“The first time I finished Too Loud a Solitude, I was up in Letná Park, and I remember leaping off the bench and running around in circles, holding the book above my head and shouting because I believed I’d experienced some religious illumination. A brief, ninety-eight-page, lightning strike of a novel, the book is about a man named Haňťa who has been crushing paper beneath a street in Prague for the last thirty-five years. People throw paper and books, books by the barrelful, down Haňťa’s hole in the pavement. Before he crushes them, Haňťa reads. The book of Ecclesiastes, the Talmud, Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant’s Theory of the Heavens. Kant, who argues that the heavens are not humane, nor is life above or below.”
.At 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 6, at the Bechtel Conference Center, the Another Look book club will discuss Czech author Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, a dystopian novella on the indestructibility of the written word.
“Too Loud a Solitude is an elegy for literacy. It is also about how worship of unfettered technological progress invariably results in a trouncing of the human spirit. And it is about how only individual human memory has the unique power to redeem us,” Orner writes (read the whole thing here).
Hrabal’s novella was published in a samizdat edition in Prague in 1976, and later published more widely after Communist rule ended in 1989. Its aging narrator runs a hydraulic press that crushes books and paper into bales. He rescues the best volumes for himself, and over time his thoughts and feelings merge with the treasures from the past – Hegel and the Talmud, Lao-Tze and Kant. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Hrabal’s is a cry of expiring humanism, and Too Loud a Solitude is a book to salvage from the deadly indifference that is more effective in killing the letter than the most sophisticated compacting machine.” You can read the New York Times review here.
Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by Stanford Prof. Hans Ulrich “Sepp” Gumbrecht, a European public intellectual and a prolific author, and German Prof. Karen Feldman of the University of California, Berkeley, whose research explores the nexus between literature and philosophy.
Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books are Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces you may not have read before. The events are free and open to the public. .
Too Loud a Solitude is available at Stanford Bookstore, and also will stocked at Kepler’s in Menlo Park and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.
“There is beauty, and there are the humiliated.” In Wrocław, 2011 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish sociologist and a major public intellectual, is dead at 91 – or, as his widow put it, he has changed his place of residence “to liquid eternity.”
According to The New York Times, “The Polish-born left-wing thinker’s works explored the fluidity of identity in the modern world, the Holocaust, consumerism and globalization.” The article continued:
Renowned for an approach that incorporated philosophy and other disciplines, Bauman was a strong moral voice for the poor and dispossessed in a world upended by globalization. Whether he was writing about the Holocaust or globalization, his focus remained on how humans can create a dignified life through ethical decisions.
He wrote more than 50 books, notably “Modernity and the Holocaust,” a 1989 release in which he differed with many other thinkers who saw the barbarism of the Holocaust as a breakdown in modernity. Bauman viewed the mass exterminations of Jews as the very outcome of such pillars of modernity as industrialization and rationalized bureaucracy.
“It was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust thinkable,” Bauman wrote.
In the 1990s, Bauman coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe a contemporary world in such flux that individuals are left rootless and bereft of any predictable frames of reference.
In books including “Liquid Times” and “Liquid Modernity” he explored the frailty of human connection in such times and the insecurity that a constantly changing world creates.
His Liquid Modernity might be the single best description of the world we inhabit where all that is solid melts into thin air. The center does not hold, but Bauman is a sure guide to understanding what all that means. What Liquid Modernity describes, and it is something I’ve briefly discussed before, is not an academic exercise, but something that affects not only the present, but also the collective future. I cannot recommend this work highly enough if you feel confused about the world we inhabit and where it is heading. If you can’t relate to this feeling of vertigo then you probably have some bigger problems.
But I don’t want to dwell on psychoanalyzing you, nor on the details of liquid modernity (which you can explore here); nor on Bauman’s period of zealous Stalinism (I believe in Kołakowski’s dictum from Metaphysical Horror, “A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.”); instead, a couple days after Bauman’s death (I’m not a fan of the euphemism “passing,” because it lacks substance), I’d like to share the following passage from Of God and Man, since it hopes for a more humane future: “You are right (and deserve credit) when observing that, one way or the other, we somehow possess this world, and, from time to time, here and there, are even able to change at least a small part of it for the better. Given that this world of ours is still in the making, the act of its creation yet incomplete, and the work of continuing the creation and its completion has (to recall our earlier conversations) fallen to us, then it is right for us – as for any responsible host – to care for its well-being and attend to its goodness and beauty. I will repeat again Camus’ credo: there is beauty, and there are the humiliated. God grant that I never be unfaithful to the one or the other.”
Read the whole thing here. Or watch the video, “No one is in control. That is the major source of contemporary fear,” below:
New prize for new voice. (Photo: Photo by Rachael Behrens)
One of the finest people at Stanford just won a substantial literary prize –the $1000 Gival Press Short Story Award. We couldn’t be more chuffed.
The Book Haven was one of the first to know about the short story and the prize. Elaine Ray sent her story “Pidgin” to us some time ago. We hesitate to read anything by friends and colleagues – hard to weigh in with a thumbs-down, and the diplomacy in such cases can take as long as the reading (or longer, depending on the ego of the writer).
Our immediate verdict: “Terrific! Go for it!”
We were surprised that the former director of the Stanford News Service, and one of the most beloved people at Stanford for her generosity and kindness, had emerged in fiction with an utterly new voice. We agree with the judge who called it “mercilessly exposed and utterly enigmatic,” throwing light on a lost world that as foreign to most of us as the Incas.
We we’ve written before about Elaine and her blog, “My Father’s Posts,”named in honor of her father, the journalist Ebenezer Ray, who died when she was thirteen: “What I knew was that my father had been a newspaper man. He had worked in the composing room of the Pittsburgh Courierbefore he was disabled by Parkinson’s disease. I also knew that he had dabbled in photography: There was an abandoned darkroom in our basement, and there were lots of photos around our house, including my baby picture, which earned Honorable Mention in the Carnation Healthy Baby contest in 1955. …I knew he was born in 1897, immigrated to the United States from Barbados, and had lived in New York for many years before settling in Pittsburgh.” His story is the fictionalized backdrop of ‘Pidgin.'”
Her reaction to the $1000 award? “Blown away and humbled. The first piece of fiction I’ve ever gotten published wins an award.” According to one of the judges, Thomas McNeely, author of Ghost Horse: “In fewer than twenty pages, Pidgin sketches a world of its narrator of color’s post-colonial migration, political activism, and imprisonment within the choices offered him by history. At the same time, it’s a narrative that seems shaped by mysteries that transcend and yet throw into sharp relief its political moment, the chief one being the brilliant voice of its narrator, who is at once mercilessly exposed and utterly enigmatic. Elaine Ray is a writer who plays by her own rules, and is a writer to watch.”
An excerpt, in the voice of her “father”:
My plan was to land a job at one of those big Negro newspapers. But first I had to put in some time with Oliver and Olivia Burns, a couple with ties to the printer I had worked for back home. Mr. and Mrs. Burns owned an establishment that printed invitations, birth announcements and funeral programs. They had clients who fell into three categories: The well-heeled customers they received in the front parlor of their shop with the curtains open— most of them were white or Negroes who could pass for white, like the Burnses themselves. In the second tier were those who were welcomed in the shop, but with the curtains drawn. They were mostly prominent, but browner-skinned Negroes. At the bottom rung of the Burnses’ pecking order were those who brought in most of the money. They tended toward the darkest hues, were working class or poor, and were not welcomed in the shop at all. Those are the ones I was hired to call on.
That’s how I met Lucille Braithwaite, an enterprising Trinidadian who had worked her way into a comfortable living in the ten or so years that she’d been in New York. By night, she toiled in a government factory in Tarrytown. By day and on weekends, she made extra money doing hair, managing a rooming house and hosting gatherings ý rent parties, recitals and receptions— in the upstairs parlor of her Harlem brownstone. She was known to pack a shotgun, lest anyone bring trouble or think about coming between her and her money. She was unmarried and had no children, but kept a parrot named Scarlet whose first language was Pidgin English.
Scarlet was a master of impersonation, picking up accents, inflections and languages with impressive precision.
“Who did you say sent, you?” Lucille asked the day I knocked on her door. At first glance it was hard to tell who was talking: the woman or the bird that stared from atop her head. Both gave me the once over.
“Mr. and Mrs. Burns. You wanted to order some leaflets?” I tipped my hat—a straw cross between a pith helmet and a fedora. The bird snatched it.
“Don’t be rude, Scarlet,” Lucille reprimanded, a touch of amusement around her eyes. She opened the door wider and handed my hat back.
Had it not been for Scarlet’s antics, Lucille, whose hair was wrapped in a brightly colored scarf, would have looked like she was wearing a piece of intricately constructed millinery festooned with bright red, blue and yellow feathers.
“Where are you from, Mr. Clark?” Lucille asked.
I did not realize how ridiculous I looked until I was reflected in Scarlet’s marble eyes— a dark, diminutive, bespectacled figure in navy shorts, a starched white shirt, navy blazer, knee socks and leather sandals.
Lucille was tall, slender, and the color of strong tea. She had a beaklike nose and full lips. When she listened, she stood with her torso thrust forward and her hands on her hips, her elbows taking on the shape of wings.
“Barbados,” I said.
“That must be how you know the Burnses,” Lucille warmed. “Come in.” She led me into a spacious sitting room with two matching upholstered chairs, also bright with color, with a coffee table in between. There was a card table with four folding chairs in one corner and a large wicker birdcage in the other. The place was neat as a pin.
You can read the whole thing here at the Arlington Literary Journal.
I don’t know about all of you New Year’s revelers, but I’ve been working steadily through the winter break, and feeling mightily miffed about missing so many opportunities to party. What will I need to make it through 2017? A little more elbow grease, I expect, which the U.K.’s “Phrase Finder” website (and thanks, Okla Elliot, for pointing it out to us) defines as “energetic labour.” I always assumed “elbow grease” was an American colloquialism. Not so, says Phrase Finder. In fact, it appears to have been coined by the poet Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678). The concept is pretty universal, though. Knofedt, anyone?
From the website:
It has long been said that the best sort of furniture polish is ‘elbow-grease’, that is, there is no substitute for hard rubbing to create a lustrous shine. The term itself is older than might be imagined and dates back to at least the 17th century when it was used in print by the English metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell in Rehearsal Transpros’d, 1672:
Two or three brawny Fellows in a Corner, with meer Ink and Elbow-grease, do more
Harm than an Hundred systematical Divines with their sweaty Preaching.
Marvell was suggesting that, although religious meetings could be disrupted or broken up by the speakers’ opponents, printed material could be circulated unhindered. Of course, Marvell was alluding to writing when he used the figurative expression ‘elbow-grease’. It was also used later in the same century, as it is used now, just to mean sweat or effort. An example of that usage is found in the 1699 New Dictionary of the Canting Crew:
Elbow-grease, a derisory Term for Sweat.
The expression’s inclusion in that dictionary, which itemises the language of the streets, suggests that it was a lower-class term.
Other countries have expression that are near-enough identical. In French we have ‘huile de bras’ or ‘l’huile de coude’, which translate as ‘elbow-grease’ and in Danish we find ‘knofedt’, which translates as ‘knuckle fat’.
Ramble through the whole website and look up your favorite hackneyed phrases here. Meanwhile, I hear a deadline whip cracking. Back to work!
Hugh Bonneville as Gloucester, Philip Glenister as Talbot, Adrian Dunbar as Plantagenet, Stanley Townsend as Warwick. (Photo: Robert Viglasky)
The heavens themselves, the planets and this earth Observe degree, priority and place … Office and custom, in all line of order … Take but degree away, untune that string, And, hark, what discord follows!
So begins the newest round in Hollow Crown series, encompassing William Shakespeare‘s Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III (last season presented Richard II, Henry V, and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2). But don’t go looking for a prologue in any of these plays that will include the words I’ve just cited. The lines are, in fact, a truncated version of Ulysses’s speech in Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene 3, as the Greek leaders discuss the morale of their army.
One tough cookie.
The late great French theorist René Girard cites Ulysses’s address in his Theater of Envy as “a meditation on the violent breakdown of human society in general, the undoing of the cultural order” – yet he didn’t find much to suit his purposes in the history plays. For me, however, these plays resound with his “mimetic crisis,” as kings fall and usurpers grab power, all in quest the “hollow crown” as a mimetic objet du désir – the “hollow crown” is a recurrent image in these BBC performances; at one point, it is tossed into a swamp, at other points, it’s an object of mesmerized fascination. Shakespeare was keenly aware of the “the canker vice,” “that monster envy” that causes ambition, selfishness, and conflict. The Bard’s “sacred kings,” victims readied for sacrifice, underscore the messages of Violence and the Sacred.
Yet the French theorist who was 100% non-Anglo could be forgiven for his relative (but only relative) disinterest in the “Hollow Crown” plays, which were principally designed to buttress the Tudor regime’s claims to the English throne. When the boy Earl of Richmond is briefly and reverently introduced in Henry VI, all Shakespeare’s audience knew why: he would become the grandfather-usurper of the Great Queen, Elizabeth I, and the future Henry VII needed all the prettifying he could get.
Hurry hurry and hurry and watch the new season – the link is here. The first of the plays will no longer be available after Jan. 3, and the others expire in the weeks following. It’s a great opportunity. Henry VI isn’t often performed, for good reason – it’s three parts, and doesn’t really wrap up until Richard III. Moreover, the weak and vasillating Henry VI is an unsatisfying focal point for so much dramatic emphasis. (I find the same for Richard II, who at least is given some grand and memorable speeches). The performance of Tom Sturridge doesn’t persuade me otherwise – but Sophie Okonedo‘s ambitious and vengeful Margaret of Anjou is great compensation (she was the wife in Hotel Rwanda). So are a range of other top-notch performances –Ben Miles as the wily and ambiguous Somerset (fans of The Crown will remember him as Princess Margaret‘s boyfriend, Peter Townsend), and Hugh Bonneville‘s Gloucester come to mind. (A small note: as far back as we can go in history, we seem to find haircombs. Could none of these characters, especially King Henry, have found one?)
I’ll finish with Richard III sometime this weekend. Meanwhile, here’s a video highlight (Sophie O. takes the term “bitch-slap” to a whole new level):
Florentina Mocanu came to the U.S. to study with him. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
Avant-garde theater director Carl Weber began his theatrical career in a POW camp. He became Bertolt Brecht‘s protégé and brought Germany’s experimental theater to America. The Stanford drama professor, emeritus, died in Los Altos on Christmas night. He was 91.
“At the first opportunity” – he recalled, and then put up both hands in the universally accepted sign of surrender – “I was a prisoner of England in Belgium.” He was sent to Colchester, Essex, as a POW.
Within weeks of his capture, he was performing Friedrich Schiller‘s The Robbers as one of a handful of performers at the Christmastime play in a mess tent, with tables for a stage. The group had a captive audience – literally.
But the event was a turning point: After Weber returned to a Germany that was “cold and miserable and in ruins” in February 1946, he finished his studies in chemistry at the University of Heidelberg and went to Berlin in September 1949 to pursue a career as an actor, director and dramaturg.
During Heidelburg theater days, 1949. (Courtesy Florentina Mocanu)
Many of the “alumni” of Camp 186 in Colchester went on to have remarkable careers: German stage and TV actor Günther Stoll; Werner Düttmann, city architect for Berlin in the 1960s; and actor Klaus Kinski, collaborator with writer-film director Werner Herzog.
Carl began his formal career as an actor at the Heidelberg City Theater while still studying at Heidelberg University. In 1949, he was one of the founders of the Heidelberg Zimmertheater and directed the company’s opening production. In Berlin, he joined the company of Theater der Freundschaft in 1950.
His life changed course when he saw Brecht’s Mother Courage, a production that launched Brecht’s famous Berliner Ensemble:
“It is still to me the most impressive theater I have seen in my life. It was a totally different kind of theater. Simply stunning. The way of acting was different, the staging was very different.”
Weber knew right away: “I have to work with this man.”
Brecht is remembered in the United States mostly as the dramatist who brought left-wing politics to the stage. He was much more than that, however: He tore down the “fourth wall” barrier between the stage and audience. It wasn’t enough to sit in the theater and be entertained: Brecht wanted you to question society’s values and your own.
Brecht’s values exploded other conventions, too, by emphasizing the visual – “telling the story by the way the visual production unfolded,” said Weber.
“When I work with students here, my first, foremost focus is to teach how to create visual narrative – by the way you move people and objects in space; by the configuration of what you see.
“In Brecht’s staging and directing, psychology was not particularly important. Brecht quite rightly thinks the audience has no idea what the actor is thinking,” said Weber. “Actors don’t think only with their heads, but with their bodies. The sooner they move, the more they can internalize the text with what they’re doing with their bodies.”
Weber said that Brecht’s oft-repeated phrase to actors was “Don’t tell me, show me.”
He was invited, in 1952, to join the Berliner Ensemble as an actor, dramaturg, and assistant director to Brecht, with whom he worked on the productions of Katzgraben, Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Galileo.
Weber’s 1952 “audition” for Brecht was a series of essays: Weber was asked to sit in on a few rehearsals and write not a critique or review – but rather what he actually saw onstage. Not surprising, given Brecht’s desire for absolute visual clarity – what was happening in a play should be evident even to a deaf person watching the scenes unfold.
Weber was headed for controversy, for Brecht was a double-edged sword in the politically charged atmosphere of the Cold War years.
When the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Mother Courage premiered at Théâtre des Nations in Paris in 1954 (it received the festival’s prize), the Communist Party in East Germany denounced it as “decadent.” Greater problems lay ahead.
In 1961, as Weber was preparing a Lübeck production of Brecht’s Trumpets and Drums, the German border was closed without warning, and construction of the Berlin Wall began. Weber never returned to his East German home.
Much of Weber’s time – especially in recent years – has been devoted to the work of one East German writer trapped behind the Wall. At present, Weber is working on a forthcoming volume of Heiner Müller’s Shakespeare adaptations, “Macbeth” and “Anatomy Titus – Fall of Rome.”
At Berliner Ensemble with Brecht, 1955. (Courtesy Florentina Mocanu)
After Brecht’s death in 1956, Weber became one of the directors of the company. He co-wrote and directed, with Peter Palitzsch, The Day of the Great Scholar Wu. He staged a revival of Brecht’s production of Mother Courage, and he was one of the directors of Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. He also directed productions at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater and for German television.
Between 1962 and 1966, he directed at theaters in West Germany, Scandinavia, and the United States, among them the San Francisco’s Actors Workshop, Norway’s National Theatre in Oslo, and Berlin’s Schaubühne. From 1964 to 1966, he was principal resident director of Wuppertaler Bühnen, the home of Pina Bausch’s “Tanztheater.”
Weber moved to New York in 1966 when he was appointed Master-Teacher of Directing and Acting at the newly-founded NYU School of the Arts. He directed many productions in New York and theaters across America. He came to Stanford in 1984, where he headed Ph.D. Directing Studies.
His former Stanford student, Romanian actor and director Florentina Mocanu, was with him hours before his death to deliver holiday cheer and gifts (some all the way from Germany), and said he seemed well. “He was sharp and curious, wanted to know all about everyone. He made us laugh with his favorite Bette Davis quote: ‘getting old is not for sissies.'”
She looked at photos with him, and asked him as they looked at a photograph with Brecht (at right), “Carl, correct me if I am wrong – looking at this photo, I think that Bertolt Brecht trusted your sensibility and the fact that you had a way of seeing the world that he could not even imagine, a kind of respect and reverence for your talent and expertise that was beyond your young years. You came back from the war, as a surviver soldier and a POW theatre maker.” Weber replied, “Yes, that’s right.”
“For me, Professor Carl Weber is a humanist, a disciplined intellectual, a mentor who encourages originality in storytelling – on the page, the stage or on the screen,” said Florentina, who came to Stanford from Romania to study with him. “Carl wants precise answers to this seemingly simple yet challenging question: ‘What do you see?'”
One of his students, Tony Kushner, author of the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning Angels in America, said, “Carl was a spectacular teacher. I feel like a great deal about what I learned about writing plays came from working with Carl as a directing student.”
“Carl is a spectacularly erudite man, vastly well-read and enormously fluent in art and in music and cinema and history,” Kushner said. “Having somebody who was a serious intellectual and thinker and politically engaged gave me permission, in a certain sense, to take theater very seriously. It mattered. It was a serious way of thinking about the world and the meaning of existence.”
At Stanford, French scholar, author, and playwright Prof. Jean-Marie Apostolidès remembered Carl as a devoted and gifted teacher, dedicated to his students work both in scholarship and performance. He also changed his French colleague’s understanding of Brecht: “I had a biased view of Brecht : I saw him as a twentieth-century artistic giant, yes, but also as a rigid and dogmatic Marxist. Charlie [a nickname for Carl Weber] told me that Brecht was absolutely the opposite. He described him as pragmatic, accepting ideas from others, using anything he could find to create a better show.”
Directing at Stanford. (Photo: Jamie Lyons)
He also praised him as a generous artist and collaborator, as well as a close friend. The two often met in France either, in Paris or at La Miausserie, Weber’s country home.
He recalled their 1988 collaboration on Eugène Labiche‘s nineteenth-century play, The Affair of Rue de Lourcine, with Carl as director and Jean-Marie as dramaturge. “I thought I would play only a minor role in this production but Carl wanted me not only to revise his translation he had done, but above all to provide a general vision of the play that he would translate and concreticize on stage, which I did in a long text that I sent him in February 1989. This text became a sort of contract between the two of us. Only when I was working with Jean Gascon in Canada (on the production of Œdipus Rex in 1982) have I found such confidence, such generosity offered to the dramaturge by the director of the show. Gascon and Weber (who knew one another) were indeed two great professionals, never scared of possible rivalry with their dramaturge.”
He also described him also as a loyal and devoted friend: “To give you an example: he had known Bernard Sobel since the Berliner Ensemble period, around 1957. Sobel is considered a major director in France and someone close to the aesthetics of Brecht. Fifty years later, we went to his theatre in Gennevilliers, Carl and myself, to see one of the last shows produced by Sobel. After the show, we went to congratulate the actors and the director. We spent the evening with them. For me, it was a very moving moment to see these two old guys (Carl and Bernard) kissing one another, talking together (in german, a language that Sobel spoke fluently) and digging from their memory so many souvenirs belonging to their youth.”
In his last years, Carl divided his time between America, France, Germany, Austria, and even Greece. His daughter Sabine and his companion, film and television writer Inge Heym often accompanied him in America.
Carl is survived by his daughter actor, educator Sabine Gewinner-Feucht in Austria, his son Dr. Stefan Heym, and three grandchildren in Berlin. His wife, the German theater and film actress Marianne Rossi, died while they were vacationing in France a decade ago.
Charles Dickensmay not have made a fortune on the publication of A Christmas Carol, but he did leave the world a little richer. We can’t help but believe that he made himself a little richer, too.
Aside from boosting people’s awareness of the plight of the poor in Victorian England, though, Dickens also had a more immediate need: cash. He’d spent too much on his 1842 American tour, Golden writes, and he needed to support his large family. “Thinking creatively, he wrote himself out of his dilemma,” she reports.
The already well-known writer’s solution worked, to a degree. He sold out the first print run in a week, all 6,000 copies of it. By the end of the next year, writesBrandon Ambrosino for Vox, the book had sold more than 15,000 copies. But due to the book’s lavish bindings and the relatively low price he chose to sell it for, writesMichael Varese for The Guardian, much of that money didn’t make it back to the author, who was hoping to make at least £1000 from the book. “What a wonderful thing it is that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment!” he wrote.
Read the whole thing (with lots of links) over at TheSmithsonian here.
Christmas was in the air and all was well
With him, but for a few confusing flaws
In divers of God’s images. Because
A friend of his would neither buy nor sell,
Was he to answer for the axe that fell?
He pondered; and the reason for it was,
Partly, a slowly freezing Santa Claus
Upon the corner, with his beard and bell.
Acknowledging an improvident surprise,
He magnified a fancy that he wished
The friend whom he had wrecked were here again.
Not sure of that, he found a compromise;
And from the fulness of his heart he fished
A dime for Jesus who had died for men.
We have poet Ernest Hilbert to thank for drawing our attention to this seasonal poem, “A Christmas Sonnet (For One in Doubt)” by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935), one of America’s greatest poets. Today is his birthday.
“Edwin Arlington Robinson is poetry. I can think of no other living writer who has so consistently dedicated his life to his work,” according to Amy Lowell. In 1928, Robinson published Sonnets, 1889-1927. This is the last sonnet he ever wrote (see Patrick Kurp‘s Anecdotal Evidencehere for a lovely mini-essay on it):
While you that in your sorrow disavow
Service and hope, see love and brotherhood
Far off as ever, it will do no good
For you to wear his thorns upon your brow
For doubt of him. And should you question how
To serve him best, he might say, if he could,
“Whether or not the cross was made of wood
Whereon you nailed me, is no matter now.”
Though other saviors have in older lore
A Legend, and for older gods have died—
Though death may wear the crown it always wore
And ignorance be still the sword of pride—
Something is here that was not here before,
And strangely has not yet been crucified.
We’ve written about editor extraordinaire Daniel Medin of the American University of Paris, who is an editor for Music & Literature, The Cahiers Series, and The White Review. We’ve also mentioned Edwin Frank, editorial director of New York Review Books (and, incidentally, a Stanford alum), from time to time, since Stanford’s Another Look book clubso often features NYRB’s books.
So we’re pleased the two of them got together for an interview last fall at Shakespeare & Company in Paris.
Daniel Medin: Could you tell us about the origins of NYRB Classics?
Edwin Frank: NYRB came into existence crab-wise, almost accidentally. I was in my mid-30s and had never had anything to do with publishing when I got a freelance job with a business associate of the New York Review called The Readers’ Catalog, a sort of a giant Sears Catalog of books. The idea was to sell the 40,000 best books in print. Independent stores were closing across the United States, so you could get The Readers’ Catalog and order the books you couldn’t find. And I got this job that basically consisted of reading through sections and saying “this shouldn’t be here” or “why isn’t this here?” The most prominent example that has stuck in my mind is that [Alberto] Moravia was pretty much completely out of print everywhere, this would have been around ’96. And lots of other things were out of print that I just thought by definition would be in print. I didn’t know why they weren’t in print, and since I didn’t work in publishing it took me a while to figure out that they weren’t in print because they wouldn’t sell. So I made a list and at some point made a proposal to the publisher of the New York Review, Rea Hederman, that effectively said, “maybe we should have a publishing project.” It took a few years to come together, but in 1999 we did come out with about 14 books, in a different design than we have now, a sort of disastrous design, but we survived that. And the books did better than anybody would have expected; I think we sort of went into it on tiptoes, but the response was more excited than I think anyone anticipated.
DM: I wonder about the vision of the project. You mentioned that the initial idea was to do reprints, so maybe you can talk about how it has developed since 1999.
He got into the venture “crab-wise.”
EF: The fact is, I really, really didn’t want to call the series “classics.” Who knows what a classic is? It’s difficult to explain to people in the States, and also to foreign publishers, where “classics” has a much more defined meaning. So it was difficult for a while to get people to understand that we weren’t doing new editions of Thucydides. But it’s just as well, or else we would have been arguing about the name of the series to this day. Anyway, from the beginning our goal was always to mix things up. Great literature is literature that remains news, and there’s a way to publish things that can cast a new light on things we take for granted in our own time. The metaphors I tend to think of are somewhere between the vinyl bin, where you can flip through and there’s a whole range of music and so on, or the repertory film theater that can move from Japan to B movies and so on. So that was always the idea, but at the beginning it was very much about reprints, and that was true for two or three years. Partly because the series was doing well there was a moment where it seemed right to begin acquiring books and doing new translations of books.
Daniel with Hungarian author László Krasnahorkai
DM: I’m curious as to how you’ve curated the lists from languages you cannot read. Hungarian literature, for instance. I happen to specialize in writing from that region—and your Hungarian list is remarkable. Anybody in this audience can go online and look at NYRB’s offerings, and if you pick a title and mention it to an author or cultivated reader from Hungary, they will acknowledge its importance. And Hungarian’s only one example among many in your catalog. What’s been the approach?
EF: Well, it varies. The Hungarian case is an interesting one because the language is so isolated that basically the Hungarian state commissioned a program of translating Hungarian literature into English. And the translators they employed were actually quite brilliant. (The Soviets also had that kind of program, but the translations were a lot iffier.) … one of my favorite books in the whole series is [Gyula] Krúdy’s Sunflower—a totally bizarre book, I’d never read anything like it. I mean it’s a book that . . . I used to compare it to a strange cross between Bruno Schulz and PG Wodehouse, with gypsy music kind of thrown in, funny and sexy and just odd. Like nothing I’d ever read. It’s not often you read a book that’s like nothing else you ever read. I sometime think if I read a book like that I should publish it, but sometimes that’s a mistake. Anyway, so for the most part [the Hungarian translations] haven’t been commissioned, and to get back to the larger question, you are dependent to an extent to the translators or the literary criticism.
Read the whole thing here. Or check out the video and podcast of the event at the bookstore’s website here.
It’s Jane Austen‘s birthday, and time to revisit a National Endowment for the Humanities article by Meredith Hindley, celebrating the life of the author of Pride and Prejudiceand Emma. I’ve only known the broadest outlines of Austen’s life – it always seemed rather dull to me – so the piece in the NEH magazine Humanities was rather a pleasant surprise – and unpleasant, too, when one considers the wandering and dependent life even rather well-heeled spinsters endured.
Austen completed her formal education at age ten. She compared herself to someone “who like me knows only her mother tongue, and has read little in that … I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.” However, the article notes, Austen’s father kept “a sizable library—one bookcase reportedly covered sixty-four square feet of wall—which his children were encouraged to explore.” Sounds impressive, until you note that an 8 x 8 bookcase isn’t all that much. I have lots more than that.
Here’s a language note: “In Emma, she writes scathingly of schools that ‘professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality upon new principles and new systems—and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity.’” I always thought the use of “screw,” in that sense, had its origins in a more vulgar usage, but hey, what do I know?
An excerpt on her literary roots:
The Austen household revolved around language. Henry once described his father as “a profound scholar, professing a most exquisite taste in every species of literature.” Mother Cassandra wrote humorous verses, while the brothers dabbled in essays and playwriting. We know that Jane read Samuel Richardson from cover to cover, plowed through Hume’s History, and marked up Goldsmith’s History of England and Dodsley’s Collection of Poems. She also read popular works, such as Fanny Burney’s Camilla. And, despite her protestations, Austen probably spoke passable French and knew enough Italian to translate opera, as she has Anne Elliot do in Persuasion.
But the thrust of the piece is, of course, on Pride and Prejudice, which, as the article notes, is considered the U.K.’s second best-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice, after J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, according to a 2003 BBC poll.
While marriage might be the central force of Pride and Prejudice—after all, the novel opens with the now-legendary line “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”—the novel has endured because of the other universals Austen captured: money woes, troublesome sisters, unwanted suitors, embarrassing mothers, meddlesome neighbors, snap judgments, the trauma of public humiliation, the agony of not knowing if your love is returned, and the desire for a happy-ever-after ending.
“Also read again and for the third time at least Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice,” wrote Sir Walter Scott in March 1826. Scott was known for sweeping historical romances, but he also valued Austen’s limited canvas. “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early.”