Archive for 2009

The Tintin craze

Thursday, December 31st, 2009


I never had much interest in comics, so the current craze for Tintin and its creator, the Belgian artist Hergé, passed me by — until I read a few intriguing reviews offered on the 80th anniversary of Tintin’s debut.

The fêtes, touting the adventure boy whose stories foreshadowed the the advent of the “graphic novel” in the West, have found several reasons for celebration: Tintin devotee Steven Spielberg is directing The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which is scheduled for a 2011 release; it is the first of a projected series. The second volume of  The Art of Hergé, a planned three-volume anthology from Last Gasp press, will be out in March.

Also, two newly published books have brought Tintin into the MSM:  Pierre Assouline’s Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin, published by Oxford University Press, and, at Stanford University PressJean-Marie Apostolidès‘  The Metamorphoses of Tintin.

Both books document the troubling story of the author who, according to Charles McGrath, writing in a New York Times review, was “far happier and more interesting in his work than he ever was tintinin life.”  Hergé worked for a collaborationist newspaper in Belgium during the war, and his cartoons participated in the antisemitism and racism of the era.

Apostolidès recounts a critic fulminating, “This hypocrite, this boy feigning innocence, this ugly little monkey cannot fool us any longer. It’s time we exposed him for what he really is.  Tintin is a forty-year-old dwarf, a colonialist, and a zoophile, with homosexual tendencies to boot.  This is the despicable character we set up as a hero for our dear little children.”

Benjamin Ivry, in the San Francisco Chronicle, writes:

Hergé, who was much criticized by his compatriots after the Nazi defeat, revised most of the offensive portions in later editions of his books, but possibly never truly understood his own offenses. In 1945, when a friend who had been a slave laborer in Germany returned to Belgium and described Jewish concentration camp prisoners he had seen, Hergé replied: “You mistook what you saw. … And first of all, how do you know they were Jews? They were surely common law criminals.”

In the end, Hergé concluded:  “Tintin has been for me the means to express myself, to project my desire for adventure and violence, the bravery and resourcefulness within me,” — McGrath added, “and yet in the end the character seems less a projection of Hergé’s inner self than the repression of it. What makes Tintin so appealing is that he never grows up and has no inner life at all.”

tintin3The Adventures of Tintin was translated into 60 languages, and has sold more than 200 million copies to date — a figure that’s likely to balloon after the current round of publicity.

Not bad for the boy with no back-story.  “Tintin is a character without a past,” Apostolidès writes in the introduction to his book.  “We don’t even know why he insists on having his hair cut like a blue jay’s,” notes Bruce Handy in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Handy continues:  “I think Hergé’s greatest achievements are formal: his precise yet witty line, like mechanical drawing with the giggles; and especially his gifts for timing, pacing and action, clearly movie-inspired.”  Apostolidès noted that the French philosopher Michel Serres considered Hergé a “twentieth century classic, an enduring masterpiece.”  On the occasion of Hergé’s death, Apostolidès noted,  “Serres confided to a journalist that ‘no other author can be compared to him in influence and reputation.'”

War, apocalypse, and René Girard

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

Photo: Francois Guillot / Getty Images AFP/Getty Images

Time to blow my own horn — or rather, I have another opportunity to toot René Girard’s.  My review of the French author’s Battling to the End, encapsulating Girard’s thinking of the history of human conflict and our current predicament, appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle today — it’s here.

Introducing René Girard — for he is so little known on this side of the Atlantic that any article has to double as a general introduction — is no mean task.  Trying to encapsulate decades of his work, as well as discuss his current book, in about 700 words (a standard review length in the mainstream media nowadays) is downright formidable.  But René is worth the effort — few today have the courage to take on the grand récit, and his thinking is always provocative.  From my review:

“If we had been told 30 years ago that Islamism would replace the Cold War, we would have laughed … or that the apocalypse began at battling to end_webVerdun, people would have taken us for Jehovah’s Witnesses,” writes the Avignon-born octogenarian.

Fundamentalists, preoccupied with apocalypse, nevertheless grab the wrong end of the stick: “They cannot do without a cruel God. Strangely, they do not see that the violence we ourselves are in the process of amassing and that is looming over our own heads is entirely sufficient to trigger the worst. They have no sense of humor.”

After my article was in an editor’s hands, I sent the book to a friend, former NEA chairman Dana Gioia — rather surprisingly, his thoughts echoed mine, and he, too, was intrigued by the Girard’s chapter discussing poet Friedrich Hölderlin (as a Stanford sophomore, Gioia had studied German in Vienna).

My review is included in Sunday’s “Insight + Books” section — but the online version appeared just in time for the author’s 86th birthday on Christmas Day.  It was also just in time also for the Christmas present I received from a family member: Michael Hamburger‘s translation of Hölderlin’s Selected Poems and Fragments.  Here’s hoping the winter break allows time to make my own explorations of Hölderlin’s extraordinary poetry, which Germans assure me is untranslatable.

Lazy winter hours with the TLS

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

carnochanAhhhhhh, the long winter break.  One of its underrated luxuries: the opportunity to slog through piles of the magazines, newspapers, and journals that accumulate, unread, on one’s sidetable, or chair, or bed.  So I discovered in the December 4  Times Literary Supplement a review of Bliss Carnochan‘s new book, with the unlikely title, Golden Legends: Images of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson to Bob Marley.

Reviewer Felipe Fernández-Armesto found it a “capricious little book,” and “jolly reading.”  Though he chides Carnochan blissfor overlooking works in Latin and Portuguese that had an English-speaking audience before the publication of Job Ludolf’s 1681 History of Ethiopia, he is intrigued by Carnochan’s account of those early travel writers “escaping reality, creating or burnishing golden legends of a land almost as isolated or enclosed as Johnson’s imaginary Abyssinian valley…”

“Against this background, the Rastafarian project of ‘return’ to an Ethiopia that never existed, ‘thou land of our fathers’, where Haile Selassie was a god ‘who liveth and reigneth I-tinually’, seems hardly more mad than those of the white pilgrims who preceded it.”


The TLS also features — in an issue that has yet to reach California mailboxes — an article about the latest book of Timothy Garton Ash, “the scholar of velvet revolutions.” George Brock’s review of  Facts Are Subversive is online here.

ash2Particularly cheering words for those of us in the word trade:  Ash has “placed himself at the intersection of journalism, history and literature … If not quite no-man’s-land, this frontier territory is sparsely populated; few writers succeed in the delicate balancing acts involved in working there. Quite apart from the unusual talents required for what he calls this ‘mongrel craft’, employers with patience and resources are vital; the longer pieces in this collection appeared in the New York Review of Books. Those anxious about the businesses that sustain journalism in print should pray for the continued health of the small band of periodicals that fund such long-form reportage.”

“Eine Stadt. Ein Buch,” revisited

Thursday, December 24th, 2009


The website “Red Room: Where the Writers Are” asked Marilyn Yalom to recount her experiences in Vienna, which the Book Haven wrote about here.  Marilyn has penned her own memories of the celebration of Irv Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept, and it’s an astonishing story — complete with a personal bodyguard assigned to protect the Yaloms from autograph-seeking mobs, press swarms, and a dinner for 700.  You can read it here.

Mark Twain, revisited: A reply from Shelley

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

mark-twainFollowing my post below on Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, Shelley Fisher Fishkin wrote to tell me I’d cited her own favorite passages from her book. But then she added a few more personal favorites (as well as a seitan recipe):

“All of us have our favorite Twain quotes regarding animals — I’ve always been partial to: “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” I’ve also liked: “Concerning the difference between man and the jackass. Some observers hold that there isn’t any. But this wrongs the jackass.”  Twain’s amusing and mordant quips about animals like these are well known. But it was not until I was deep into my work this book that I came to recognize the seriousness that was behind them.

I was genuinely surprised to find that Twain was actually the most prominent animal welfare advocate of his era in the U.S. — and that his writing on the subject spanned four decades — nearly his entire career as a writer.  He wrote about everything from hunting to bullfighting to cockfighting  to gratuitous cruelty to pigs and dogs to using animals for laboratory experiments,  to  the abuse of  horses by people who overworked them or failed to feed them enough or made them pull ridiculously heavy loads.

While during Twain’s earliest years as a writer,  animals may have functioned  mainly as a source of humor they soon  became much more. Twain found that making fun of animals for qualities  that showed them as all-too-human could be a useful ploy for mounting genial critiques of human behavior. By the same token, Twain found that shining a spotlight on the cruelty with which humans treated animals could be a useful strategy for illuminating human hypocrisy, misplaced moral pride, and unwarranted senses of entitlement and superiority — qualities that became increasingly salient for Twain as the years wore on. Ultimately, Twain’s observations of non-human animals enabled him to train a cynical eye on human animals, and find them wanting.  The Lowest Animal—as he came to call man — did not stack up so well against the rest of the animal kingdom.

I had not expected my research to result in a dramatic change in my life, but it did:  Twain was not a vegetarian himself, but spending all this time with his attentive explorations of animal emotion and cognition made a quasi-vegetarian of me.*

*a pescetarian, to be precise.

“…as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

green1My inbox tells me that I have a dozen or so emails to read — some are the inevitable end-of-the-year newsletters from various organizations, and I will read them over this Christmas season, though it’s mostly a duty, not a pleasure.

Except one.  If you are not a subscriber to the Stanford University Libraries newsletter, I recommend the experience — if for no other reason than you will get the scribblings of Andrew Herkovic.  For example:green6

The Ghost of Library Future

In this season of continuous reminders of A Christmas Carol, I am mindful of another Dickensian reference to frame the state of publishing. It was the best of times: Dan Brown! Harry Potter! Amazon! Kindle! Google Books! It was the worst of times: Dan Brown! Harry Potter! Amazon! Kindle! Google Books! There is something there to vex almost any of us book lovers – and, if there is any common element among readers of this newsletter, I trust the love of books would be it – and perplex observers of the publishing industry. We can be sure things are changing fundamentally, though, as usual, none of us has a handle on the end state of this buckram revolution. As individuals, we have pretty good control of what and how we read; we can decide whether to buy an e-book reader, a hardback copy of the latest theo-thriller, an audio book of Sarah Palin’s autobiography, a paperback ‘tween novel (as a gift, perhaps), or wait for the movie to come out on DVD. green5Libraries, however, don’t have the luxury of choosing whether to ignore the dynamics of the marketplace or the pace of innovation. Here at Stanford, moreover, we insist on taking an active, rather than reactive, role in the future of books, and we believe this to be in the best interest of our readers, now and in future. That this creates strains on our attention and means is less important than being in the hustings, and we think these are the most exciting, if perhaps not best, of times in publishing. If the library were a conscious entity, it might well subscribe to the words of the repentant Scrooge, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

With best wishes for your spirited reading in the coming year,

Andrew Herkovic

Last-minute gift for animal lovers … and Twain fans, too

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

twain“Of all the animals, man is the one who is most cruel,” wrote Mark Twain.  According to Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a leading Twain scholar, the 19th century author isn’t well enough known for his positions on animal welfare. She’s setting the record straight.

Her new book, Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, a compilation of 50 years of Twain’s writing about animals (and illustrated by Barry Moser), is  humorous and jaunty, dark and upsetting — sometimes all at once:  For example:  “Cats are packed full of music — just as full as they can hold; and when they die, people remove it from them and sell it to the fiddle-makers. O yes indeed. Such is life.”


Fisher Fishkin (Photo by L.A. Cicero)

Twain’s kindness sprang from remorse.  His mother had “pleaded for the fishes and birds and tried to persuade me to spare them.” The killing of a bird provided a conversion:  “I had not needed that harmless creature, I had destroyed it wantonly, and I felt all that an assassin feels, of grief and remorse when his deed comes home to him and he wishes he could undo it and have his hands and his soul clean again from accusing blood.” Twain put his own moment of conscience in the words of Huck Finn:

“…I see a bird setting on a limb of a high tree, singing, with its head tilted back and his mouth open, ad before I thought I fired, and his song stopped and he fell straight down from the limb, all limp like a rag, and I run and picked him up, and he was dead, and his body was warm in my hand, and his head rolled about, this way and that, like his neck was broke, and there was a little white skin over his eyes, and one little drop of blood on the side of his head, and laws! I couldn’t see nothing more for the tears; and I hain’t never murdered no creature since, that wasn’t doing me no harm, and I ain’t going to.”

Listen to Shelley’s podcast:  Would Mark Twain go Bare for PETA?)

“A great writer needs your help”

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Momaday as a Stanford prof in the 1970s. (Photo credit -- Chuck Painter)

On Monday, the Native News Update of “News from Indian Country” announced that the Pulitzer-prizewinning novelist N. Scott Momaday is in ill health and uncertain financial circumstances. According to the TV station, the 75-year-old Kiowa writer is suffering from the debilitating side-effects of diabetes and “now requires 24/7 home health care that has drained his personal finances as well as those of the caregiver organization that had been subsidizing those services for some time.”  You can hear the news towards the end of the broadcast here.

My former editor at the Georgia Review, ASU’s Terry Hummer, posted a letter on his Facebook page from Holly YoungBear-Tibbetts:  “A Great Writer Needs Your Help.”  The letter is being circulated within the Native American community, urging support for one of its “Living Treasures.” She added, “It will be some time before Mr. Momaday is fully recovered and able to resume his work and that is why I’m writing to ask you to consider making a personal contribution to the care-giver service Coming Home Connection, a nonprofit Santa Fe based home health care service provider.”

Personal checks to Coming Home Connection, designated for the N.Scott Momaday Fund, should be mailed to: Coming Home Connection, 418 Cerillos Road, Santa Fe, NM 87501. Or donate online at the Coming Home Connection website.

Momaday spoke memorably at Stanford two years ago — I quoted him here:

Momaday said the Kiowa stories he told had never been written down prior to his own efforts. Over the years, he has come to realize “how fragile some of these stories are—and how important they are.”

“I believe they need to be told,” he said, responding to a query about the need to continue telling stories even after they are already in print. “Poetry needs to be told and it needs to be heard. I have lived with certain poems all my life, and I still haven’t come to the end of them.” The page is just “one way of getting them out,” and not necessarily the most interesting, he said.

Momaday noted that some critics had called Rainy Mountain his “spiritual autobiography.” He added, “The more I think about it, there’s something to it.” The stories “made me who I am, and will make my children who they are.”

One student found Momaday’s approach difficult and fragmented, and claimed he had a hard time understanding Kiowa culture from it. He asked what Momaday’s purpose was. The author answered, “I wanted to tell the story of the coming of a people to the full realization of their destiny.”

Responding to a question about how he knew when his story was coming to an end, Momaday answered, “I didn’t have a sense of it coming to an end. It’s a wheel: Myth becomes history becomes reminiscence becomes myth. All stories are contained in other stories.”

What becomes a legend most?

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Nearly two years ago, I followed winding LaHonda and Skyline roads through the fog and driving rain of a California winter.  It was a trip that would have been stunning in the sunlight — but was downright terrifying on that day of  wind and rain and unearthly mists, with any momentary skid potentially fatal along the treacherous hilltops stretches. But the several hundred people making that journey into the Woodside hills had a somber determination.


Diane in London (Photo: Amanda Lane)

The occasion was the memorial service for legendary biographer Diane Middlebrook at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program — in a spacious wooden building up amid the mists and treetops on that cold January day.  And the chilly rain did not dampen the gathering as Diane’s husband Carl Djerassi, stepson Dale Djerassi, daughter Leah Middlebrook, and others spoke of the warmth and spirit Diane had brought into their lives.

In addition to being the acclaimed author of Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton: A Biography, and Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, Diane was enormously popular and enormously loved — so it’s no surprise that her friends wanted to create a lasting memorial.  They are well on their way to doing so, with the Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence on the Djerassi Program campus.

According to her daughter, Leah Middlebrook:  “The new residence for writers was a dream of Diane’s, and we can’t think of a more fitting memorial to her spirit.  This facility will increase the capacity of the Djerassi Program to host artists by 50 percent. At the same time, it will strengthen the discipline that was Diane’s own.”

Groundbreaking is planned for spring 2010, with a fall occupancy.  Organizers are still raising the remaining $200,000 of the $750,000 to complete the residence (Carl  contributed $400,000, Sue and John Diekman donated an additional $100,000).

Those who wish to contribute can do so at, clicking on “support” and then on “Diane Middlebrook Building Fund.”  Click on “donate now” to open a secure donation service — make sure you add “Diane Middlebrook Building Fund” in the gift acknowledgment box.


The Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers' Residence will provide five new structures and a solar collection canopy. Additional artists will occupy four personal studios for living and working. (Courtesy of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program and CCS Architecture, San Francisco)

Iranian writer speaks of “the insanity of censorship”

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

Mandanipour (Photo by Elena Seibert)

Shahryar Mandanipour’s debut at  Stanford this week was decidedly understated:  about 70 people gathered in Lane Hall, most of them apparently Iranian.

His topic was, perhaps, the obvious one: censorship.  The chief symptom of censorship is the “corruption of language,” he said, echoing Orwell. He noted that his  “poor language” has been commandeered to tell “thousands of lies.”

“It’s not important to write a political story, but it is important that you write an artistic story,” he said. In such circumstances, the job of the writer is to remind readers that “the word tree means tree.”

What he called “the insanity of censorship” was not always his topic of choice: Mandanipour recalled that the subject was raised so often that his interviews in America became bland and predictable.   He waited, in vain, for the question he wanted to hear:  “What is this literature, and what has it achieved?”

His own has achieved a great deal already:  his novel was accepted for publication by Knopf on the basis of only 50 submitted pages.  Censoring an Iranian Love Story has been  named one of the New Yorker‘s top books of the year.  No mean feat for the writer who arrived on this side of the Atlantic only three years ago.

The novelist from Shiraz cut an appealing figure:  a ruggedly handsome man in a black shirt and jacket, with a shock of frizzled gray hair.  Another shock: a surprisingly light, breathy voice that was often inaudible, sometimes incomprehensible,  in its heavily accented English.

Occasionally, as his English faltered, he would turn tentatively and murmur, “Help me, Doctor,” to the man sitting in the front row.  Abbas Milani, head of the program in Iranian Studies, reminded Mandanipour of his youth in Teheran, he said, when Milani was “the youngest and best teacher in political science.” The program Prof. Milani directs is too little known — it’s startlingly top-drawer. I’ve written about its visiting scholar Dick Davis here, and its Bita Prize for Literature and Freedom, which honored eminent poet Simin Behbahani, here.

Following Mandanipour’s reading, the question-and-answer period took an interesting turn when one man observed that fundamentalist regimes reserve their www.randomhouse.comheaviest artillery for literature, since  these religions preach certainty, and the novel thrives on doubt and uncertainty within its characters, motifs, and plots.

Mandanipour warmed to this theme.  These regimes, whether or religious or political, share an underlying fallacy: that “people are the same, there is no difference, no individuality.” The work of authors is an obvious target because “literature tries to show that there are many points of view in the world.”

“Democracy, the novel — they both come together.”

Nevertheless, Iranian literature, with its “layer of dark, bitter humor” is “complicated, personal,” he said. “For this reason, it’s not easy for this literature to have a dialogue with the world.”

He spoke movingly of writer’s block in his early days in the U.S., looking at the flowers whose names he did not know, and his mind would return to those who had “burned their memories so that only the flames would read them.”  He also thought of those who were still fighting — “brave students beaten with bottles,” facing interrogation and torture in their struggle for human rights.

“There are times the Iranian women are braver than the men. I think so,” he said softly.