38 books I bet you didn’t read during COVID! Steve Wasserman’s reading list will shame us all…

November 23rd, 2020
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So what have you been doing during COVID, you bunch of wastrels? Huh? Huh?? Huh??? Eating a lot, drinking too much, complaining of ennui, watching TV, not working on the neglected novel you intended to finish, posting cat pictures and videos, oversleeping, baiting and snarling at each other on Twitter? At least that’s what I gather from my visits online.

The Hero of Heyday, Steve Wasserman

Behold and weep! Heyday publisher Steve Wasserman has given us his list of COVID reading (in no particular order) since the shelter-in-place edict was issued eight months ago, way back in mid-March 2020. It will shame us all. Here what he’s been reading as he hunkers down in Berkeley:

The War for Gaul by Julius Caesar, translated by James J. O’Donnell
The Ruins Lessons: Meaning and Material in Western Culture by Susan Stewart
The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar by Peter Stothard
God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World by Alan Mikhail
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution by Toby Green
The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes
Inside Story by Martin Amis
Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis
Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab by Bohumil Hrabal
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter; The Prime of Life; Force of Circumstance; All Said and Done; Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre – all by Simone de Beauvoir
The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre
Tête-à-tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre by Hazel Rowley
Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50 by Agnès Poirier
Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross
The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Last African American Renaissance by RJ Smith
Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener
Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia.
The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson
Murder in the Movies by David Thomson
Epidemics and Society by Frank M. Snowden
The Decameron by Boccaccio
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe by Anthony Grafton
Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times by David S. Reynolds
Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War by Vincent Brown
Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh
My Life in 100 Objects by Margaret Randall
Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis by Martin J. Sherwin
Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest by Lawrence Roberts
Garner’s Quotations by Dwight Garner
Notebooks: 1936-1947 by Victor Serge
The Habsburgs: To Rule the World by Martyn Rady
Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution by David A. Bell

(Original watercolor by Wendy Ruebman)

Robert Conquest a British poet? Not so fast… he had American roots, too.

November 18th, 2020
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Nothing human is alien to Conquest, who died in 2015 at age 98,” writes the inestimable Patrick Kurp in the Los Angeles Review of Books, describing the poet and Soviet historian Robert Conquest. Then Patrick makes a rare misstep when he states: “Let’s remember that he was English by birth but American by choice.”

Actually, Conquest was not only American by choice – his father, Robert Folger Wescott Conquest, was American, a Virginian – so the long residence at Stanford’s Hoover Institution was something of a homecoming for his British-born Robert Conquest, who also spent some time in Virginia as a child. His American roots were further reinforced by his long happy marriage with an American wife, Elizabeth Conquest, who is the editor of his Collected Poems and soon a volume of letters.

He had a poetic homecoming, too, in what Patrick Kurp calls “One of Conquest’s richest, most satisfying poems.”

An excerpt from the article:

“The Idea of Virginia,” 34 four-line stanzas that encapsulate the history of the state and, by implication, the United States. “It lay in the minds of poets,” the poem begins, which Conquest characteristically clarifies: “But the land was also real: rivers, meads, mountains.” Conquest has no pretensions to being a nature poet, but he starts with an Edenic natural world: “Deer and pumas ranged its high plains. Beavers / Toiled in its streams. Bluebird and mocking-bird, / Blue jay, redbird and quail filled branches and air.” He retells the familiar story of John Smith, Powhatan, and Pocahontas without pontificating. The idea of Virginia grows naturally out of English thought:

Haydn, prose, elections, deism, architecture,
Bred the leaders of battle, governance, law.
Washington, Marshall, Madison, Jefferson, Henry
Defended a heightened England from an England lapsed.

He is at home in the world, as poets seldom are. He writes poems for intelligent readers who enjoy formal verse and humor that ranges from the ribald to the wittily rarefied, and who share his interest in particulars. Conquest will be remembered principally as the man who, even before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, exposed the Soviet Union as a murderous tyranny in such volumes as The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968) and The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986). Politics and history, of course, show up with some regularity in his poetry, often in a form that resembles light verse. Here is a stanza from “Garland for a Propagandist”:

When Yezhov got it in the neck
(In highly literal fashion)
Beria came at Stalin’s beck
To lay a lesser lash on;
I swore our labour camps were few,
And places folk grew fat in;
I guessed that Trotsky died of flu
And colic raged at Katyn.

When Conquest reviewed the 1974 appearance in English of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973), he judged it “a truly exceptional work: for in it literature transcends history, without distorting it.” Conquest does something similar.

Another excerpt:

Patrick Kurp

One of the pleasures of his verse is its range of form and subject. Some poets harvest a very narrow field, too often the fenced-in self. Conquest’s poems resemble the late Turner Cassity’s in their appetite for the world and all it contains, pleasurable and otherwise, and in their satirical bite. His poems know things. In 1956, Conquest edited the influential poetry anthology New Lines, informally aligning the poets who came to be called The Movement: Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, D. J. Enright, Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Jennings, and himself. In his introduction, Conquest dismisses the “diffuse and sentimental verbiage or hollow technical pirouettes” of the era’s “New Apocalypse” poets in the United Kingdom, such as J. F. Hendry and Vernon Watkins, and endorses a “refusal to abandon a rational structure.” In “Whenever,” Conquest endorses Wyndham Lewis’s call for “a tongue that naked goes / Without more fuss than Dryden’s or Defoe’s.”

Read the whole article here.

“Exact and expansive”: Stanford’s Robert Harrison speaks as friend, fan of Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard at NYC’s McNally Jackson – November 12 on zoom!

November 10th, 2020
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“Relentless.” (Photo: Christopher Peterson)

Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard is considered one of the finest fiction writers of the postwar generation. She died in 2016.

Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrisona friend as well as fan, will be a featured speaker at a Zoom event to celebrate her just-published Collected Stories. The event happens on Thursday, November 12, at 7 p.m. EST (4 p.m. PST) hosted by New York City’s McNally Jackson bookstore. The McNally Jackson website is HERE with an RSVP link is at the top of the page.

From the McNally Jackson website:

“Shirley Hazzard’s Collected Stories is a work of staggering breadth and accomplishment. Taken together, these twenty-eight short stories are masterworks in telescoping focus, ranging from quotidian struggles between beauty and pragmatism to satirical send-ups of international bureaucracy, from the Italian countryside to suburban Connecticut. Hazzard’s heroes are high-minded romantics who attempt to fit their feelings into the twentieth-century world of office jobs and dreary marriages. After all, as she writes in ‘The Picnic,’ ‘It was tempting to confine oneself to what one could cope with. And one couldn’t cope with love.’ And yet it is the comedy, the tragedy, and the splendor of love, the pursuit and the absence of it, that animates Hazzard’s stories and provides the truth and beauty that her protagonists seek.”

Her friend at Stanford.

“Hazzard once said, ‘The idea that somebody has expressed something, in a supreme way, that it can be expressed; this is, I think, an enormous feature of literature.’ Her stories themselves are a supreme evocation of writing at its very best: probing, uncompromising, and deeply felt.”

According to Harrison, “Conrad once said that the written work of art must justify itself word by word, sentence by sentence. That justification is always at work in her prose. Her use of English is at once exact and expansive. She inhabits the language as only someone who was nourished on its very best literature at an early age could inhabit it.”

“She has a unique stylistic signature, one that combines extreme narrative discretion with probing psychological insight; a masterfully terse yet complex prose that always looks for and finds le mot juste; the most astonishing and expressive metaphors of any writer of her generation known to me.” (Robert Harrison also interviewed Hazzard in 2006 for Entitled Opinions here.) He adds that ” the commitment to description in her books is relentless.”

Hazzard’s biographer Brigitta Olubas and Australian novelist Michelle de Kretser will also be on hand to discuss the author’s legacy.

Postscript on 11/11 from Dana Gioia, former NEA chair and California poet laureate: How good to see Shirley Hazzard remembered! I second Robert Harrison’s praise of her style. She had an amazing ability to present the emotional reality of her characters and a genius for vividly depicting the most diverse settings. “The Transit of Venus” and “The Great Fire” are among my favorite contemporary novels–two very different books similar only in their elegant prose and deep humanity.

I wonder if part of her obscurity is that, like the equally superb Sibylle Bedford, Hazzard was so international. She lived in Australia, New Zealand, Italy, and the U.S. She doesn’t fall neatly into either Australian or American literature. Thanks for featuring her work.

Do Nina Kossman’s new translations of Tsvetaeva capture her “doom-eager splendor”? See what you think.

November 7th, 2020
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Kossman at the Tsvetaeva Museum in Moscow.

Twenty years ago, critic Harold Bloom wrote to the young poet Nina Kossman to tell her that her “intensely eloquent” translations of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva manage to “capture the doom-eager splendor of a superbly gifted poet.” W.S. Merwin wrote that these are “direct, strong, audible translations,” adding, “I hear Tsvetaeva’s voice, more of it, and in a new pitch, which makes something clear in her poems that I had only guessed at before.”

Her most recent collection, Other Shepherdswas published earlier this year by Poets & Traitors Press. Kossman’s collection pairs about a hundred poems, half by Tsvetaeva and half by her fellow Muscovite translator. Kossman pairs them “not in competition but with humility,” making of this doubling a new kind of conversation. As she writes in the Preface, “The aim is not to emulate her but to create a dialogue between her poem and mine, a resonance possible not only between two poets but between two eras. My goal is not to aspire to her heights, which are unscalable, as they are hers and no one else’s, but to approach her and to speak.”

As for the title, she writes: “Other Shepherds comes from my translation of Tsvetaeva’s poem which ends with, “There is an island—thank God!— / Where I don’t need a tambourine, / Where black wool/ Hangs from every fence. Yes / —There are in the world black flocks, / Other shepherds.” (1920).”

“Although the poem’s protagonist is addressing a lover, I took the last line slightly out of its amorous context and used it in a broader sense, in a kind of social, or rather, existential sense,” she explains. “I don’t believe that I have sinned against the poet by looking at her poem this way; in fact, I think the poem is quite amenable to this interpretation, especially if we look at the ending of the penultimate stanza. ‘In your flock there was no / Sheep blacker than I’ which resonates far beyond the personal context of a rejected woman speaking to her lover.”

A “black sheep,” for sure.

Nina Kossman was born in “the same Communist dystopia that, a few decades before my birth, led Marina Tsvetaeva to commit suicide by hanging.” She writes that it was a place where “‘being different,’ an uncomfortable feeling in any society at any time, led to much more than the usual social ostracism; where comrades were clearly divided into ‘white sheep’ and ‘black sheep,’ and where the black sheep didn’t end up very well.”

“Since I left the Soviet Union as a child, my experience of ‘black-sheep-ness’ was somewhat limited, but I have been very aware of my parents’ experience, particularly that of my mother—a Jew, a daughter of an ‘enemy of the people,’ a student of genetics in the era of Lysenko (the official Soviet biologist who rejected genetics), and thus thrice an outsider in the society that didn’t tolerate outsiders,” she explains.

“The title has another meaning too. Having lived in two so- called ‘superpowers,’ i.e. having spent my childhood in the Soviet Union, where personal freedoms were curtailed, and my youth and adulthood in ‘something of its opposite’ (my way of referring to the US as a teenager) with its seemingly unlimited personal freedoms, I found both wanting. Being a ‘black sheep’ in the Soviet Union was not only painful psychologically. It pushed you to the edge of a very real abyss, since a threat of physical extermination was real. In the US, being a black sheep in a herd, a society where outsiders are accepted, yields only psychological pain. And so an immigrant from the former Soviet Union swings between these two. These are two very different kinds of ‘black-sheep-ness,’ one hard core and the other soft. The black sheep consciousness continues in the so-called free world, attenuated, without the attendant fear of physical extermination.”

Do her poem pairings do the job? See a sample of the pairings below:

 

Our “need to live in a meaningful world”: TLS praises Joseph Frank’s “Lectures on Dostoevsky”

November 1st, 2020
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Joseph Frank: a “co-creator” of Dostoevsky, with editor and wife Marguerite (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Hoorah! A splendid Times Literary Supplement review for Joseph Frank‘s Lectures on Dostoevsky, published earlier this year by Princeton University Press. He was Stanford’s legendary Dostoevsky scholar – we’ve written about him here and here and here and here. The greatly loved scholar died in 2013. His lectures were edited by his widow, Marguerite Frank and Marina Brodskaya.  

Princeton’s Caryl Emerson praises Joe’s “gentle, wisdom-bearing lectures” and writes, “Frank does not co-opt Dostoevsky but cooperates with him, trusting his intentions, and in this sense Frank co-creates his biographical subject; he does not airbrush him out.”

“There is a patience and wholesomeness to Frank’s voice in these Lectures that has its analogue in his monumental biography, where obsession and perversity are contextualized so thoroughly that they can seem traits of Dostoevsky’s agitated era, not of his person.”

An excerpt or two:

Joseph Frank (1918–2013) is the greatest co-creator of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life in our time, and his path to the top was thrillingly irregular. He was not a professional Slavist. True, in the late 1930s he attended university classes, but in 1942 he began working as an editor and literary journalist. An innovative essay on European modernism won him his first fame and a Fulbright scholarship to Paris in 1950. After earning a PhD at the University of Chicago (like the critic Mikhail Bakhtin, without a BA), he taught at Princeton from 1966 to 1985, and then at Stanford.

That’s the outside institutional envelope. The inside story, which stretched over a quarter-century (1976–2002), was his vast biography of Dostoevsky: five volumes totalling 2,500 pages. It grew out of his interest in the French Existentialists. Frank was vexed that their analyses of Dostoevsky were either personal and psychological, or else philosophical and theological. His task would be to fill in the middle space with the author’s daily stimuli, concrete provocations and constraints. He would do this without any relishing of private vices or pathological drives. Underneath his project was the old-fashioned and yet novel assumption that profound creativity is always a sign of profound mental health. Reviewing the fourth volume in 1995, A. S. Byatt wrote: “Frank is that increasingly rare being, an intellectual biographer, and his real concern is with the workings of Dostoevsky’s mind”.

***

Frank’s lecture on The Idiot takes up the perennial problem of its central hero Prince Myshkin – a would-be Christ figure who worsens everything he touches. That Myshkin fails doesn’t matter because he “is neither actor nor victim but a presence, a kind of moral illumination”. His purpose is not to save or punish but to stir up conscience, to precipitate in those around him a “conflict with their usual selves”. A final chapter on The Brothers Karamazov (tellingly, there is no lecture devoted to Demons) identifies Dostoevsky’s prerequisite for surviving inner conflict: “a faith that needs no support from the empirical and tangible”. Each brother (and the two major heroines as well) must confront the challenge of this necessity for faith, which demands an irrational Kierkegaardian leap. The loving resilience of the youngest brother Alyosha is proof that such a leap can be sensible, pragmatic, even bursting with health. What Dostoevsky, his characters and his contemporary readers share is something more modest than the eternal questions of Good and Evil: it is the “need to live in a meaningful world that does not make a mockery of one’s self-consciousness and the dignity of one’s personality”.

Read the whole thing at the TLS here. It’s wonderful. My 2009 interview with him below:

San Francisco’s Diane di Prima is dead at 86: she decided to be a poet at 14, and wrote every day for the rest of her life.

October 25th, 2020
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Onstage in 2013 at Stanford

Beat poet Diane di Prima died today after long illness at 86.  She was born in Brooklyn, a second-generation American of Italian descent. She went to Swarthmore, then Greenwich Village, and joined Timothy O’Leary’s community in upstate New York, made a lifetime move to San Francisco. She published more than 40 books, including This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards, Revolutionary Poems, and the semi-autobiographical Memoirs of a Beatnik. Seven years ago, she came to Stanford to read her poems and have one of the legendary “How I Write” onstage conversations with Hilton Obenzinger. Below, she and Hilton relax before the November 6, 2013, event. You can listen to the recording of the conversation over at iTunes “How I Write” (it’s #53) here.

His recollections of the conversation below, excerpted from How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experience (by Hilton Obenzinger, published by the “How I Write”  Project at Stanford):

It’s hard to imagine a more independent writer than poet Diane di Prima. She emerged as part of the beatnik scene at a very early age in the 1950s, although the beatniks never called themselves that until somebody else came up with the term. Once she decided that she was going to be a poet at the age of fourteen, “it wasn’t really a happy moment, because I knew immediately what wasn’t going to happen.” As she put it, she was forgoing “matched dishes, a washing machine, a regular consensus lifestyle of any sort” in exchange for the freedom to create any way she chose.

She had been caught writing when she was in summer school, and the teacher made her read a poem out loud: “It was all downhill from then,” she joked. Once di Prima decided to be a poet, she also made sure to write every day. She had a lined composition book that had the slogan “No Day Without a Line” in Latin on the front, and she maintained that practice throughout her life. She went to Hunter College High School in Manhattan, where she read the romantics, but her school was so intellectual that “reading and loving the romantics was a no-no. You would rather be caught reading a comic book than Thomas Wolfe’s novels. I would lie and say, ‘Well, oh no, I’m reading Archie.’” But she met with a like-minded group of girls before class, including the future poet Audre Lorde, and they would read their poems to each other. That was her “first “workshop.”

She visited him in the hospital.

She dropped out of college after her first year, and was largely self-taught, initially through a combination of three influences: “I studied with Keats and Pound,” she said. “Keats’s letters told me everything I needed to know until I found [Ezra Pound’s] ABC of Reading.” She needed to learn a bit more, such as mastering “the building blocks of poetry—the image, the dance of the language, and the music of words.” Those three elements— Keats, Pound, and the building blocks—constituted her initial education, along with her sessions with Ezra Pound himself.

At that time, Pound was confined as a patient at St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington, D.C. rather than face a trial as a traitor for making radio broadcasts in support of Mussolini during the war. Despite being very shy, di Prima decided to go visit the poet: “I’m not going to lose the opportunity to look this man in the eye and talk to him.” She had sent him some poems in advance, and he wrote back: “They seem to me to be well written. But—no one ever much use as critic of younger generation.” She took this as encouragement, but this was an important lesson that gave her direction for how to teach later in life: “Keep my hands off younger people’s work. Try to grasp what they’re after, and if I can get that out by hanging out with them, then I could nudge them in that direction.”

She could suggest books to read, but she kept to that idea: Not much use as critic of the younger generation. Di Prima went to St. Elizabeth’s with a friend and stayed at the house of Pound’s lover, Sheri Martinelli, visiting with the poet every day for four or five days. The hospital staff knew she couldn’t be there for long, so they let her in frequently.

After she dropped out of college she spent half the day writing and half studying. “I took the agenda, more or less, that Pound proposed, and taught myself some Homeric Greek so I could sound out the poems.” She also studied classical Greek grammar and Latin. “I’d study usually at home, and then I’d take my notebook and go out and write, run around the city and write. And then the typing and revising happened at home in the evening. We needed very little, so $70 a month covered the rent. The house was $33, the apartment—four of us lived in it. It was a cold-water flat. No heat. Bathroom in the hall.” Her bohemian lifestyle flowed from her commitment to her art—not the other way around.

Thinking or composing “as it happens” is something that poet Diane di Prima tried early in her career. Jack Kerouac stayed at her place in New York on the way to India in February 1957. With Ginsberg, Kerouac, and others in her small apartment, everyone started to read their poems out loud.

They read their poems together.

After she read one of hers, Kerouac asked, “What did it look like when you first wrote it?” She looked at her early draft, and to her surprise she liked it. What she got from that experience was the knowledge that “you could always go back to those drafts and pull something out when you got stuck, you know; and then I got the sense of how your mind worked in the first place, and that was very interesting.” She had taken a class on dance composition with a choreographer, who implanted the idea that everything has a form—everything. “He said nothing else. After about ten minutes we all started to go out the door,” di Prima said. “We were looking at everything. Oh, that has a form; that has a form. He was telling us that all forms are okay. Leave your mind alone. Don’t mess with everything all the time.” As a consequence, she began following her mind in her writing wherever it went: “Write exactly what’s happening as closely as you can.”

She wanted to write something longer, and she took what she learned from that dance class, “taking a structure and then hanging absolute freedom on the structure.” She took the eight trigrams (three-line symbols) that make up the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, and she would immerse herself in the qualities of each trigram: “I listened to that kind of music. I’d just be in that kind of state for a couple of months. And then I’d start writing. And I’d just write. And I’d write whatever showed up on the wall in front of my big IBM typewriter.” In this way, in a kind of mystical state, she wrote The Calculus of Variation.

Di Prima was wondering how to revise the book, “how to make it smooth and really hip or kind of avant-garde prose. And I knew that if I did that I would be violating this book, so all of a sudden I decided, ‘Hmm, I can’t touch this. I’m going to leave all the flaws in it.’” She got an offer from New Directions to publish it, but they wanted to assign her an editor, and she declined, explaining, “This is in the nature of a received text. I can’t touch it. And I never did. And so I published it myself. And never did publish with New Directions.” For a poet to get published by New Directions was (and still is) a major accomplishment, but given her “calling,” her artistic purpose outweighed whatever she would gain for her “career.”

After The Calculus of Variation, Diane di Prima returned to revision in her other works, although much of her poetic method would be to transcribe what she would see before her as a “received text.”

At Stanford in 2013. (Photo: Les Gottesman)

Join us for a (virtual) “Company of Authors” event this Saturday! Catch up on a year of Stanford books.

October 22nd, 2020
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A Company of Authors will be a virtual event this year, but please join us on Zoom to catch up with the latest Stanford books. I’ll be there, with this year’s Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy (Bloomsbury). I’ll be joined by some amazing people – Norm Naimark on Stalin and the Fate of Europe, medievalist Elaine Treharne on Text Technologies, and many more.

The seventeenth annual A Company of Authors, sponsored by Stanford’s Continuing Studies, will run from 1-5 p.m. this Saturday, October 24 (poster below). As always, the event is hosted by Stanford’s Peter Stansky, Frances and Charles Field Professor of History, Emeritus, who promises “an exciting display of the richness, depth and variety of the books written by members of the Stanford community.” He’ll also be winding up the afternoon by presenting his own book, Leonard Woolf: Bloomsbury Socialist, with co-author Fred Leventhal.

At least one of your friends will be in the line-up of authors – me, and I’ll be featured on the first panel at 1 p.m. Go to the site here to find the list of books and presenters (or check out the poster below, if you can read the fine print); and click register for the event. It’s free, and all listed titles are available for sale at a 10% discount from the Stanford Bookstore online.

Can chess making a gripping film? Watch Walter Tevis’s “Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix this Friday, October 23

October 20th, 2020
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Silence and staring, winners and losers – and it’s definitely been a man’s world. (Phil Bray/Netflix)

Last year, Stanford’s “Another Look” – a public events series that focuses on forgotten, out-of-the-way, overlooked books – sponsored an event on Walter Tevis’ Queen’s GambitThe idea came from Another Look’s founding director, the eminent American author Tobias Wolff, always a keen watcher of American fiction. It turned out to be one of our most popular selections ever. Thanks to the cooperation of Tevis’s daughter, Julia Tevis McGory, we published a number of photographs on the Another Look website, and even a mini-memoir from son Will Tevis about playing chess with his father here.  The January 29, 2019, panel featured Tobias Wolff, Robert Pogue Harrison, and Inga Pierson.

Author Walter Tevis played chess, too.

It’s an overlooked book no more. It will be a seven-part mini-series on Netflix beginning on Friday, October 23. Did Another Look make a difference? We hope so. Our crusade for books that haven’t received the attention we think they merit has moved the needle on several books. We hope we’ve done the same this time, though there’s a story that goes way back before last year’s Stanford event. In the early 1990s, screenwriter Allan Scott acquired the rights to the novel and wrote a script. More recently writer and director Scott Frank took an interest.

So far the reviews are glowing. (Google it.) The film stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the chess-mad heroine (she was the star of this year’s acclaimed Emma, too). Garry Kasparov, one of the best chess-players ever, was a consultant for the film. 

More from the story by The New York Times:

The novel is brief. Dialogue is spare and the action beyond the gameboard minimal. … “If you did it as a movie, it becomes a sports movie: ‘Is she going to beat the Russian guy?’” Frank said. “And that’s not what the book is about. For me, it’s about the pain and cost of being so gifted.”

For Beth, abandoned first by her birth parents and then by her adoptive family, the stakes tower. Only while playing does she feel a sense of purpose and belonging. In a later episode, Beth overhears some Russian champs discussing her. “She’s like us,” a grandmaster says. “Losing is not an option for her.” (This was dialogue Kasparov suggested.)

***

It’s also exceedingly faithful to its source material, a slender 1983 novel written by Walter Tevis, an author with a knack for books that Hollywood wanted: The Hustler, The Color of Money, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tevis, a respectable club player, could delight even non-players with chess’s rhythms and language: the Sicilian Defense the Semi-Slav Variation, the Falkbeer Counter Gambit, the Ruy Lopez. The book borrows its name from an opening move in play since the 15th century.

***

A glamorous and wrenching view of chess, set in the 1950s and ’60s, it centers on the fictional character Beth Harmon (first Isla Johnston, then Anya Taylor-Joy), a child prodigy who discovers the game in a Kentucky orphanage. Despite punishing addictions to alcohol and tranquilizers, Beth, clad in Gabriele Binder’s elegant period costumes, plays and trains obsessively, rising through the rankings until she faces the world’s best. Which makes her something like the thinking woman’s Rocky.

Join me in tuning in this Friday. Until then, there’s a podcast of the Stanford discussion of the book here.

Postscript on 10/21 (hat tip David Schwartz): The review is in from the Wall Street Journal today, it’s here, and not even behind the usual paywall. An excerpt:

It took this viewer about seven consecutive hours to watch all seven episodes of “The Queen’s Gambit,” and while this may constitute all the review some readers need to get on board, others might also like to know what the miniseries is about. In a word, chess—though that’s a bit like saying “Hamlet” is about Danish royal succession, or “The Wizard of Oz” is about meteorology. … “The Queen’s Gambit” is novelistic in the best sense, using chess as a kind of metaphoric Swiss army knife to open up a tale of obsession, addiction, adoption and the solitude of genius. That genius is Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch”), an orphan, tranquilizer enthusiast and budding alcoholic. Eventually, she becomes a reluctant propaganda tool in the Cold War. From birth, it seems, she’s been a chess savant.

For all the series’ successes, especially as fictional biography and a portrait of an era (the ’50s and ’60s), what may haunt the viewer is the image of Ms. Taylor-Joy’s face, furtively doe-eyed, peering upward, moving shadowy pieces across the imaginary chessboard of her bedroom ceiling as she plots the next day’s attack, or locking eyes with a grandmaster before reducing his game to rubble. Despite the cerebral nature of the sport and its less-than-breathtaking pace, “The Queen’s Gambit”—a title that refers to one of the oldest openings in the history of the game—is a thriller. It absorbs the viewer into the rarefied realm of world-class competition and acquaints the nonplayer with enough of the mechanics to make the outcomes accessible and meaningful. The very idea of a chess epic might suggest to some the old saw about academic politics—that they’re so vicious because the stakes are so low. Can chess mean so much? To Beth Harmon—and therefore to her audience—chess is everything. And for reasons that make her both heroic and heartbreaking.

You think you have a messy desk? You have competition! Here are some famously messy ones.

October 17th, 2020
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Robert Silvers of New York Review of Books fame. Is he a master or a prisoner of this space? Love to spend an afternoon there.

It’s one week before I go on Zoom for Stanford’s 17th annual Company of Authors event at 1 p.m. next Saturday, October 24. My mission: to tell you about my newest book Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy. (Get your free tickets for a reservation here.) Then you will see my messy, messy workspace behind me. The ziggurats of books and papers. The archive that has yet to find a home except in plastic bins spread out across the floor. The huge oak roll-top desk overflowing with rough drafts and pencils and a small clay owl. (A sneak preview at right.)

Home sweet home.

If you wonder why the Book Haven has been so quiet of late, it’s not because we’ve been tidying up. With multiple book deadlines of varying severity rolling over us, we’ve been working 24/7. But we thought we’d take a moment to complain about our bad habits.

I take comfort knowing that I am not alone. At least not in the era of the Google Search. I typed in “famous messy desks” and here’s a few that I found.

My favorite is above, the late, legendary Robert Silvers, one of the founding editors of the New York Review of Books. Though it’s not exactly messy – they are orderly piles, after all – just crowded. I wouldn’t mind spending an afternoon there. in

Immediately below, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget is sprawled in this truly messy space. Clearly, he’s not in California. A good 3.9 earthquake would bury him. But what a way to go!

Chilean poet, essayist, and short story writer Roberto Bolaño looks sad, but at ease, among his piles of unanswered correspondence and his old-style computer.

Genius theoretical physicist Alfred Einstein has vacated the premises entirely. In a very literal way. The photo was taken on the day he died in 1955. So He never had to clean it up. Looks homey, though.

Below that, Steve Jobs prowls around what looks like a home office. There are vials with eyedroppers on the shelves.

And finally, always, Mark Twain at ease in 1901. Mess be damned. Who would tell him otherwise?

Feel free to send me the own evidences of your disorganization. I might even publish them as a postscript. It will make me feel better somehow. Because I won’t get around to moving my piles of stuff anytime soon.

 

Consolation in hard times: Boethius knew all about it.

October 10th, 2020
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Boethius in better days, as imagined almost a millennium after his execution.

You think you have it bad, huh? All you are dealing with is a worldwide plague that won’t let up, financial catastrophes one after another, and cabin fever from enforced confinement.

Try living at the nasty tail-end of the Roman Empire, when the barbarians were taking over, and then being thrown into prison by the Ostrogoth Emperor Theodoric for doing nothing at all, really. Then imagine having more of nothing to do, except write, while awaiting a grisly execution. Welcome to the world of Boethius (c. 476-524 A.D.), author of the The Consolation of Philosophy, a bestseller throughout Europe for almost a millennium. According to John Marenbon writing in  “Why Read Boethius Today?” over at Aeon: “Although Aristotle’s texts shaped the university curriculum, and Augustine’s thought was ubiquitous, in the period from 800 until about 1600 no other philosophical text could compete with the Consolation in its appeal – not just to the intellectual elite but to a much wider audience too.” How did it disappear from our public conversation, unlike Plato’s dialogues or René Descartes’s Meditations?

Some background from the Aeon article:

Boethius belonged to a rich, prestigious Roman family, and he lived most of his life enjoying the privileges of his class, participating in the ceremonies of the Senate, writing works and commentaries on mathematics, music and logic with the help of his education in Greek culture, and, though not a priest, taking part in theological controversies. But his birth had coincided with the beginning of Ostrogothic rule in Italy. Theodoric, the Gothic king, wanted good relations with the native Roman aristocrats, but they remained a threat to him. In the early 520s, he invited Boethius to become Master of Offices, his most important official. Boethius accepted, but his determination to root out corruption soon made him enemies, and Theodoric was willing to believe that Boethius was plotting against him. Found guilty of treason and other charges, Boethius was imprisoned, awaiting execution. This was when he wrote the Consolation, with his own circumstances as a condemned prisoner providing the setting.

Kind of a writer’s retreat, without the swag bags.

The work is a dialogue between Boethius the Prisoner and a personification of Philosophy, in the shape of a beautiful woman who appears to him in his cell. The discussion is in prose, but it is interspersed with poems that summarise, comment on, take forward or provide another perspective to, the main line of the argument.

At the beginning, Boethius the Prisoner can do nothing but lament his sudden fall from prosperity and explain at length to Philosophy the injustice of the charges against him. Philosophy is not at all sympathetic. She tells him that, if he remembered her teachings, he wouldn’t be complaining, as he does, that God has no concern for humans, and that the good suffer and the wicked prosper. She sets out to answer both charges.

Another excerpt:

On a straightforward reading of the Consolation, Philosophy’s argument is taken as authoritative, accepted by both Boethius the Prisoner and by the author. If so, the Consolation, like Plato’s dialogues on Socrates’s execution, is a bold assertion of the power of unaided human reason even in the face of death. But – and the same objection might be made to Plato’s Phaedo – the central philosophical arguments are likely to seem too weak, especially to modern readers, to support such a claim. There is, however, reason to think that this straightforward reading doesn’t do the Consolation justice.

Ancient readers were very conscious of a work’s genre. It guided their expectations of how its author intended it to be understood. By writing the Consolation in alternating prose and verse, Boethius signalled that the work is a Menippean satire. As Joel Relihan showed in Ancient Menippean Satire (1993), this genre of satire ridicules figures of authority. Readers of the Consolation might therefore expect Philosophy’s teachings not to be treated with complete respect. From this starting point, Relihan develops in The Prisoner’s Philosophy (2007) a reading that is diametrically opposed to the straightforward one. Philosophy, he argues, is shown as failing to provide the Prisoner with consolation, and this failure was Boethius’s way of revealing the weakness of any sort of human reasoning. The implicit message is that Christian faith alone provides the type of consolation that Boethius the Prisoner was wrongly seeking from Philosophy.

Such a reading treats all the Consolation’s philosophical argumentation as if it were mere rhetoric, devised by Boethius the author just in order to show its inadequacy, with its main message delivered by indirect means. This is hard to accept. Would Boethius, who had devoted his life to philosophy, really have treated arguments in this way? Why, in particular, elaborate the intricate argument at the end of the work about divine prescience and contingency, certainly his finest and most original piece of reasoning, if his purpose were just to show the inadequacy of philosophy and not its power to console?

Read the whole thing here.


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