent Jazz Age novel became a shard of forgotten history. Who has taken the send-up novel seriously since?

You can check out the catalog for 1925 copyrighted works here. Or check out the podcast for the Stanford panel discussion with Hilton Obenzinger, Mark McGurl, and Claire Jarvis here. (Claire placed the book in the tradition of the courtesan’s diary.)

Meanwhile, go ahead! Excerpt as much as you like! It’s on the house!

Postscript: The biggest fish of all: George Orwell is in public domain today. According to The Guardian: “George Orwell died at University College Hospital, London, on 21 January 1950 at the early age of 46. This means that unlike such long-lived contemporaries as Graham Greene (died 1991) or Anthony Powell (died 2000), the vast majority of his compendious output (21 volumes to date) is newly out of copyright as of 1 January. Naturally, publishers – who have an eye for this kind of opportunity – have long been at work to take advantage of the expiry date and the next few months are set to bring a glut of repackaged editions. …As is so often the way of copyright cut-offs, none of this amounts to a free-for-all. Any US publisher other than Houghton Mifflin that itches to embark on an Orwell spree will have to wait until 2030, when Burmese Days, the first of Orwell’s books to be published in the US, breaks the 95-year barrier. And eager UK publishers will have to exercise a certain amount of care. The distinguished Orwell scholar Professor Peter Davison fathered new editions of the six novels back in the mid-1980s. No one can reproduce these as the copyright in them is currently held by Penguin Random House.” Read the rest here.

Dana Gioia, Sam Weller on Ray Bradbury @100: “Bradbury never went to college — that’s one reason why he was so original.”

December 29th, 2020
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Dana Gioia and friend (Photo: Starr Black)

We’re in the last days of the Ray Bradbury centennial. The influential science fiction writer was born on August 22, 1920, and died eight years ago in Los Angeles. Bradbury’s biographer Sam Weller interviews poet Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, about the author of  Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, and others in today’s Los Angeles Review of Books“Bradbury never went to college — that’s one reason why he was so original. He was not indoctrinated in the mainstream assumption of the superiority of the realist mode. He educated himself,” said Dana.  (Thanks to jazz scholar Ted Gioia for the heads-up about this Q&A.)

When was the first time you met Ray Bradbury in person?

I never met him until he came to Washington to receive the National Medal of Arts. No science fiction writer had ever won the National Medal. I felt it was important to honor areas of American creativity previously ignored. (We eventually awarded medals to an animator, literary translator, set designer, comic book artist, graphic designer, electrical guitar pioneer, and cartoonist — while never neglecting the traditional fine arts.) Ray was the first of these new honorees. The first time I spoke to him was the phone call informing him about the medal. He was effusively delighted. His doctors told him not to come. Ray came anyway, in his wheelchair, with three of his daughters and yourself. He loved every moment. He was like a kid at Disneyland.

This began a friendship that lasted until the end of his life. I continued to visit Ray when he was on his deathbed. He couldn’t read any longer, so I would read to him. We had a long and affectionate relationship.

Do you have a favorite moment or favorite memory of Ray?

My favorite memory of Ray came from a science fiction convention at the University of California at Riverside. Not the convention itself but trying to get to it. Ray was the keynote speaker. He asked if I would introduce him. The speech was scheduled in a huge building at the center of campus. But there was no direct way to get Ray’s wheelchair into the building. Every entrance had high steps designed for 18-year-old college students. Our faculty hosts eventually took us around back to the service entrance by the garbage dumpsters. I pushed Ray through a series of underground corridors until we got to a huge elevator, which had been designed to bring trolleys up from the food service kitchen.

“No science fiction writer had ever won the National Medal.”

We went up a floor or two, and a group of guys from the food service came in with their packed trolleys. They were all young Mexicans speaking Spanish. They noticed this old man in a wheelchair. The professors all froze up. They felt uncomfortable. But these were the sort of guys I grew up with. I turned to them and asked in my lousy Spanish if they knew who this man was. They shook their heads. Then I told them he was “el escritor famoso, Ray Bradbury.” My hosts looked at me as if I were crazy. But then the guys shouted, “Ray Bradbury!” Every one of them knew who he was. Then they crowded around to get his autograph.

Wow. Great story.

The moment strikes me as the best measure of Bradbury’s fame. Can you imagine the same reaction, indeed any reaction, to Saul Bellow or John Updike? These immigrant workers, whom American intellectuals consider beyond the compass of literature — you know all the social, cultural, and racial barriers that exist — were part of Ray’s audience.

And Ray was delighted to meet them. He chuckled and signed napkins and order slips. He had a global audience. He spoke to people novelists don’t usually reach. That is something that we should honor. Bradbury had an imagination that invited people in. I’m one of them. I know I’m not the only writer of my generation who feels Bradbury made a fundamental contribution to my intellectual and literary formation.

Read the whole thing here. And you can watch Steve Wasserman interview Ray Bradbury for Truthdig here.  They discuss the history of book stores, science fiction novels and how the newspaper should teach us to love life.

Joseph Brodsky wrote an annual Christmas poem. Why did he do it?

December 24th, 2020
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A Christmas card from the Brodsky Foundation features “Anno Domini” and Martin Schongauer.

My favorite Christmas card this year has a poem on it. The Joseph Brodsky Foundation usually doesn’t disappoint – not even in the year of COVID, which has put a damper on the season, as well as on its Christmas cards. This year’s greeting features Martin Schongauer‘s 1475 engraving and the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 1968 poem, “Anno Domini,” in the Russian. Can’t read Russian? You can read Daniel Weissbort‘s translation of the poem in The Iowa Review here. Or you could buy a copy of Brodsky’s Nativity Poemsa superb collection of eighteen of the poems he wrote annually, as a sort of birthday greeting. The collection is translated by a number of first-rate translators, including Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney.

The Russian poet said the annual discipline pretty much began when he began to write poems seriously. He tried to write a poem for every Christmas – even though the Jewish poet called himself an atheist. “I liked that concentration of everything in one place – which is what you have in that cave scene,” he explained. But that’s not all of it, either. He once facetiously described himself “a Christian by correspondence.” I suspect he was only half joking.

Why did he do it? Here’s the way  himself explained it in an interview with Peter Vail, included in the book:

I’ll tell you how it all started. I wrote the first Nativity poems, I think, in Komarovo. I was living at a dacha, I don’t remember whose, though it might have been Academician [Aksel] Berg’s. And there I cut a picture out of a Polish magazine, I think it was Przekrój. The picture was Adoration of the Magi, I don’t remember by whom. I stuck it on the ceramic stove and often looked at it in the evenings. It burned later on, the painting, and the stove, and the dacha itself. But at the time I kept on looking and decided to write a poem on the same subject. That is, it all began not from religious feelings, or from Pasternak or Eliot, but from a painting.

His fellow Nobelist, the Polish poet Czesław Miłoszgave me his own explanation twenty years ago: “If we cannot return to the stable world of the past, at least we can have some respect for some stable points. Brodsky would write every Christmas a poem – on that event, on the birth of Jesus.  This is a sort of piety, I should say, for the past, for some crucial points in our history.”

“Anno Domino” returned me to Nativity Poems tonight, on Christmas Eve. As I recall, I return to this volume every Christmas … my own “stable point.” From Richard Wilbur’s translation of 25.XII.1993:

… For miracles, gravitating
to earth, know just where people will be waiting,
and eagerly will find the right address
and tenant, even in a wilderness.

John le Carré on George Smiley: “Insofar as I am capable of self-love, I love him.”

December 16th, 2020
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Smiley had been his “secret sharer.” (Photo:Francesco Guidicini)

John le Carré, born as David Cornwell – and perhaps even better known as George Smiley, his literary invention – died of pneumonia last weekend in Cornwall at age 89. (We wrote about that here.) The former Cold War intelligence agent wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been called the greatest spy novel ever written, as well as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and many others. Bryan Appleyard interviewed him for the Sunday Times in 2017. An excerpt:

Does David Cornwell — better known as John le Carré — admire George Smiley, his most celebrated spy? “He is the best of me, the most rational — I admire his commitment to his task and his sense of responsibility to humankind. Insofar as I am capable of self-love, I love him.”

Smiley was born in 1961, in Cornwell’s first novel, Call for the Dead. He was a spy himself at the time — hence his need for a pseudonym — and he says he carried Smiley around in his diplomatic baggage. “I finished another little book about him [A Murder of Quality, 1962], then I wanted something big for him. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was sort of spun round for him. I gave him a job as the observing eye, the painful eye of conformity to operational necessity.”

Alec Guinness as the perfect George Smiley

Smiley has always been his “secret sharer”, “an unannounced companion with whom I am sharing the experience, an imaginary figure”. And they share one big, sad secret. “I suppose what Smiley and I have in common is that we find it difficult to remember happiness.”  It’s not something that comes naturally to me, I have to work on it. I do experience fulfilment with my children and my grandchildren.”

Now Smiley is back in Cornwell’s latest novel, A Legacy of Spies. The news was a sensation because, first, he is not alone in loving Smiley — everybody does — and, second, he once said he had finished with him. Now he knows they’ll be together until the end.

They are roughly the same age — Cornwell will be 86 in October. “Smiley and I have caught up in age and in attitude.” This is harmless cheating. A pedantic reading of the books would suggest Smiley is somewhere between 102 and 111. But pedants tend to miss the big picture, so here it is.

***

“That book [The Spy Who Came in from the Cold] was written in a kind of blind anger when we were all being thrown away, so I wanted to look at it again now and see what might have happened. Spies have children, and children they don’t even tell you about. They have bigger concerns than they actually reveal.”

The blind anger that, in The Spy, created the doomed Alec Leamas and his lover, Liz Gold, was matched by a new rage that led to A Legacy of Spies. “I wrote it in a bit of a frenzy through Trump and Brexit. I despise the whole Brexit operation, as Smiley does. One government after another blamed Europe for its own failures because they never invested in the concept of a united Europe.

In A Legacy, the past returns thanks to a legal action brought against MI6 over the events surrounding the deaths of Leamas and Gold. Public exposure threatens the now glitzy, tight-suited inhabitants of “Spyland Beside the Thames”, the agency’s “shockingly ostentatious new headquarters” in Vauxhall. Peter Guillam, once Smiley’s deputy, is called back from retirement (though there is no such thing in MI6). …  Smiley moves in and out of the action in the past before, finally, appearing in the present. Guillam asks him what all their work had been for. England? No. Europe.

“I think his whole genesis in life — his private dream, as he now expresses it — is the salvation of Europe. That was, for him, the battlefront of the Cold War — for him, that was where the soul of Europe was being fought for. So, when he looks back on it all — or I do, if you like — he sees futility.”

In A Legacy of Spies, poor Peter Guillam seems to show that, like it or not, once in, you are never out. It makes one wonder about David Cornwell, but, then again, it makes one wonder about oneself.

After all, none of this is just about spying. “I perceived,” he said at one point, “in the real world a reflection of the secret world.” We are all Alec Leamas or Bill Haydon, and, like Cornwell, some of us are Smiley — always secretive, always on call.

R.I.P. John le Carré: Recalling Soviet Russia, the KGB, and a fateful lunch with Joseph Brodsky in a Chinese restaurant

December 13th, 2020
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Novelist John le Carré, a.k.a. David Cornwell, at the German Embassy, 2017

Author John le Carré died of pneumonia last night in Cornwall at age 89. The former Cold War intelligence agent wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been called the greatest spy novel ever written (as well as a shelf of other books). I loved it for sentences like these:

“There are moments which are made up of too much stuff for them to be lived at the time they occur.”

“Somewhere the path of pain and betrayal must end. Until that happened, there was no future: there was only a continued slide into the still more terrifying versions of the present.”

“Haydon also took it for granted that secret services were the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.”

Although the news is only a few hours old, lots of obituaries are up already – the Guardian’s is here. I didn’t know him, and never read a novel besides the first. But one of the things I remember him most for is that he was at a Chinese restaurant in Hampstead with Joseph Brodsky when the Russian poet won the Nobel in 1987. He said of his friend: “My enthusiasm for him and my admiration for him were of course in the first instance not so much  poetical but political. I loved the cuts, the courage that he displayed in 1964” – that is, during his Leningrad show trial.

Sentenced to internal exile near the Arctic Circle, 1964

Here are his memories of that event, as told to Valentina Polukhina, in her Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries:

Yes. I was with him at that moment. I took him to the Chinese restaurant, which is gone now; I’ll show you where it was. It was a lousy little restaurant anyway, but it was quite good food and I used to go there. When I invited Joseph for lunch, he said ‘yes’, I think for two reasons: first, Rene Brendel [wife of the pianist Alfred Brendel] would not let him drink, not much, not as he liked to drink, and also of course he was killing time while he waited to hear the news. I had no idea of this. I actually didn’t know that the Nobel Prize winner was at that moment being selected … and then Rene Brendel appeared in the doorway. She is big, German, tall, lots of authority, still speaks with a slight German accent, and she said, ‘Joseph, you must come home.’ And he said, ‘Why?’ He had two or three large whiskies by then. And she said, ‘You have won the Prize.’ He said, ‘What prize?’ And she said, ‘You have won the Nobel Prize for Literature’. I said, ‘Waiter, a bottle of champagne’. She she sat down and accepted a glass of champagne, and I said to her then, ‘How do you know?’ She said, ‘The whole of Swedish television is waiting for Joseph outside the house’. I said, ‘Well, you know, there are three or four candidates; they may be outside every door. We need more than this before we can drink champagne in comfort’. Joseph’s publisher, Roger Straus, was in London, so Rene telephoned him at his hotel, and he confirmed that he had received official word from Stockholm that Joseph has got the prize. So, we drank the champagne. Joseph didn’t like champagne, but accepted it as a symbol. He wanted more whisky, but Rene said he must come home.  …

More … on the U.S.S.R.

Can you recognize a KGB man inside or outside Russia?

It was easy to recognize them in Russia in 1987, because those who were put alongside me had the veneer of Western manners and spoke unnaturally good English, and made fatal mistakes, like trying to talk like sophisticated Europeans. It’s very funny when somebody pretends that he knows whiskies or something like that. I don’t know whiskies, but I know this man doesn’t.

We seem never to be able to produce a realistic portrait of each other. Another fatal mistake that Western writers make in trying to depict a Soviet person.

And vice versa. I just wonder how Joseph saw the rest of his writing life, where it was going to take place. What was the grit in the oyster. Where would he get his aggravation from?

… If you didn’t know Joseph at all, what would you have made of him after reading the essay ‘A Collector’s Item’ [about British spy Kim Philby]? Is it written by a poet, a university professor, a philosopher or an amateur-psychologist? Are his analyses of the phenomenon correct, profound or superficial?

I was fascinated that Joseph got into the spying business, because it raises all the literary questions: who am I? To what am I responsible? Where do my loyalties lie? What is the true me? You are deliberately contrasting behavior with emotion. You may detest being in my company but I would never know, because the courtesy of our existence tells otherwise. You may be reporting me to the new KGB, I will never know. In a sense, the Russians knew more about psychology before Freud than ever since.

Because it was a matter of survival.

Yes, it was a matter of survival and their literature was so perceptive. They have by instinct a greater understanding of human nature than can ever be given by a scientist. I think, Joseph probably knew more about me than any analyst would after 20 years.

… If Rainer Maria Rilke is right, that Russian is sharing a boundary with God, then Russians are paying the price for the privilege.

I met in Russia so many wonderful people. Every encounter in all four visits has been so electrical, so unpredictable. You just never know whether you are going to walk into a palace or a thief’s tent. I was shocked when I went in 1987 for the first time and took my own interpreter, which disconcerted everybody; then we went again in 1993 and I couldn’t believe that Estee Lauder had replaced GUM in Red Square. The capitalization of Russia is as disconcerting to me as it is for Russians. Money is utterly mysterious. It seems to be in all the wrong hands.

You also perhaps notice that the KGB and the Party knew where the money was and is.

Nobody else does.


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