Archive for January, 2012

Grisha Friedin, Isaac Babel shared rough neighborhoods and a longing for literature

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012
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I was in the U.K. when Grisha Freidin gave his talk in the “How I Think About Literature” series last fall, but Isaac Babel‘s biographer sounds characteristically feisty in Luke Parker‘s account:

 “What is the difference between what I write and what Babel wrote? The difference is I have footnotes,” says Gregory Freidin, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and expert on Russian writer Isaac Babel. “What we do here is falsifiable. What he does is not falsifiable. You don’t like Babel, write your own.”

Babel in 1920

A little background on Grisha from my article two years ago:

As a teenager in the mid-1960s, Gregory Freidin moved with his family to a rough side of Moscow, to what he described as a neighborhood notorious “for its Jewish thieves, counterfeiters and dealers in stolen goods.” He had entered “the Jewish underworld.” In short, the Soviet kid discovered Isaac Babel’s world.

Freidin is now perhaps the world’s foremost scholar on Babel, the Russian-Jewish short story writer, playwright and journalist. He is throwing a spotlight on the writer who described the horrors of war and the gangsters of Odessa with trademark irony and acute observation. 

Grisha’s lifelong exploration of literature was fueled, as described in Parker’s account, by the longing for that “other story” which “he had suspected, even in his Stalinist childhood, might exist outside the walls of his Moscow tenement”:

This “other story” fuelled his search for the wellsprings of literature’s affective power – a power that in 1962 erupted with the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Although a “pretty thin book, a long short story really,” nonetheless “it for a moment outweighed the Kremlin and the mighty Soviet state.” Ivan Denisovich permitted millions publicly to mourn the victims of the Gulag, forcing the Kremlin into a tactical show of penance before the people: a Soviet civil society had been born, producing an effect “greater than 9/11.” It was to explain events such as these, showcasing literature’s moments of extraordinary power, that Grisha turned in his work to the fields of cultural anthropology, the sociology of religion, and psychoanalytic theory.

You can read a short account of the talk here.  Or, for that matter, you can read Grisha talking about his  enthusiasm for Babel in my account here:

“He created archetypal stories about modern Jewish childhood, about intellectuals and violence, the violence that accompanied Russia’s transition to modernity and the revolution in which Russia’s Jews were both uplifted and victimized,” said Freidin. …

“Babel is a writer who forces you to confront yourself,” said Freidin. “Babel makes art out of unsettling your point of view by irony. You have to follow his game and test your own ability to follow his ironic twists and turns.”

The violence in this pacifist writer continues to fascinate Freidin: “He was probably, to my mind, the greatest writer to portray violence, as it were, without judgment – and at the same time show its horror, and beauty, and the great pleasure people get from violence, while somehow sneaking in his pacifism as well.”

Or, for a third option, watch my video interview with Grisha below:

 

Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe: Did they take out the “J” word, too?

Monday, January 30th, 2012
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Liz Taylor and Joan Fontaine: 'scuse me, who's the heroine here?

Some time ago, we launched a firestorm about the controversial new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that eliminates the “n” word altogether.

Now Sir Walter Scott‘s Ivanhoe is taking a thumping.  Apparently, modern readers find the 1819 novel, set in 12th century England, too ponderous and verbose.

According to an article in the Telegraph, a Scottish professor, David Purdie, has solved the problem with a pair of scissors:  he spent 18 months snipping it from 179,000 words to a mere 80,000:

While Prof. Purdie has retained the antiquated writing style used by Sir Walter, he has taken out the swathes of punctuation which extend the novel.

He said: “Very few people read Scott these days because he’s long and wordy and difficult for the modern ear and modern attention span.

“In the early 19th century, a comma was placed after every phrase, which makes it tedious reading.

Eliminating commas, however, does not account for cutting it down to less than half.  Last time I checked, commas didn’t count as words.

Some have questioned whether the book is so close to death that it needed this kind of life-saving surgery. Said, Professor David Hewit of Aberdeen University,  “The idea that Scott is neglected, no, it’s not neglected at all,” he said. “Ivanhoe is being well read.” He said that Penguin editions for the book had sold around 100,000 copies in the last decade, with worldwide sales of around 200,000 copies.

Moreover famous fans of Ivanhoe include Tony Blair, who said it he would take it to a desert island with him, and Ho Chi Minh, who praised medieval gallantry shown in the novel, as channeled by the Victorians.

Purdie appeared to have found an unexpected champion over at Billevesées. Blogger William V. Madison wrote about the novel earlier this month:

The plot that thrilled generations of readers is in constant struggle with Scott’s prose, which is verbose in the extreme. A character may typically take a long paragraph just to tell another to make haste, and my second-hand paperback edition provided very few notes (mostly Scott’s own, along with a thin glossary) to explain obscure terminology. (No attempt was made to explain the constant misuse of participles for past tense: “He sprung forth,” e.g.) Scott lards the story with “poetic” descriptions and song lyrics, and toward the end of the book, when poor Rebecca awaits her doom, Scott meanders off for several scarcely relevant chapters, sabotaging his own suspense. The resolution of the plot, hitherto relatively plausible, depends on one improbable death and an even more outlandish resurrection.

However – surprise! – Madison changes his tune:

In short, modern readers will find the odds stacked against them. And yet the damned thing does work. Almost against my will, I found myself caught up in the story, and this is largely due to Scott’s characterization, which in a couple of cases — notably the Jews, Isaac of York and his daughter — proves quite compelling. We feel so strongly the injustices they suffer that we care about what happens to them.

So much so that Scott complained after the novel was published why Ivanhoe didn’t elope with the Jewish Rebecca, rather than the boring shiksa Rowena.  That was even before the MGM movie that put a luscious Elizabeth Taylor in the supporting role.

It’s a fun read – Madison, I mean, not Ivanhoe (which I managed to read and enjoy as a teenager without too much trouble) – check out the whole thing here.  Madison even answers the eternal question why the evil Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert doesn’t ravish Rebecca, as he had originally planned. It’s included in a long-lost fragment of the novel here.

Postscript on 1/31:  A belated hat tip to Kevin Rossiter for the Telegraph article.  He put his own p.o.v. succinctly:  “I just object to the idea of making any work of literature ‘more accessible.’  Peter Brown gave a lecture at Stanford a couple of years ago and addressed the question, ‘Why would anyone want want to study late antiquity?’  He used a phrase I like a lot – he said late antiquity had a ‘salutary strangeness.’  I think that’s what great literary works often have, too.  A healthy departure from the unexamined and comfortable.”  See more on Peter Brown of Princeton’s lecture here.

Writing is a life of poverty? Not.

Friday, January 27th, 2012
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Waugh's digs at Piers Court, near Stinchcombe

For those of you entering this or that writing competition or perhaps applying for a grant, hoping to scrape together a few shekels so you can buy kitty litter – behold and weep!

Writing does not have to be a monastic dedication to a life of poverty – here are a few dwellings where famous writers had their desks and pencils.  Probably lots of other stuff as well – including maids, gardeners, and butlers.

Obviously, they mostly did not begin poor.  If one wants an independent income and a room of one’s own, it’s best to acquire them at birth.  (The old joke:  What does it take to make a small fortune as a writer?  Answer:  A large fortune.)

Vidal's domicile in Ravello, Italy

I’ve selected a few from Flavorwire’s 15 – based strictly on personal taste, the houses I would most love to live in.

Not surprisingly, Evelyn Waugh comes out tops with his home in Goucestershire.  Given my love of the English countryside and its stately homes – is this any surprise?

And for the winter break, I’ll take Gore Vidal‘s home on the Amalfi coast, just for the landscaping. It’s also known for handmade paper and plenty of limoncello. Pray for no earthquakes.

Where he lived in exile: Hugo

Perhaps it’s only a lifelong and slightly cheesy love for Jean Valjean that makes me hanker for Victor Hugo‘s “Hauteville House,” at 38 Rue Hauteville in St. Peter Port in Guernsey, where he lived during his exile from 1856 to 1870.  Hard to beat Guernsey for beautiful climate, and probably an improvement on Paris. This is the view from the garden, not the busy street. Thanks to the mild climate, the jardin is filled with trees and flowers.  Well, rather like Palo Alto.

We can’t leave without citing the ur-house, and the only one of the bunch that I’ve seen face to face:  William Shakespeare‘s house in Stratford.  Shakespeare, to his credit, did make his own money, in sometimes less-than-savory ways (he was accused of hoarding).

The Bard's stomping grounds

I’ve seen lots of writers’ homes – Constantine Cavafy in Alexandria, Elizabeth Bishop in Samambaia, Mikhail Bulgakov in Kiev, Emily Dickinson in Amherst, C.S. Lewis in Oxford, Robinson Jeffers in Carmel, Alexander Pushkin in Moscow and Odessa,Winston Churchill at Blenheim and Chartwell, Czeslaw Milosz in Kraków and Berkeley and Lithuania, even John Milton‘s humble digs in Chalfont St. Giles, a couple miles from where I lived on the border of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

Can’t say these top the preferred list – but they certainly stack up very well.  See the rest here.

Timothy Snyder: On dissent and “the stories people tell about themselves”

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012
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 Author of “Bloodlands” (Photo: Ine Gundersveen)

You don’t have to live under a totalitarian government to understand some of the head trips  Timothy Snyder of Bloodlands fame describes in his provocative and incisive interview over at the Browser.  We run them through our minds daily – at home, in the workplace, in our social circles.

Which hardly undermines the stories of people for whom the stakes were astronomically higher – those who face prison, death, or poverty for risking free expression.  But it does make his observations universal.

His responses in the Q&A (with Alec Ash) are heartbreakingly insightful.  But then, he is often quoting maestros. He recommends five books: George Orwell‘s Homage to Catalonia, Czeslaw Milosz‘s The Captive Mind, Adam Michnik‘s The Church and the Left, Milan Kundera‘s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Václav Havels The Power of the Powerless.

“The people whose books I’ve chosen lived in regimes which not only monopolized violence but threatened it in an everyday sense. And some of them suffered as a direct result of what they wrote,” he said.

Tim’s responses, and the books he has chosen, do not just tell us (as the subhead says) “how to challenge the over-mighty”; more importantly, they all demonstrate the way we delude ourselves – regardless of political stripe, personal beliefs, or external circumstances.

I have my caveats. He seems to put a lot of stock in such terms as “liberals”; I find that these labels increasingly meaningless if not misleading (and highly elastic), and have come to feel that it’s dangerous to identify oneself with any political group.  Too often among my colleagues, such labels become simple synonyms for “good,” “truth,” and “people who think like me.” Which means you can do anything you like, because you’ve a priori identified yourself with the good.  And why is the piece, which praises non-violence, illustrated with a clenched fist from Wikipedia Commons?  Ah well.

That said, how can you argue with passages like this?

… The Captive Mind by the celebrated Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, seems to have some overtones of 1984 itself.

Milosz

Yes. Milosz tried to explain – as the title suggests – how thinking people could accept communism from inside the communist system. How does one not resist or just endure, but actually place one’s mind in the system? He points to a number of ways in which the mind can adapt. You can accept one larger truth that guides your interpretation of all of the smaller untruths, accept a vision of the future that is so bright that it drives away the shadows of the various dark acts of your own time and place. Or you can collaborate on the outside but preserve an inner core of yourself that does not collaborate on the inside.

Milosz’s point was that all of these things are possible as human adaptations to a situation, but impossible as ways of preserving humanity. In fact they’re nothing more than stories people tell about themselves, as they give in to a system which is actually inferior and repressive.

Kundera

Why did you choose Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting?

Milan Kundera was of course not really a dissident, but this book gets across the heartfelt reality of Stalinist faith. Kundera was a young Stalinist, as were his friends. So he knows what it was like to be on the inside, to have certainty about the rest of the world and to believe that everyone who didn’t share that certainty was a fool. To know where things were going and what you wanted from society – that glowing, overwhelming sense that one is young and the world belongs to you. Kundera really gets that sense across, and I think that’s incredibly important.

Also apropos of Czechoslovakia and very topical, your final selection is Václav Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless.

Havel

In the end I think Havel will be remembered as the outstanding East European dissident writer, and he will be remembered as such above all for this essay. Its central point is that even a communist regime that controls the media and exercises a great deal of power depends ultimately on an almost visible collaboration with society – society meaning individual decisions taken by individuals, which accumulate to have a universal appearance.

And what does Havel say to that inner voice that you shouldn’t risk personal suffering and put your head above the parapet?

He understands it. There is this Christ-like patience, and he’s not programmatic. Havel doesn’t call for everyone to do what’s beyond them. He asks them to do what they can, and then – like [Adam] Michnik – he leads by example, does things his own way and pays the price for it. Michnik and Havel are among the dissidents who have spent the longest time in prison.

Read the whole thing here.

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PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT:  Some time ago, we explained that the Book Haven was moving, and there might be a few cyberspace bumps in the subsequent days as we switched servers.  It never happened.  But it is happening in the next 24 hours.  Bear with us.  All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well …

Dante and crowds

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012
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Gustave Doré's version of Canto III: "...like a bird at its call."

Dante‘s Divine Comedy is brimming with crowd scenes.  Take this one, in Canto III of the Inferno, as Dante visits the damned souls who are waiting to be ferried to hell:

Come d’autunno si levan le foglie
l’una appresso de l’altra, fin che ‘l ramo
vede a la terra tutte le sue spoglie,
similemente il mal seme d’Adamo
gittansi di quel lito ad una ad una,
per cenni come augel per suo richiamo.

In Charles Singleton‘s translation: “As the leaves fall away in autumn, one after another, till the bough sees all its spoils upon the ground, so there the evil seed of Adam: one by one they cast themselves from that shore at signals, like a bird at its call.”

In a recent lecture, Robert Harrison pointed out the classical sources for the image of leaves: Aeneas sees the same infernal scene in his visit to the underworld in Book 6 of the Aeneid.  Since Virgil was by Dante’s side during his otherworldly excursion, the comparison would have been on his mind. Here’s Virgil’s version (in Robert Fitzgerald‘s translation)

..as many souls
As leaves that yield their hold on boughs and fall
Through forests in the early frost of autumn,
Or as migrating birds from the open sea
That darken heaven when the cold season comes…

Individual, particular names (Photo: Creative Commons)

But Robert noted that Dante put a new twist on Virgil’s old image, “It’s a traditional epic simile – but he singularizes it.”  Robert compared it to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, whose massive presence resolves, as you draw nearer, into thousands and thousands of individual, particular names.

So the Inferno is composed of carefully delineated individuals – the mass “that swirls unceasingly in that dark and timeless air, like sand when a whirlwind blows” never entirely fades into facelessness.

•••

In all the images of leaves, sand, and birds, this one could easily be overlooked:

E come li stornei ne portan l’ali
nel freddo tempo, a schiera larga e piena,
così quel fiato li spiriti mali
di qua, di là, di giù, di sù li mena;

“And as their wings bear the starlings along in the cold season, in wide, dense flocks, so does that blast the sinful spirits; hither, thither, downward, upward, it drives them.”

It certainly grabbed me: My daughter, Zoë Patrick, is a “birder,” and during a recent trip to Golden Gate Park, she pointed out the drab and speckled birds who could be identified (she said) because they look like “flying cigars.”

They are apparently not native here: a Bronx drug manufacturer, one Eugene Schieffelin, decided to import them, in an effort to have all the birds from William Shakespeare‘s works in the U.S.

Shakespeare, you see, chose to include the starling in Henry IV, when another soldier, the fiery Hotspur says, “The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he is asleep, and in his ear I’ll holler ‘Mortimer!’ Nay I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.”

That’s because starlings can be taught to talk – see the video below of a starling saying, “Give me a kiss, baby.” Or go here to see a video of an even more voluble starling besotted with its own name, “Damar.”

But why did Dante’s choose starlings for his metaphor of movement?  Christian Stanley Ciesielski let me know what a “murmuration” of starlings can do – see the first video below for that, too.

As Christian suggested, “Imagine a whole murmuration of ‘Give me a kiss, baby.'”   Another expression of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Lucille Clifton: “Under great duress and great odds, I will be me.”

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012
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Fields, Clifton, Momaday, and Packer nattering (Photo: Steve Castillo)

NPR lists eight new poetry collections to look for this year, and the late Lucille Clifton comes out on top:

If you only read one poetry book in 2012, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, out in September from BOA, ought to be it. This landmark book collects all the published poems of this major poet, plus a handful of unpublished ones, edited by the poet Kevin Young with an introduction by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

I missed Clifton’s death in February 2010 in the pitiless onslaught of daily news events.  I had never been particularly drawn to her poems, but I was drawn to her person during her 2007 appearance at Stanford – I wrote about it here.  She appeared with a formidable team of aging writers, including N. Scott Momaday (The Way to Rainy Mountain), Nancy Huddleston Packer (Jealous-Hearted Me), and poet Ken Fields (Classic Rough News).

As a journalist covering a panelist of speakers, it’s always a mystery how a story “happens” when you return to your computer and begin to tap on the keys. The best analogy is the old-time darkrooms, where you would watch the underwater film develop, and the object that had looked so prominent to your vision almost vanishes into the background, and something you hadn’t even noticed at the moment begins to appear under your fingertips.

So it was with that story.  One tries to be fair to everyone – but the person who spoke least may take the lead, and strong personalities sometimes fade precisely because their comments were a little off the dominant current of thought.  As the article begins to orient around themes, Clifton, who had been very impressive, began to disappear.  I stubbornly inserted a block of her quotes towards the end of the story, trying to reflect her powerful, uncompromising presence onstage.

Clifton had just described a poem that was “about other people dictating to you what you are to be.”

She said that she had survived four bouts of cancer—at one point fighting off cancer in two primary sites of her body at once. She noted that she had endured losses, including the death of two children, and was “not broken by it,” trying instead “to bear it with grace and courage.” Given her background and uneven education—she admitted she felt like a “spy in the camp” of academia—”people are amazed I know anything at all.”

Then the line I have never forgotten:  “I am myself. Under great duress and great odds, I will be me.”

The New York Times characterized her poetry as “moral intensity leavened by humor.” Her poetry “combined an intense, sometimes earthy voice with a streamlined economy of language. (She frequently did away with punctuation and capitalization as so much unwanted baggage.)”

Not greatly drawn to it, for the most part – just a matter of personal taste – except for this lyrical, enigmatic poem, which I found in her Pulitzer-nominated collection Good Woman, and I found myself returning to again and again:

the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god.
i agree with the leaves.