What was Harold Bloom working on at life’s end? This.

October 20th, 2019
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His dreams were still in Yiddish.

What was Harold Bloom writing at 89? According to his friend, the writer, translator, and publisher Lucas Zwirner, Bloom had started a new book  called Immortality, Resurrection, Redemption: A Study in Speculation,  exploring the afterlife in the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Islamic traditions. Zwirner discusses it in The Paris Review here.

“Being with Harold always felt historic, momentous,” he writes. “The world around him was thick with thoughts and feelings, dense. The people we encounter in writing pierce us, their inner lives give us more life. For those of us who were lucky enough to study with him, Harold let that life out. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t finish his book.”

America’s legendary lit critic never finished the book, of course. He died last Monday. In his last email to his friend on September 18, Bloom discussed the book, and took on Silicon Valley, too:

In the early autumn of 2019, the denial of death by Silicon Valley technocrats has been an organized phenomenon for about fifteen years. There are varied cults that keep burgeoning of which the most notorious is Terasem, founded on a science fiction novel I could not finish. Satellite dishes have been set up to record the mindsets of the new faithful and beam them out into the great beyond, in the pious hope that amiable aliens will receive them and descend with fresh panaceas to sooth the fear of dying.

Does the world grow better or worse, or does it just get older? There is nothing new under the sun. Cultivating deep inwardness depends upon the reading of the world’s masterpieces of literary works and religious scriptures. Not that Silicon Valley would be at all interested, but I would prescribe that all of them learn to read Shakespeare as he needs to be read. Self and soul would then return and take the place of fashionable evasions of the contingencies that have always shaped human lives.

Read the rest here. (And hat tip to Frank Wilson.)

A childhood chum.

And over at the Times of Israel, Bloom discusses how he still dreams in his first language, Yiddish. He was the child of Jewish Orthodox immigrants from Ukraine and Belarus: “As a very small child, three, four years old, I was sent to Sholem Aleichem schools… they were all over the Bronx. So, pretty good early education that was strictly in Yiddish… But to this day my English is very curious because I learned it only through the eye and not through the ear. I didn’t, in fact, hear English spoken until I was about 5 and a half. I was a preternaturally early reader and at 5 or 6, I was already reading Shakespeare and trying to read Milton and so on. But English is, of course, a very peculiar language, as Bernard Shaw complains, the orthography and the pronunciation have nothing in common. So to this day, I speak my own curious, inflected English. It doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. So as far as I’m concerned, I still dream in Yiddish.”

Read it here.

“An elegant homage”: weekend praise from Amherst for “Evolution of Desire” – and a few other books, too

October 19th, 2019
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It’s been a full year-and-a-half since Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard was published. And I’m chuffed it’s still getting reviews and attention.

The latest is from the weekend “Friday Reads” section of The Commona tony journal put out by Amherst College. According to its website: “The Common is an award-winning print and digital literary journal published biannually, in the fall and spring. Issues of The Common include short stories, essays, poems, and images that embody a strong sense of place.”

I’m honored that Evolution of Desire is the lead item. The review (they’re all designed to be brief) is by Susan Troccolo, a non-fiction contributor to the journal.

It begins:

“Cynthia L. Haven’s book, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is a compelling study of her mentor’s life’s work and an elegant homage to a man whose extraordinary intellectual force and drive for understanding necessarily probed Psychology, Philosophy, Theology, and Anthropology.”

It ends: “Evolution of Desire is a memorably written biography of a distinguished thinker for our time.”

You can read what’s in the middle here.

But there are four other books to consider. Here’s Loves You: Poems by Sarah Gambito, recommended by poetry contributor Chloe Martinez:

“’Invite at least 15 people. It’s okay if your apartment is small.’ These are some of the instructions Sarah Gambito gives the reader at the start of Loves You, a collection of poems that are also recipes, that are also love songs, that are also prayers, and that are often centos, “patchwork poems” made up entirely of quotations. It’s okay to include all this, Gambito tells us, it’s okay to use everything around you in poems …”

A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, in which fiction contributor Katherine Vaz discusses a novel that was short-listed for the Man Booker and won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2017:

“Based on the true story of a woman who stayed closed-off in her apartment in Luanda during the struggle for independence, it’s an uncanny mix of true-magic and suspense and the onslaught of history. The plot is clear and strong. The language, the story itself—breathtaking. The confines of Ludo’s apartment end up containing the universe, in the way that the lines of a sonnet contain, due to the restriction of form, an explosion of richness.”

Read the full text for all four here. I’ll give you a hint on the last two:  The Farm by Joanne Ramos and recommended by Danielle Batalion Ola (nonfiction contributor); and Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors and recommended by Katherine Hill (fiction contributor).

A fan of the Beach Boys? Here’s a poem and video for you: “Every lovesick summer has its song.”

October 17th, 2019
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In his year as state poet laureate, Dana Gioia was determined to speak, read, and hold a literary event in every one of California’s 58 counties. And so he did. But that meant a lot of lonely hours on the road for Santa Rosa-based California guy.

Dana chilling in L.A. with Doctor Gatsby (Photo: Starr Black)

Perhaps that’s what brought this poem to mind for one of his newest in the Blank Verse Films series. It’s one of his poems that was driven by sound, which is appropriate for the subject.

“I imagine it already needs footnotes for the young, but I like to think that the experience is nearly universal in our era of entertainment,” he told me. There’s a personal link not mentioned in the poem: he shares a hometown with the Beach Boys outside L.A. – Hawthorne, California, before a freeway ran through it.

Cruising with the Beach Boys

So strange to hear that song again tonight
Travelling on business in a rented car
Miles from anywhere I’ve been before.
And now a tune I haven’t heard for years
Probably not since it last left the charts
Back in L.A. in 1969.
I can’t believe I know the words by heart
And can’t think of a girl to blame them on.

Every lovesick summer has its song,
And this one I pretended to despise,
But if I was alone when it came on,
I turned it up full-blast to sing along –
A primal scream in croaky baritone,
The notes all flat, the lyrics mostly slurred.
No wonder I spent so much time alone
Making the rounds in Dad’s old Thunderbird.

Some nights I drove down to the beach to park
And walk along the railings of the pier.
The water down below was cold and dark,
The waves monotonous against the shore.
The darkness and the mist, the midnight sea,
The flickering lights reflected from the city –
A perfect setting for a boy like me,
The Cecil B. DeMille of my self-pity.

I thought by now I’d left those nights behind,
Lost like the girls that I could never get,
Gone with the years, junked with the old T-Bird.
But one old song, a stretch of empty road,
Can open up a door and let them fall
Tumbling like boxes from a dusty shelf,
Tightening my throat for no reason at all
Bringing on tears shed only for myself.

R.I.P. Harold Bloom (1930-2019): “He saw reading as a great human enterprise, an engagement of the passions, a heroic endeavor.”

October 14th, 2019
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One of the nation’s preeminent literary critics, Harold Bloomdied today at 89 (we’ve written about him here). One of his students, Ann Kjellberg, publisher of Book Post, remembers her time as a Yale undergraduate in the 1980s, when Harold Bloom taught a famous course with John Hollander called “Originality.”

“During office hours with me, Bloom once buried his head in his hands in despair that he was momentarily unable to remember the opening lines of Yeats’s ‘Per Amica Silentia Lunae.’ He blamed the fact that he had been briefly haunted by the death of his mother.”

Here are the lines, for others who do not know them by heart:

On the grey sand beside the shallow stream,
Under your old wind-beaten tower, where still
A lamp burns on above the open book
That Michael Robartes left, you walk in the moon,
And, though you have passed the best of life, still trace,
Enthralled by the unconquerable delusion,
Magical shapes.

She continued: “It meant so much to me, in those days when some sort of ‘science’ was supposed to direct the reading of literature, that he saw reading as a great human enterprise, an engagement of the passions, a heroic endeavor.”

On Facebook, the writer Marat Grinberg posted an email he received from Bloom a dozen years ago:

From arts journalist and author Thomas Gladysz: “Back in high school I had a couple of jobs, and with my spending money I bought a copy of The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, with commentary by Harold Bloom. It cost $7.95, a not inconsiderable sum for a softcover book back in the 1970s. I treasured it, and held onto it all these years. In the early 2000s, I managed to get this famous academic to drop by the bookstore where I worked to sign copies of his new books. I admit I was a little intimidated by this prolific and bestselling literary critic and “monster” of reading. (“Yes, I do read 400 to 500 pages a day,” he replied when I asked him about his renowned ability.) I slipped my copy of Blake’s poems into the pile for him to sign. It made him pause – and I told him it was my personal copy. He smiled just a bit. Yesterday, Bloom died. His body of work lives on.”

From poet, playwright, translator Nina Kossman: “Years ago he wrote me a letter about my translations of Tsvetaeva (my second book of translations). The letter is short but memorable. I scanned it, and so here it is.”

A few Tweets below. We’ll be adding to the stack:

A Nobel for Olga Tokarczuk – Poland’s leading novelist!

October 10th, 2019
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Congratulations to Olga Tokarczuk! She is the 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize – 2018, because the Nobel Committee was enveloped in scandal last year, and so is issuing two awards at once (the 2019 one went to playwright Peter Handke, a more controversial choice). We’ve written about Tokarczuk before, here and here and here. We didn’t predict this big win, however. The dreadlocked vegetarian is a mere 57 years old – relatively young for Nobel winners. However, she has been a leading light in the Polish firmament for years. According to The Guardian, “it has found not only a fine winner but a culturally important one.” The Nobel Committee cited “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” And congratulations, too, for her translators into English (vital for Nobel contenders) –American Jennifer Croft, and Britain’s Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Congratulations, too, to her phenomenal publisher (we’ve written about him here), Jacques Testard of Fitzcarraldo.

The photo above was taken during a reading at the home of Izabela Barry, in New York City (Yonkers, to be more precise). Izabela has been a mover and shaker in the world of Polish lit for years (she’s holding a glass of wine in the photo above), and her living room the setting for readings, discussions, and receptions. (We were honored to have Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard featured one evening a couple years ago – a French event, not Polish, admittedly, but we were further privileged to have the incandescent Polish scholar Irena Grudzińska Gross as interlocutor.)

The New York Times reports:

Ms. Tokarczuk is best known for her 2014 historical novel Księgi Jakubowe or The Book of Jacob, centered in the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires and focused on the life of Jacob Frank, an 18th century Polish leader of a Jewish splinter group that converted to Islam and then Catholicism. “She has in this work showed the supreme capacity of the novel to represent a case almost beyond human understanding,” Nobel officials wrote in their citation.

In 2018, she got renewed prominence after winning the Man Booker International Prize for translated fiction for “Flights,” an experimental novel based on stories of travel.

From the Guardian:

“Sometimes I wonder how my life would have worked out if my books had been translated into English sooner,” mused the 57-year-old author earlier this year, “because English is the language that’s spoken worldwide, and when a book appears in English it is made universal, it becomes a global publication.” This might not be a desirable state of affairs but for writers from many parts of the world it is a fact of life. Her Booker win, as Antonia Lloyd-Jones – one of her two English language translators – remarked, was not just a triumph for her but for the whole of Polish literature.

By then, her canny independent publisher, Fitzcarraldo, had already followed up with Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Whereas Flights was one of the glittering historical and geographical collages that Tokarczuk calls her “constellation novels”, Drive Your Plow is very different: a William Blake-infused eco-thriller which significantly extended her reputation, not least because it is much easier to read.

Postscript from NYRB Classics, via Twitter: In the photo above, one careful observer noticed another notable Polish translator, Sean Gasper Bye.  The “photobomb, if the eyes do not deceive,” would describe the man sitting on the floor, facing the camera, half-lit. Wrote the NYRB Classics: “I love his expression. Happy and rapt.”

Tokarcyk and Croft at the Man Booker awards, 2018. (Photo: Janie Airey/Man Booker Prize)

He was so popular in Polish films he got an American film contract. Then…

October 7th, 2019
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With his dog “Sambo.” The dog was killed during the Warsaw Uprising.

First News, a Polish news site, observed a disturbing anniversary today. It’s haunted me all day, and now I’m going to say a little about it.

It’s the 76th anniversary of the death of one of Poland’s leading actors, comedians, directors, producers, and entrepreneurs during the interwar period. Witty, gallant and seductive, Eugeniusz Bodo  shot to fame following his debut in the 1925 silent film Rivals. But he found his true vocation with the “talkies.” He starred in some of the most popular Polish film of the 1930s, including His Excellency, The Shop AssistantCzy Lucyna to dziewczyna? and Pieśniarz Warszawy. His songs became instant hits.

His fame spread. So much so that, in 1939, Bodo signed a good contract with by an American film company and planned to emigrate.

Before he could leave, however, Poland was invaded by Germany, which invaded Russia two years later. His father, Teodor Junod, had been Swiss, and so his son was traveled abroad on a Swiss passport.

Portraiture by NKVD.

Then, after returning from one of his USSR tours, he submitted his Swiss documents for emigration to the U.S. He was arrested by Stalin’s notorious NKVD (the maiden name of the KGB) on trumped-up charges of espionage. After a series of brutal interrogations in Moscow, he was sent to a forced labor camp.

He starved to death in 1943, at a Soviet gulag camp in Kotlas, Arkhangelsk, and was buried in a mass grave. He was 43. The Soviets blamed the Germans for his death, and didn’t admit to the crime until 1991.

We tend to think stardom and money and a foreign passport offer protection from the horrors of history. They don’t. They couldn’t even save his dog.

Below, when things were looking rosy in 1937. The song, “Umówiłem się z nią na dziewiątą” – “I made an appointment with her at 9” – in the film “Piętro wyżej.”

New Sontag bio: “a voyeuristic emphasis on celebrity and careerism”? A friend speaks out.

October 5th, 2019
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The New York Times called Ben Moser’s Susan Sontag: Her Life and Work (Ecco) “a landmark biography, the first major reintroduction of an incomparable literary heavyweight to the public since her death.” Leslie Jamison, writing in The New Republic, called it “utterly riveting and consistently insightful . . . The book takes this larger-than-life intellectual powerhouse—formidable, intimidating, often stubbornly impersonal in her work—and makes her life-size again . . . fascinating.” I haven’t read it yet. However, her close friend, Steve Wasserman has, and he disagrees. (He’s spoken about her before on The Book Haven, here and here.)

His mini-review below:

Ben Moser’s biography of Susan Sontag is appallingly reductive. Her actual writings and ideas interest him rather less than what he construes as her private life. He is transfixed by the halo of celebrity that seemed to hover above Sontag during her life and which, even after her death, continues to glow. As a result, his biography is strikingly coarse and prurient, mocking and condescending, even as it pretends to an unearned seriousness of purpose, accompanied by a style designed to tell readers what to think and feel. He accuses Sontag of being a coward about her sexuality, a narcissistic diva, a person whose efforts to transform herself are derided as comic.

Suppose he is right. What does this have to do with the work — her writings — which is, after all, why we ought to care, if we care at all, about Susan Sontag. If people think the work is no good, or at least that it’s wildly overrated, fine, then they should say so. But if the work has any true and lasting merit, then this voyeuristic emphasis on celebrity and careerism is, to say the least, misplaced, not to mention that it seeks to have it both ways, and exploits the very fame it so condescends to. But then, condescending to Sontag while fixating on her, even when she was alive, is something so commonplace as to be tediously familiar.

Paying any attention to Sontag, especially now, fifteen years after her demise, matters only if her work matters. Everything else amounts to gossip about a person who was famous in her lifetime, or is grist for the most trivial sort of social and cultural history. Moser seems to believe that what matters most about Sontag was her effect on her contemporaries, not her work. This view is a disservice to and a caricature of the woman and writer I knew.

(Photograph above right by Andy Ross, Berkeley, circa 1995.)

Alfred Hayes’s noir novella “My Face for the World to See” @Stanford on October 30. Be there!

October 2nd, 2019
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Hollywood’s underside (Photo: Hayes Estate)

Your only vice is yourself. The worst of all. The really incurable one.” 

Another Look is returning from its long summer break, launching its eighth season with Alfred Hayes‘s 1958 noir novella, My Face for the World to See. The event will take place on Wednesday, October 30, 7:30 p.m., at the Bechtel Conference Center in Encina Hall on the Stanford campus.

The narrator, a Hollywood screenwriter, rescues a young actress from suicide in the Pacific. The incident leads to an affair fueled by gin, cigarettes, and ultimately madness.

Hayes (1911-85) was also a screenwriter, television writer, as well as a novelist. He published My Face for the World to See when he was 47.

In The Los Angeles Review of Books, filmmaker Alex Harvey called the book “his most achieved portrait of male self-deception … a sharp, forensic examination of power and money…”

The discussion will be led by author Tobias Wolff, founding director of Another Look. Panelists include Stanford Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, novelist Terry Gamble, and film critic David Thomson, who wrote the introduction for the NYRB Classics edition.

Seamus Heaney’s last days: “a moment of changing direction … a movement of gratitude to the people who helped him.”

September 30th, 2019
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John Deane (Photo: Mossy Carey)

We’ve posted on the seminal conference at Loyola University in Chicago last week here and here. This is our final installment. The Irish poet and novelist John Deane, founder of Poetry Ireland and The Poetry Ireland Review spoke movingly, eloquently of his friend and fellow countryman, the Nobel poet Seamus Heaney. (We’ve written about him before, here and here and here.) He described his eminent colleague’s crisis of faith and final days in 2013. He has allowed us to share an excerpt from his essay in the April 2019 issue of Intercom Magazine:

In the collection Human Chain, he reflects on the stroke he has suffered and how he was helped by others; it is a poem where he uses that same metaphor of the palsied man lowered through the roof. Heaney had suffered a severe stroke and this poem uses the metaphor – not as a spiritual poem, not an act of faith, Heaney insisted, but a moment of changing direction in one’s life – as a movement of gratitude to the people who helped him. There is continuum of perspective in the poem, “Miracle”, and a placing of the work on the ground of his early Christian awareness: “Not the one who takes up his bed and walks / But the ones who have known him all along / And carry him in —” The reader, or hearer, of this poem is not urged towards belief in miracles, but towards wonder at the kindness of the people who brought him to the ambulance when he needed them.

“A wonder at the kindness of the people…”

When I asked Seamus Heaney if he might write a poem for the issue of Poetry Ireland Review I was planning, seeking new work from poets I knew that might offer a personal answer to the question of what the personal Christ meant to them, (“Who do you say that I am?”) he answered enthusiastically: “I will definitely keep the project in mind. It’s quite a commission, a test of truth and art, but one worth risking.” Eventually he sent me “The Latecomers”. It reads, to me, as a poem in which Heaney sees himself, not as the palsied man, nor as the helpers, but as Christ himself, surrounded by the needy who press around seeking help and healing. Seamus was then constantly being badgered for signatures, for readings, for statements. The poem is written from Christ’s perspective and I will quote it in full:

The Latecomers

He saw them come, then halt behind the crowd
That wailed and plucked and ringed him, and was glad
They kept their distance. Hedged on every side,

Harried and responsive to their need,
Each hand that stretched, each brief hysteric squeal –
However he assisted and paid heed,

A sudden blank letdown was what he’d feel
Unmanning him when he met the pain of loss
In the eyes of those his reach had failed to bless.

And so he was relieved the newcomers
Had now discovered they’d arrived too late
And gone away. Until he hears them, climbers

On the roof, a sound of tiles being shifted,
The treble scrape of terra cotta lifted
And a paralytic on his pallet

Lowered like a corpse into a grave.
Exhaustion and the imperatives of love
Vied in him. To judge, instruct, reprove,

And ease them body and soul.
Not to abandon but to lay on hands.
Make time. Make whole. Forgive.

It is a remarkable piece, and I hoped it signalled a new certainty and confidence in Heaney. In a book just published (He Held Radical Light, 2018), the former editor of Poetry Chicago, Christian Wiman, a powerful poet in his own right, tells of a reading Seamus gave, one of his last, in Chicago. He tells how he “met Seamus Heaney in person only once”, at a dinner given after that reading. They sat together and Seamus mentioned he had been reading the proofs of Wiman’s memoir, My Bright Abyss, where Wiman struggles with suffering and faith. Wiman was moved to know he was being read. Later in the dinner, “and in the middle of a conversation that had nothing whatsoever to do with religious faith, he leaned over to me and said – very quietly, he seemed frail to me – that he felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged.” Wiman felt unable to respond properly, but the moment is highly significant. I would hold that that “new dispensation” in faith is already in place, based on a Christian cosmology and catholicity, and an acceptance of the developments in faith demanded by the fact of evolution. …There is one God; there are as many ways to the love of God as there are individuals. A poet with Seamus Heaney’s intellect, imagination and great generosity of spirit, cannot be confined within the limited and limiting borders of dogma and ritual. His is a rich and, I would assert, a holy spirit.

“Mark Twain, but with a harder edge”: new film on Flannery O’Connor – and here’s the trailer!

September 27th, 2019
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Among the highlights during my brief Chicago visit last week was the first-ever full screening for a general audience of Flannery: The Storied Life of the Writer from Georgia, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The film, directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, includes never-before-seen archival footage and photographs. Mary Steenburgen narrates, with interviews from Alice Walker, Tobias Wolff, Tommy Lee Jones, Mary Karr, Alice McDermott, Conan O’Brien, Mary Gordon, and people from O’Connor’s life. (The film includes “motion graphics,” rather than “dramatic reenactments,” in keeping with the requirements of the O’Connor Trust.)

“Most literary biopics and most documentaries about writers fail in my opinion because they tend to exclude or at least minimize the writing when of course the writing itself is the key element that defines why we care about the writer,” said film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, in remarks before the screening. He was critic for the Chicago Reader from 1987 to 2008, and author of a number of books on films. “There’s an analogous problem for me in most films that feature jazz, where it’s felt that audiences are too restless to sit still for uninterrupted writing.”

Then he cited Wendy Lesser, writing in Bookforum: “Flannery O’Connor is like Mark Twainbut with a harder edge. Both the pathos and the ludicrousness of the life she perceives and creates are always present to her, and which one will win out depends on how wrathful she feels her God to be at any given time.”

“Ignorance is by no means her only target. Knowingness, of a highly educated and smug sort, also comes under fire, especially in the later stories that are more visibly self-mocking.”

But the final word in his remarks was from O’Connor herself, in her preface to Wise Blood: “Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.”

George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, called it “a beautiful and important film about one of our great American artists.” The screening at Loyola’s Damen Cinema was part of the “Catholic Imagination” conference, launched by Dana Gioia in 2015.


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