Archive for December, 2009

The Tintin craze

Thursday, December 31st, 2009
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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
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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
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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.”

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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
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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
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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
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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