Archive for May, 2012

Happy birthday, Les Misérables! No, no – not the musical, the book

Thursday, May 31st, 2012
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My hero. (Engraving by Gustave Brion.)

It was, perhaps, my first love affair.

How old was I?  Ten, eleven, maybe?

It was the book I read late at night, pushing a blanket under the crack under my bedroom door, so my father wouldn’t see the light in my room and know I was still awake until the wee hours. (I lived in fear that he might go outdoors, and see the lamplight blazing from the second-story window.)  I lugged Victor Hugo‘s tome outdoors as during school recess in the bone-numbing Michigan winter, while my teachers tried to drive me into the group sports that made one “well-rounded.”  If I were 12 and not 11 (can’t recall, really) it would also have my secret companion while the teacher droned – carefully hidden half-inside the desk, so it could easily be shoved inside should the teacher begin patrolling the aisles. It was the touchstone of my youth.

Happy birthday, Les Misérables.  This year celebrates the 150th year since the book’s publication in 1862.

Clearly, I was not the only enthusiast.  Although it was scathingly reviewed, it was a popular success. According to Graham Robb’s 1997 biography (a long excerpt is at “A Practical Policy” here):

By the time Parts II and III appeared on 15 May, it was clear that Hugo had achieved the impossible: selling a work of serious fiction for the masses, or, for the time being, inspiring the masses with a desire to read it. It was one of the last universally accessible masterpieces of Western literature, and a disturbing sign that class barriers had been breached. The oxymoronic opinions of critics betray the unease created by Hugo — that the lower orders might also have their literature: ‘a cabinet de lecture novel written by a man of genius’, according to Lytton Strachey half a century later, still fighting ‘bad taste’. In other words, Les Misérables was a jolly good book, but Victor Hugo never should have written it.

The view from the street was an inspiring contrast. At six o’clock on the morning of 15 May, inhabitants of the Rue de Seine on the Left Bank woke to find their narrow street jammed with what looked like a bread queue. People from all walks of life had come with wheelbarrows and hods and were squashed up against the door of Pagnerre’s bookshop, which unfortunately opened outwards. Inside, thousands of copies of Les Misérables stood in columns that reached the ceiling. A few hours later, they had all vanished. Mme. Hugo, who was in Paris giving interviews, tried to persuade Hugo’s spineless allies to support the book and invited them to dinner; but Gautier had flu, Janin had ‘an attack of gout’, and George Sand excused herself on the grounds that she always over-ate when she was invited out. But the nameless readers remained loyal. Factory workers set up subscriptions to buy what would otherwise have cost them several weeks’ wages.

What impressionable girl would not fall in love with Jean Valjean?  Of course, my role model was not Valjean, but rather Cosette, the milky, demure girl with sweetness of temperament. But some messages are enduring and subliminal:  the heart of the book is a love story, but not a sexual passion between a man and a woman, but the pure devotion of a middle-aged man for the orphaned girl he had adopted.  That, in itself, made it a good influence on a gawky, prepubescent girl – for other loves prove more enduring and reliable than the merely passionate ones.  And mankind’s universal refusal to extend charity towards its weakest members would be a durable lesson.

Emile Bayard's illustration from the original edition of "Les Misérables"

According to Robb:

 Les Misérables etches Hugo’s view of the world so deeply in the mind that it is impossible to be the same person after reading it — not just because it takes a noticeable percentage of one’s life to read it. The key to its effect lies in Hugo’s use of a sporadically omniscient narrator who reintroduces his characters at long intervals as if through the eyes of an ignorant observer — a narrator who can best be described as God masquerading as a law-abiding bourgeois….

The title itself is a moral test…. Originally, a miserable was simply a pauper (misere means ‘destitution’ as well as ‘misfortune’). Since the Revolution, and especially since the advent of Napoleon III, a miserable had become a ‘dreg’, a sore on the shining face of the Second Empire. The new sense would dictate a translation like Scum of the Earth. Hugo’s sense would dictate The Wretched.

A podcast of “Les ‘Nouveaux Misérables’, 150 ans après” is here.  And a  popular play about Hugo’s longtime muse and mistress Juliet Drouet celebrates the year.  On the play:

“All but ignored or forgotten in most official histories, Juliette exchanged with Victor 23,000 letters over their fifty-year love affair, letters which writer and actress Anthea Sogno has mined in order to write this exquisite and historically accurate play. Sogno herself gives a spellbinding and often very funny performance as Drouet.

2012  is a significant year for Hugo enthusiasts, as it is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Les Miserables, a manuscript that might not have ever been published, had Juliette Drouet not taken care of it during one of Hugo’s several exiles. Sogno’s play, recognised as part of the national Hugo commemorations, and supported by the Maisons de Victor Hugo, has given over 500 performances in 130 French cities, to more than 70,000 viewers.”

Thanks to her...

The book made its imprint on me, but certainly I’m not alone.  Robb writes:

One can see here the impact of Les Misérables on the Second Empire…. The State was trying to clear its name. The Emperor and Empress performed some public acts of charity and brought philanthropy back into fashion. There was a sudden surge of official interest in penal legislation, the industrial exploitation of women, the care of orphans, and the education of the poor. From his rock in the English Channel, Victor Hugo, who can more fairly be called ‘the French Dickens’ than Balzac, had set the parliamentary agenda for 1862.

(Oh, by the way, the immediate prompt for this post.  The movie of the 1985 musical is slated for a Christmas release – with Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, and Sacha Baron Cohen & Helena Bonham Carter as les Thénardiers, and beloved Valjean veteran Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop.  The first trailer was released yesterday, and is below.  Looks dynamite, though like the book, this clip has been scathingly reviewed in some quarters.)

“Our privileges exacerbate the horrors of others”: Junot Díaz on race, privilege, and J.R.R. Tolkien

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012
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Junot Díaz, Pulitzer-winning author of 2008′s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, always gives a scorching good show, and he did so again during a visit to Stanford earlier this month.

He did it all off the cuff:  “Guess what?  No fucking lecture,” he announced at the outset.

Díaz has a special license to mention the unmentionable – or what he says is the unmentionable.  His sensibility is divided between Dominican Republic, where he was born, and New Jersey, where he was replanted as a child.

Little of the Caribbean side was in evidence in Palo Alto: he wore preppy pullover and white collar, jeans and running shoes – and altogether more slender than he had appeared when I wrote about him in 2008.  The spellbinding author spoke about J.K. Rowlings, he spoke about H.P. Lovecraft, and he spoke most of all about J.R.R. Tolkien.  (Whether he especially favors writers who use only their initials is not known.)

“I write about race – by extension, I write about white supremacy,” he said, cutting to the chase.

He deplored the “rhetorical legerdemain” of “deforming our silences to fit in with the larger silences of society.” It’s a betrayal, especially, of the people “at the racially sharp end of the stick.”

“Our privileges exacerbate the horrors of others,” he said.

The idea of a post-racial society is a “happy delusion,” he said. “We are as hyper-racial today as we were two hundred years ago.”

He said that describing oneself as beyond race was as delusional as a man saying he isn’t sexist.  “These languages do not go away.  Heterosexual masculine privilege never goes away.”

How deep is the denial?  He recalled observing to a group of male peers that they were all dating white women or women lighter-skinned by themselves.  The predictable response:  “Oh, but it was love… we just met… it was random.”

No one ‘fessed up: “I date who I date because I was told people who are light-skinned are better.”

“Who wants to embrace that?” he asked.  Under such circumstances, “How the fuck do we bear witness to ourselves?”

“The default setting of universality” is white, he said.  Though writers of color often resist that categorization, he said he’d never encountered a writer who said, “You know what?  I don’t want to be a white writer.”

Díaz, flanked by Packer and Barry (Photo: Toni Gauthier)

People outside that default setting live in a “delusional space” of “specifying without signifying.” He referred to President Obama’s double message: “I’m not that black, but I will code some shit so you know I’m black.”

He, too, was asked to “signify without specifying” – “I ran from that as hard as I could.”  He wondered, as a writer, whether it was possible to capture in writing all the layers of denial and truth, avoiding the pitfall that would have been deadly for the writer, one in which “I’m going to blind myself so no one notices I’m not noticing.”

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was his attempt to use “all the nerd stuff” to portray “the hemispheric madness through the Dominican Republic.”

Science fiction and fantasy was an obvious source of inspiration. “Coloniality is the dark subconscious of the speculative genre,” he said.

For example, he commented on the different treatment of the ring in Wagner’s Rheingold and Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring.  In Wagner, “the ring just makes stuff go bad for you,” but in Tolkien, “the ring produces slavery” and functions racially, he said.  Tolkien was a survivor of World War I, and his Middle Earth is a post-apocalyptic world, said Díaz.  The Dark Lord Sauron is “a being that comes from outside Middle Earth,” from a race that dominates Middle Earth.

While the Harry Potter series pits “bad guys versus good guys, my power versus your power,” Tolkien’s p.o.v. offers a different take:  “Fighting power with power you lose.  Power breeds corruption,” he said.  “The more power, the more opposition.”  René Girard, of course, would add that you become the thing you oppose – which ought to be a major deterrent, but isn’t.

In the end, said Díaz, “power never destroys power.”

Have a great Memorial Day – and share some books and e-books with our troops!

Monday, May 28th, 2012
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Bogged down in other writing today, and wasn’t planning to post, but James Keenan, director of the American Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers, provided the perfect Memorial Day image on his Facebook page, appropriate to the day and to a book blog as well.

Meanwhile, GalleyCat has a post on how to share books and e-books with our troops here.

I did a little research on the War Service Library featured on the bookplate, and found this explanation for the bookplate at the American Library Association:

Q. Today I was going through some books donated to our book sale and ran across one with a bookplate stating “War Service Library” with a picture of a WW I Soldier carrying a stack of books.  This plate was found in a 1918 book.  What is the story behind this bookplate?

A.  The bookplate — sometimes a label or a stamp with the words “American Library Association, Soldiers and Sailors Camp Library”— is one of several versions affixed to books furnished to sailors and soldiers by the American Library Association during World War I.

In 1917, ALA established the Committee on Mobilization and War Service Plans (later the War Service Committee). ALA’s wartime program, known as the Library War Service, was directed by Herbert Putnam, Library of Congress, and later by Carl H. Milam. Between 1917 and 1920, ALA mounted two financial campaigns and raised $5 million from public donations; erected thirty-six camp libraries with Carnegie Corporation funds; distributed approximately 10,000,000 books and magazines; and provided library collections to 5,000 locations. Continuing by-products of this effort are the American Library in Paris and military libraries all over the country … and world.  The work is carried on by librarians who are members of the Federal and Armed Forces Libraries Round Table (FAFLRT).

As libraries were dispersed or weeded over the years, some of these books have come into private hands—even though the label will often say something like “Property of the U.S.S.… – Not to Be Taken Off Ship”!  For more information, please see our page on Library War Service. (And no, we do not want the book returned to us.)

James got in touch with me some time ago, following our earlier Bookplate Mania posts.  More on James and the Society later, but meanwhile, get the most out of the day in any way you find fitting.

And for me – back to work!

Joseph Brodsky: How the 15-year-old dropout became a university professor

Sunday, May 27th, 2012
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1972: The poet and the Proffers

Curious synchronicity:  On 19 March, drama critic John Freedman, writing in the Moscow Times, remembered Carl and Ellendea Proffer, the critical link in bringing Joseph Brodsky to the U.S.  I discussed this connection in my post a few days ago here.  It’s not like they show up in ink that much nowadays.

Freedman begins with a panegyric:

One of the most inspirational people in my life was a scholar and publisher whom I never met. His name was Carl R. Proffer and I can’t imagine living the life I have without him.

Along with his wife Ellendea C. Proffer, he founded Ardis Publishers in the early 1970s. This was a case of someone taking the idea of a publishing “house” quite literally. The Proffers began printing unpublishable Soviet and Russian literature at home and selling it by mail. Here you could read the latest stories, novels and poems by contemporary writers Joseph Brodsky,  Vasily Aksyonov and Andrei Bitov, to say nothing of banned works by Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikolai Erdman and many others from the early Soviet period. By the late 1970s I was unloading as much of my meager paychecks on books from Ardis as I was on records by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and the Kinks.

One of my greatest joys in those years was receiving the latest edition of the Proffer-edited almanac Russian Literature Triquarterly in the mail. This was a scholarly journal like no other, past or present. There wasn’t a stuffy word in it. Each issue was jam-packed with incredible new translations, fascinating essays, groundbreaking memoirs and eye-opening scholarship. Each deliciously fat issue was also accompanied by oodles of rare, historical photographs and fabulous drawings and caricatures. RLT was an unsurpassed treasure trove of Russian letters.

Vintage republished Ardis edition (with commentary by Ellendea Proffer)

I followed one of the journalist’s hyperlinks and found a 1996 article by Benjamin Stolz and Michael Makin, and tells how Carl Proffer diverted the Russian poet to Ann Arbor:

He happened to be in Leningrad visiting Brodsky in May, 1972, when the poet received notification from the authorities that he was being issued an exit visa for emigration to Israel.  After responding that he was not interested in leaving his native land and culture, Brodsky was warned that the coming winter would be very cold — a threat that was not lost on a man who had been convicted of “social parasitism” for living on his poetry and had served a stretch in exile working on a collective farm in the Russian far north.  He decided to discuss the matter with his American friend, and Proffer, in his optimistic way, told Brodsky that he could come and teach in Ann Arbor.  Brodsky accepted the idea, and Proffer contacted Benjamin Stolz, who at the time chaired the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures.  After receiving authorization to hire Brodsky, Stolz obtained an immigration visa personally approved by William Rogers, Secretary of State, and flew to Chicago to get a federal work permit.

Brodsky began teaching for the first time in his life in September, 1972 — a daunting assignment for anyone, but especially for a young man who had dropped out of high school at fifteen, even if he was accustomed to declaiming his poetry to large groups of admirers.  He asked Stolz how he should teach his courses, one of which was a course in Russian titled “Russian Poetry” and other, in English, titled “World Poetry.”  Stolz replied, “Joseph, they’re your courses, teach them the way you want to, you’re the expert, ” — a piece of advice that Brodsky didn’t need but never forgot.  Brodsky was an inspiring and unorthodox teacher, who combined significant demands on his students — he insisted that a person who was serious about poetry must know at least 1,000 lines by heart — with  a sense of the absurd.   He was known, upon listening intently to a long theoretical exposition from a graduate student, to respond with a concise “meow.”  His presence at the University offered the chance, in the words of a former student, to experience the dynamics of the poet’s perspective and his relationship to language.

Freedman recounts a recent visit to my old stomping grounds in the University of Michigan’s Modern Languages Building, to the office of the  Nobel poet:

Ugly building, gorgeous literature

Invited in by Professor Shevoroshkin, I spent a few moments in Brodsky’s former office. It is now entirely the domain of a linguist, but a few items have been left as they were the last time Brodsky stepped out into the corridor in 1980. A random gallery of postcards and pictures that Brodsky scotch-taped to the inside of the door still hang there helter-skelter. They include photos of an old Soviet china plate, the Venice canals, a view of St. Petersburg, and several simple designs that surely had little meaning for anyone but the poet.

Shevoroshkin explained that numerous items have fallen off the door over the years but that he hasn’t gotten around to taping them back up. “I’ve got to do that sometime,” he said with a smile suggesting he may never get around to it.

Important as his service to Brodsky was, bringing the poet to Ann Arbor was only one of Proffer’s many significant contributions in bringing Russian literature to America. I well remember that when Vasily Aksyonov was deported from the Soviet Union in 1980, his first stop was Ann Arbor. By that time, for those of us following events, it was the natural, the only, destination Aksyonov could have had in America. Not New York, not Los Angeles, but Ann Arbor, Michigan. Where Carl and Ellendea Proffer were located.

A year earlier I met the poet Bulat Okudzhava and the novelist Sasha Sokolov in California. Both had been published by the Proffers at Ardis.

I interviewed Sokolov for the Michigan Daily, in the Proffers’ basement, where Ardis was situation, shortly after he emigrated. Ardis was publishing his School for Fools at that time.

I also remember those postcards in the Modern Languages Building office.  As for his claim, “There isn’t that much of substance about the Proffers on the Internet, and that is an injustice” – well, this is a start.

Amis: “The world has got drunk, lost its handbag, and been sick in the bus so many times now.”

Saturday, May 26th, 2012
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This long article in The Telegraph on Martin Amis, newly transplanted to New York City, has so many good bits  I couldn’t resist a post.  (If you missed my earlier post on Amis, it’s here.)

Much of the article,  discusses his newest book, Lionel Asbo:

The book is a wicked satire on the English class system, the vapidity of celebrity culture and the triumph of selfishness. …  Lionel is a comic monster for the times, as John Self, the hero of Money was for Thatcher-era greed and boorishness. Amis ‘adores’ him: ‘You can’t write about characters that disgust you. The whole form of fiction is actually a loving form, and you wouldn’t have the energy to put it down unless you had some, almost erotic affection for your characters. Similarly, I’m not disgusted but amused by the triumph of superficiality. And the egotism of people who are eminent without being in the least distinguished and somehow feeling that that’s their due – that seems to me to be a peculiarly English phenomenon.’

Amis describes it as a book, above all, about intelligence – how it is used, developed and wasted. ‘There is a tremendous amount of latent intelligence in England, and it’s awful that we cultivate it so patchily and randomly. … And there’s a saturation in values that all point the other way – very much exemplified by the reality show. What are they getting these rewards for? Their personality! It’s delusional. You make a complete chump of yourself, prostitute yourself, for a celebrity that is absolutely weightless; a floating celebrity that has no ballast. But it’s seen as a kind of punishment, not being famous. As a deprivation.’ …

‘But the thing I value most – and this comes out in fiction in a way you don’t think about in your daily life – is innocence. And the trouble with having that as your main value is that innocence is diminishing all the time. The world has got drunk, lost its handbag and been sick in the bus so many times now.’

He somewhat contradicts his thought at Stanford, that “It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end” – or does he?

The Hitch

At the memorial service for [Christopher] Hitch­ens, Amis was talking to another friend, who said that Hitchens’ death had left him with the feeling there was now less in life to hang on to. Amis doesn’t see it like that. The ‘shameful secret’, he says, is that the death of a friend very much increases your love of life. We grieve for them but by loving life more, because they can’t do that any more. You treasure the moments on their behalf. It’s a great gift from your dead friends that they make life more precious to you. It’s quite a subversive thought.’ He falls silent for a moment. ‘It’s very complicated, all this – coming to terms with it. It’s slow and stubborn and will take the rest of my life to process. As Hitch and I used to say, the idea of “closure”, in the vernacular, is disgusting, a wank.

‘He grappled with the Nietzsche line, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Amis gives a bleak smile. ‘I always thought that was all balls; what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker, and kills you later on.’

Read the whole thing here.

Joseph Brodsky and the courageous couple who brought him to America – Carl and Ellendea Proffer

Thursday, May 24th, 2012
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The Russian Brodsky

I met Michael Scammell years and years ago in London.  He was the vigorous, larger-than-life (or so he seemed to me) founding editor of the fledgling journal Index on Censorship, documenting censorship and freedom of expression around the world.

I was an acolyte performing insignificant editorial work in the cramped offices somewhere near Covent Garden – at least that’s where I recall the headquarters, though it must have moved several times since then.  Scammell, a critic and translator, was said to be working on something about Alexander Solzhenitsyn – the biography was published in 1985.

In 2002,  I republished his 1972 interview with the poet in Joseph Brodsky: Conversations – I remember his pleasant note  giving permission after I reintroduced myself.

So I read with interest his insightful “Pride and Poetry”, in the current issue of The New Republic, which considers Lev Loseff‘s Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life.  (I reviewed the same book for Quarterly Conversation here.)

Scammell draws many of the same conclusions I did, including this one, as he weighs whether “Loseff was perhaps right to put so much emphasis on Brodsky’s Russian life, Russian sensibility, Russian language, and Russian poems”:

In his best readings he offers the reader intimations of Brodsky’s genius, and captures crucial features of the poet’s achievement by obeying Brodsky’s injunctions to follow the twists of his language and write a biography of his verses. This is not, I fear, the sort of poet’s biography that Brodsky himself would have wanted to read. Judging by the vividness of his memoiristic essays, and also by what I remember of him, he would have demanded more flesh on the bones, more human interest, more drama, and—despite himself—more scandal. It probably will not happen very soon, but the world will see such a biography eventually. And so it should, for this astounding man deserves it.

Noting the serious biographical omissions in the book, Scammell comments:

A perhaps more weighty explanation is hinted at in Loseff’s eccentric statement that he is not qualified to write a biography of Brodsky “because Joseph was a close friend of mine for more than thirty years.” What would Boswell have made of such a statement? It appears to be an indirect way of alluding to Brodsky’s strenuous strictures against a proper biography. “A writer’s biography is in his twists of language,” he wrote in his great essay “Less than One,” and to a would-be biographer he protested that “A poet is not a man of action…. If you are of a mind to write a biography of a poet, you have to write a biography of his verses.” To his will Brodsky appended the following injunction: “The estate will authorize no biographies or publication of letters or diaries [after my death] … My friends and relatives are asked not to cooperate with unauthorized publication of biographies, biographical investigations, diaries, or letters.” Shelley, Byron, Hardy, James, Auden, and any number of illustrious predecessors would have agreed with him, but Loseff gets in a small dig by way of muffled revenge: in his lifetime Brodsky loved to read—what else?—biographies of famous poets.

This fits.  Though he disparaged biographies of poets, when he introduced C.P. Cavafy to our University of Michigan class, he began by … explaining the Alexandrian poet’s life.  How else?

But I need to offer one correction:  Scammell writes of the 1972 exile, when Brodsky was booted from Leningrad, “He was met in Vienna by George Kline, a longtime admirer and translator of his poetry…” No, the poet was met by Carl Proffer, who flew out to Austria to meet him and lure him to the University of Michigan.  That’s why, as he writes, “From London Brodsky set off for Michigan, where he had a job waiting for him and where he settled in surprisingly quickly.”  Carl took him to meet W.H. Auden the next day, in the village of Kirchstetten.

Scammell notes that Loseff “lived in America at the same time as Brodsky.”  There’s a reason for that.  Loseff writes: “Meanwhile, I had emigrated to the United States in the summer of 1976 and on Brodsky’s recommendation had been offered a job at Ardis…” The poet, as I recall the story from Ellendea Proffer, didn’t merely recommend Loseff – he pretty much offered him a job.  And the husband-and-wife publishing team graciously accommodated, though they hadn’t yet met the newest émigré.

The legacy of the Proffers is too often overlooked.  Loseff recalls Carl this way:

In 1972, Proffer was a rising star in American academe. At thirty-four, when most Ph.D.’s in the humanities were still slogging away as humble assistant professors struggling to write their first scholarly book, Proffer had already written two and had been appointed full professor at the prestigious University of Michigan. The son of a factory foreman, the first child in his family to attend college, he chose literature over basketball. … Annoyed at the slowness and conservatism of American publishers and publications in the field of Russian art and literature, tired of the lack of publishers in general, Carl and his wife, Ellendea, decided to start their own publishing house. They called it Ardis, the name for the house in Nabokov’s Ada. Nabokov himself, who was very particular about his editors, publishers, and interviewers, had come to trust Proffer and had given him the copyright for all his Russian works. Ardis published these and many other hard-to-find twentieth century authors in facsimile editions: poetry collections by Akhmatova, Gumilyov, Zabolotsky, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Khodasevich, Tsvetaeva, and a host of other Silver Age poets…

Joseph Brodsky’s words were even stronger: “In terms of Russian literature, Carl Proffer might be compared to Gutenberg. … he changed the very climate of Russian literature. Writers whose works had been rejected or banned now felt themselves freer because they knew that for better or for worse, they could send a piece to Ardis.”

I wrote about the Ardis venture for the Times Literary Supplement in 2002; a shorter version was published by the Los Angeles Times here. (And an even earlier version around 1976 or 1977 in the Michigan Daily.)  Carl died tragically young of cancer at 46, in 1984.  Ellendea carried on alone, eventually earning a MacArthur “Genius” award.

Someone said that a monument should be built to them in Mother Russia, whose literature they published against great odds, sometimes bootlegging banned works out of the U.S.S.R.  Pending a monument, I did what I could by dedicating Joseph Brodsky: Conversations to Carl Proffer’s memory – “who in the words of Joseph Brodsky, ‘was simply an incarnation of all the best things that humanity and being American represent.’”

Postscript:  Frank Wilson at Books Inq reminds me that today Joseph would have been 72. This quote from him pretty much summarizes my attitude this election year:

I do not believe in political movements. I believe in personal movement, that movement of the soul when a man who looks at himself is so ashamed that he tries to make some sort of change — within himself, not on the outside.

Nitpick, lightning.

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012
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April 12: I said it was bad, and I meant it.

A gentle reader took issue with last month’s post on Library Porn: fabulous places for booklovers everywhere:  “I relished the Rabelaisian (would that it were Menippean and broke forth into verse!) satire in Ex vero portu librorum pars quattuor de bibliotheca erotica (From the Veritable Haven of Books, Installment the Fourth Concerning the Pornographic Library).”

But then he cut loose:

Placing weather first and foremost is a sine qua non of wretched writing, but rather than opening with “It is a rainy night with thunder and lightning,” introduce the porn theme immediately with learned literary allusion to Bulwer-Lytton and library classification systems: “It was a dark and STEAMY night in the PA-PN stacks.”

But is Edward Bulwer-Lytton‘s “It was a dark and stormy night” really the sine qua non of wretched writing? (We’ve written about the Bulwer-Lytton Bad Writing contest here and here.)  Coincidentally, about the same time I was scribbling the sentence-in-question, blogger Levi Stahl over at I’ve Been Reading Lately was wondering:

Like nearly everyone alive today, I’ve not read Bulwer-Lytton. I’ve long thought, however, that he didn’t deserve his infamy–at least not if the sole piece of evidence against him is, as it usually seems to be, the above sentence. Oh, it’s not a good sentence. Yes, it would likely have made Nabokov or Updike shudder. But is it really that bad? If we can pretend briefly that the opening phrase hasn’t yet become a cliché, then the ground for complaint are two:

Crummy father.

1 The unnecessary, interpolated elaboration of the gusts of wind
2 The poorly positioned parenthetical that locates the book in London.

Both are clumsy and could easily have been improved by the casting over them of even a weak editorial eye–but is the sentence as it now stands all that bad? Worse than what our best-selling, low-grade thriller writers turn out on page after page? Worse than James Frey‘s Hemingway-cum-Fight Club masochismo? I just don’t see it.

When did the opening line of the 1830 novel Paul Clifford become a cliché?  A Google’s Ngram viewer is inconclusive. The phrase was repeated a lot in the first three decades, but then faded over the subsequent century.

Stahl is convinced that Bulwer-Lytton has been damned for the wrong sin? Has he been consigned to the wrong circle of literary hell?

According to John Sutherland‘s Lives of the Novelists (Yale University Press) he was the world’s worst husband and father.  He abandoned his daughter to die of typhus in a London lodging house.  His wife eventually accused him of hiring an assassin to kill her. What’s a little rain compared with that?

Oh read it for yourself, over here.  Meanwhile, here’s the blogger’s Ngram:

 

 

 

Michael Krasny, a survivor – just like me!

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012
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A few weeks ago, I finally met Michael Krasny, the genial presence behind KQED’s Forum – though we’d been Facebook friends for some time.  He was a kindly and  affable man – surprisingly humble and more friendly than I had anticipated.

From his 2007 memoir, Off Mike, I also learned that we have something in common:  In our greener years, we’d both interviewed Gore Vidal – and survived.  That’s not nothing.

I was a teenage Lois Lane for the Michigan Daily. It was usual for the editors at what was hailed as “the New York Times of student newspapers” to send us out last minute, without warning or preparation to interview grandees visiting Ann Arbor.

So I wound up being shoveled into a taxi with Vidal, knowing little more than that he was a famous author – indeed, his name was a household word at that time.  My memories of that event are captured somewhere in the bowels of microfilm records, but the memory is even less perishable.

Michael Krasny, on the other hand, was a young academic in 1976, and had done his homework thoroughly.  Here’s how he remembers the event:

“Heading into the interview, I was sure – both of us being literary types with left-wing politics – that we would become fast friends. I wanted to do a professional job and ask good, thoughtful, intelligent questions.  I read as much as I could on Vidal and reread early works of his like Myra Breckinridge and The City and the Pillar, as well as his newest novel at the time, Kalki.  More impressed by Vidal’s essays than his fiction, I still felt certain that the two of us would have much to talk about and would get on well.

When we met briefly before going to the television studio set to begin the interview, Vidal seemed world weary, as if afflicted with terminal weltschmerz, but more important, he smelled of liquor and his voice was thick with booze. …

Now the amazing thing about the interview was that once we were on the air, Vidal was “on” in a way that took me as much by surprise as his prior world-weariness, condescension and anti-Semitism.  The lights and cameras rolled, and he was a different man: he sounded sober and was all performer. I gave him a short but flattering introduction that I had memorized, mentioning that I was an English professor and that Vidal’s real name was Eugene Luther Gore Vidal. He quickly ripped into me for bringing up what he archly called “my Christian name,” adding that, unlike our born-again president, Jimmy Carter, he, Vidal, was a born-again atheist. …

Vidal was animated and electrified, palpably alive as he proceeded to skewer his favorite targets – The New York Times, Republicans, corporations, Reagan, Nixon, President Jimmy Carter.  Some of it was clever stuff, refined and caustic humor that I might have enjoyed were it not for the anti-Semitic cracks and the invective against English profs. …

As the interview moved into politics and I asked Vidal about his social concerns, another self emerged.  Vidal was suddenly benign, casting himself in the role of munificent socialist.  When the interview ended and the cameras were off, he once again became world-weary, cold and aloof, the man I had met before the interview, as sterile as I’d found his apocalyptic novel Kalki.”

Ah, I remember it well.  The weltschmerz, the condescension, the weight-of-the-world sighs, as he gazed outside the window of the taxi as we tooled through Ann Arbor to his speaking engagement (though he was thoroughly sober, to my knowledge).  I was, of course, thoroughly intimidated, in a way no prep would have alleviated, anyway.  Then, at the theater on campus, he spoke to a crowd of what appeared to be mostly well-heeled, well-dressed Republican women, and managed to offend them all in the course of 45 minutes.

Finally, during a question-and-answer period, with written questions submitted from the audience on tiny bits of paper, someone let him have it: he was conceited, overbearing, a snob with an ax to grind… well, you get the picture.  So did he.

“That’s right,” he admitted. “I only go out into the world to have all my biases and prejudices confirmed.”

“That’s what makes me different from all of you!”

It was a good line.  Even the Republican women laughed.

Martin Amis: “It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

Saturday, May 19th, 2012
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Medical science has a lot to answer for. (Creative Commons)

“As you get older – and this has to be faced – most writers go off,” Martin Amis said.  “I lay the blame at the feet of medical science.”

He was not (to start again), what one had expected.

Amis came to town, and was slight, and witty, and dry, and thoroughly serious despite his zingers.  He was not the ferocious, controversial hurricane – he was quiet and scholarly. And he was preoccupied by age.

Amis put it this way in his most recent novel, Pregnant Widow:

Your hams get skinnier—but that’s all right, because your gut gets fatter…. Shrill or sudden noises are getting painfully sharper—but that’s all right, because you’re getting deafer. The hair on your head gets thinner—but that’s all right, because the hair in your nose and in your ears gets thicker. It all works out in the end.

He cited W.B. Yeats: “Now I may wither into the truth.”

Although occasionally withering, he was far from withered.  As for his way of making a living, “What could be more agreeable?” he asked.  Non-fiction, compared with fiction, is a chore: it makes him start the day with “heavy tread and heavy heart.”

Fiction isn't faster. (Photo: Mae Ryan)

Salman Rushdie told him that he writes essays at twice the speed of fiction – “I find that, too,” he agreed. “All creative stuff comes from the spine and up through the head.”

“What a lyric poem does is stop the clock.”  Oddly, he did a similar trick with his acclaimed Time’s Arrow (1991),  a book that describes the Holocaust, backwards.

In a puzzling move, Amis began the evening with recounting long lists of Nazi atrocities – a return to Time’s Arrow.  The subject matter is timeless, he said, and defies “that greasy little word – closure.”  (Fine.  About time someone took that cliché down.) “Rule Number One:  Nobody gets over anything.  It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

What’s fiction’s verboten subject?  Sex.  “It’s too tied up with the author’s quiddity,” he said, although he’s famous for writing about … sex.  What else?  Religion. “You have to write around religion, although there’s nothing more fascinating, in a way.”

“Writing about religious people is something else a novel cannot do,” he said because you’re taking on all sorts of inherited preconceptions, he said. “It’s not just clichés of the pen,” such as “‘bitterly cold,’” he said, but those of the heart as well.  In novels, “a great clattering tea trolley comes in, and it’s religion.”

Off the hook.

Paradise Lost?  That’s poetry. “But fiction is a rational form.  To be universal, it has to be rational.” (I wanted to shout, “What about Father Zossima?” but restrained myself.)

Questions from the audience inevitably discussed his buddy Christopher Hitchens, who had the peculiar habit of referring to himself in the third person – “not usually consonant with sound mental health.” An example: at the first sign of injustice, he was wont to say, “the pen of the Hitch will flash from its scabbard.”

Another question: what is Amis reading?  “What I am not reading is 25-year-old novelists.”

But his finest, and perhaps most unexpected moment, occurred when a man asked why he was turning to events of half-a-century ago to furnish his novels.  The question had a slightly belligerent edge – or did we imagine it?  In any case, a suppressed collective gasp rippled over the crowd.  But Amis, much to his credit, took the question at face value, and answered it earnestly, and utterly without snark.

“It’s not that you are desperately searching for a subject.  It isn’t the idle selection of a subject – it chooses you,” he said. “My whole body is involved.”

Taking apart Theodor Adorno‘s famous dictum that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Amis responded, “Actually, there was poetry during Auschwitz,” he said.  John and Mary Felstiner would have agreed – and were probably somewhere in the audience.  Paul Célan comes to mind, but so do many others.

Whither the novel? “There’s been a qualitative change in fiction in the past generation.”  It’s the end of the meditative novel, he said.  “Forward motion is paramount now.” The future novel will be “more and more streamlined, and aerodynamic, and plot-driven and character-driven.”

All this thanks to “the acceleration of history and the diminishing attention span.”

Auden in the footlights: “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead”

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012
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Julian Fleisher as George Davis, Kristen Sieh as Carson McCullers, Stephanie Hayes as Erika Mann, and Erik Lochtefeld as W.H. Auden (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I’m a fan of New York City’s Public Theater, so I was especially cheered to read about its new world première musical February House this month.  How could one not be chuffed about a play that focuses on W.H. Audens house at 7 Middagh Street, and the miscellany of writers, composers, and artists it attracted for housemates?

I read about the production not in a New York paper – at least not initially – but rather in Jim Holt‘s charming post in the London Review of Books blog:

As a young man

Besides Auden, who lived on the top floor, the tenants were Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, and – most improbably of all – Gypsy Rose Lee, who at the time was busy writing a mystery called The G-String Murders. Other occasional residents included Paul and Jane Bowles, Louis MacNeice, Richard Wright (who lived with his wife and child in the basement), and Golo Mann (who holed up in the attic). It was Anaïs Nin, a frequent visitor, who named it ‘February House’, because so many of the residents, including Auden, had birthdays in February. … Other than that, however, they seem to have had little in common except a commitment to their art and to not ever being bored. Cocaine is snorted in “February House”; bedbugs are extravagantly shuddered over; a good deal of whiskey is poured.

The LRB piece dwells on Auden’s mysterious connection with the number 7 and his grubby living habits throughout his life.  In a later residence, writes Holt, “So squalid was everything in the dusty, cold and bottle-strewn loft that [Igor] Stravinsky later told Edmund Wilson that Auden was ‘the dirtiest man I have ever liked’.”

Wish I could be in New York City to see the production (music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane, based on a book by Seth Bockley.) I’ll have to settle for Dwight Garner‘s description in the New York Times:

They had both.

Sparks fly early and often. When Auden pretentiously blurts to McCullers that “I am a thinking-sensation artist in the Jungian sense, whereas you are clearly a feeling-intuitive type,” she takes out a flask, eyeballs him as if were a space alien, and says: “Uh huh. Gin?”

Auden seemed to enjoy McCullers’s impudence. He is, after all, the man who said, “Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”

Auden and McCullers are a pure and defiant literary odd couple. Both stoke your imagination in February House, in part because of their youth, in part because both wrestle with where their obligations to art end and their obligations to politics begin. They are increasingly obsessed with what Lionel Trilling, in “The Liberal Imagination,” called “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.”

One quibble though, the NYT piece refers to “something once said about Pauline Kael and The New Yorker magazine: She gave it sex, and it gave her class.” The comment (as his hyperlink hints) was said about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (using him and he rather than it) – and it was famously said by Katherine Hepburn.

His closing quote, however, is undisputed Auden: “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.”