Archive for June, 2012

Orwell Watch #21: No, Rush Limbaugh, you are not “literally sick” over SCOTUS

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

No! He's in the best of health.

Politics, as George Orwell observed, does not bring out the best in us, and certainly not in our use of language.

I try not to go after low-hanging fruit as a general rule, but last week’s ruling on Obamacare seemed to have brought out the worst in everyone.

In this week’s headlines, Rush Limbaugh says he is “literally sick over this Obamacare travesty.” I had heard that he had heart problems before, so naturally I rushed to his website to see if he was in hospital again, all because of the Supreme Court ruling.  I found this instead: “And I can’t tell you how sick I am. I am literally sick over what happened yesterday. I don’t know how else to describe it. Literally sick.”  Then he goes on to explain his political concerns.

No, Rush Limbaugh, you are not literally sick.  You are figuratively sick, at best.  Unless you present me with the tab from the team of paramedics or at least a bill from the pharmacy, I am forced to believe you do not know your Mother Tongue.

The evidence mounts.  A quick search showed that a  few days earlier he said this:  “I don’t believe what is happening in this country. I literally can’t believe it.”  Since not believing what is happening in this country is not a figure of speech or a metaphor, there is surely no figurative meaning to define oneself “literally against.”  Or how about this:  “And it created in me this impression of helpless waifs who literally were screaming with their mouths open unable to do anything” – since the impression is strictly in his own head, literal has no meaning at all.  It is all air, imagination.

Sorry. No!

This abuse, of course, is not limited to Rush Limbaugh. We are coming late and reluctantly to this particular train.  There’s even a website called “Literally Unbelievable: Stories from The Onion as Interpreted by Facebook.”  I searched in vain for evidence that the website had created this title tongue-in-cheek.  Alas, in vain!

As H.W. Fowler writes (while taking the word to task for other sins): “Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.”

My agonies were far from over. No, no, Hillary, not you, too!  Here’s what Hillary Clinton said when she heard about the same ruling: “You know, I haven’t had the chance to read the decision. I literally just heard as we landed that the Supreme Court has upheld the health care law. Obviously I want to get into the details, but I’m very pleased. That’s how I hoped it would turn out.”

She literally heard?  “Just got off the plane,” I suppose, could be considered a figure of speech, though it would be a bit of a stretch.  But hearing is not a figure of speech.  We cannot even give this a reluctant pass.



Junot Díaz on white supremacy, apocalypse, and the word that “could have saved him”

Friday, June 29th, 2012

“White supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that it exists always in other people, never in us.”

I did a Memorial Day weekend blog post on Junot Díaz‘s recent talk at Stanford here.  Apparently he jettisoned his plans for a reading that afternoon to make his impromptu and provocative remarks.  Or, as he put it then: “Guess what?  No fucking lecture.”


Paula Moya, an old chum from Cornell grad student days, was his interlocutor for a 2-part Boston Review interview that occurred after the two-day symposium on Díaz’s works.  He expanded on some of the ideas he touched on last May:

How can you change something if you won’t even acknowledge its existence, or if you downplay its significance? White supremacy is the great silence of our world, and in it is embedded much of what ails us as a planet. The silence around white supremacy is like the silence around Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, or the Voldemort name which must never be uttered in the Harry Potter novels. And yet here’s the rub: if a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction. There’s that old saying: the devil’s greatest trick is that he convinced people that he doesn’t exist.

I loved  Díaz’s Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008.  But I was admittedly puzzled by the narrator Yunior, a figure who emerges in other of Díaz’s works.  The author spent some interview time explaining him:

Yunior, for example, uses the “n word” all the time and yet he is haunted by anti-black racism within and without his community. Haunted and wounded.  In Drown as a whole, the million-dollar question is this: are Yunior’s gender politics, his generalizations and misogyny, rewarded in the book’s ‘reality’? Do they get him anything in the end? Well, if we chart the progress of the stories in Drown it appears to me that Yunior’s ideas about women, and the actions that arise out of these ideas, always leave him more alone, more thwarted, more disconnected from his community and from himself.

 Though the “Part 1” of this interview is getting lots of buzz on Twitter, I rather liked the “Part 2” that explored this character more deeply – an alter ego, perhaps?

For me, the family fukú is rape. The rape culture of the European colonization of the New World—which becomes the rape culture of the Trujillato (Trujillo just took that very old record and remixed it)—is the rape culture that stops the family from achieving decolonial intimacy, from achieving decolonial love.

Yunior, in this context, is a curious figure. He’s clearly the book’s most salient proponent of the masculine derangements that are tied up to the rape culture  … he is its biggest proponent and its biggest “beneficiary.” He’s most clearly one of Trujillo’s children—yet he, too, is a victim of this culture. A victim in the lower-case sense because his failure to disavow his privileged position in that rape culture, to disavow the masculine discourse and behaviors that support and extend that culture, end up costing him the love of his life, his one best chance at decolonial love and, through that love, a decolonial self. But Yunior’s a victim in a larger, second sense: I always wrote Yunior as being a survivor of sexual abuse. He has been raped, too. The hint of this sexual abuse is something that’s present in Drown and it is one of the great silences in Oscar Wao. This is what Yunior can’t admit, his very own página en blanco. So, when he has that line in the novel: “I’d finally try to say the words that could have saved us. / __________ __________ __________,” what he couldn’t say to Lola was that “I too have been molested.” He could bear witness to everyone else’s deep pains but, in the end, he couldn’t bear witness to his own sexual abuse. He couldn’t tell the story that would have tied him in a human way to Lola, that indeed could have saved him.

At about the same time as his Stanford talk, Díaz’s story “Monstro” appeared in the New Yorker’s science fiction issue.  It’s a preview of his next novel. He talked about it with Paula:

Of course. Monstro is an apocalyptic story. An end of the world story set in the DR [Dominican Republic] of the near future. It’s a zombie story. (On that island, how could it not be?) It’s an alien invasion story. It’s a giant monster story. It’s about the Great Powers (China, the United States) attempting to contain the growing infestation by re-invading the Island for, what, the twelfth time? I always say if people on my island know about anything they know about the end of the world. We are after all the eschaton that divided the Old World from the New. The whole reason I started writing this book is because of this image I have of this fourteen-year-old girl, a poor, black, Dominican girl, half-Haitian—one of the Island’s damnés—saving the world. It’s a book is about this girl’s search for—yes—love in a world that has made it its solemn duty to guarantee that poor raced “conventionally unattractive” girls like her are never loved.

The interview is getting a lot of buzz. Read the whole thing here.


Translation, Book Expo America, and le bruit du temps…

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

The publisher...

Some of you may recall my visit to the innovative Parisian publishing house of Le Bruit du Temps and it’s founder, Antoine Jaccottet, during my recent visit to Paris, during the cold, cold, cold snap of last February. I also spoke at the American University in Paris, and visited friend and colleague Daniel Medin.

Here’s a podcast that entwines them both:  Daniel interviews Antoine Jaccottet at “That Other Word,” a series of podcasts on literature and translation, the result of a collaboration between the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and San Francisco’s Center for the Art of Translation.

...and his admirer

Said Daniel:  “It surprised me to learn that it was a small press in France doing the complete works of Zbigniew Herbert … that it was a small press in France doing the completeIsaac Babel, a volume even larger than the [Peter] Constantine one that appeared a decade ago in English , and that it was a small French press discovering books like the Julius Margolin‘s gulag memoir, and bringing them to life.  And I wanted to meet this editor, because of the interesting books he was selecting, because of the variety.”  Now you will have a chance to meet him, too.

But first, you’ll get Daniel’s quick overview of this month’s Book Expo America in New York City, where “Russia was the country of honor this year,” he said. He and Scott Esposito discuss a range of contemporary authors and books, including Mikhail Shishkin‘s Maidenhair, which will appear in English this October; Polish author Marek Bieńczyk’s Transparency;  Julius Margolin’s gulag memoir, Voyage au pays des Ze-Ka; and Dalkey Archive Press’ Contemporary Georgian Fiction.  

Their interests do not lie entirely east of the Vienna: they also discuss Éric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times and his Demolishing Nisard.

Then, on to Antoine Jacottet.  On the perils of translation, the French publisher said:  “You do well what you know a little. I worked myself as a translator. I might mention my father [Philippe Jaccottet] was – is still – a well known translator.  For me, it has always been very important to be attentive to the quality of translations. When we began the press, my idea was: if you are a very small press and if you want to publish works that you think are masterpieces, one way of doing it is to order a new translation, and then you have to find a good translator for it. It’s not always easy, but  I think it’s the part of my job that fascinates me most.”

The podcast is here.

Guess who is on Charlie Rose?

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Adam Johnson, author of the acclaimed The Orphan Master’s Son, made an appearance on Charlie Rose‘s show a few days ago. Here’s a snippet. You can view the whole interview here.

Who knew that Stalin was a lit critic?

Monday, June 25th, 2012

Everything you wanted to know and lots, lots more. (1902 photo)

Just can’t get enough of Jozef Stalin?  Yale University Press is putting lots more online.  Two decades ago, who would have thought that visitors to a public library could  pore over Stalin’s marginalia and notes? Thanks to an effort by the press and the Russian State Archive for Social and Political History,  Stalin’s personal archive has been digitized, including of thousands of documents, letters, and books. You can read about it here.

According to Vadim Staklo, who heads the project, the Stalin archives are the latest in a research and publishing program that has its roots in the Annals of Communism series that Yale started in the early ’90s, which has already unearthed rich material from the Communist Party archives. Said Staklo:

“The popular perception of Soviet leaders mainly comes from the movies – you know, sclerotic stodgy men with thick eyebrows and golden stars on the lapel,” says Staklo. “In real life however many early Bolshevik leaders were very active, lively unorthodox people from very different walks of life. Some were refined intellectuals, others came from humbler origins, some were good writers… and some knew how to draw. These are the images people drew in the margins during the long hours of party meetings. There are caricatures, and also satirical depictions of current events and issues. They went unseen for decades as most of the artists fell victim to repression. They’re not just pictures however – they tell a story about early Soviet politics and personal relations on the Bolshevik Olympus, and the problems they had to deal with on the daily basis.”

There was, for example, the man Lenin called “The Golden Boy of the Revolution” – Nikolai Bukharin.  We wrote about him here. He probably had lots of marginalia, too.  That might be why Stalin had him executed in 1938.

“The common perception is that Stalin was brutal, paranoiac and senseless. But if you read the notes he was making you can see that, yes he may have been brutal and paranoiac – but he was not stupid. For example, he was very keen on the arts as the most important vehicle for propaganda and he read every important play or screenplay offered by a theater or screenwriter. He read them carefully, and wrote long letters to the authors or producers with his comments. He also personally supervised and heavily revised the Short Course In The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was one of the most important books in the USSR, and you can see that it went through many drafts and that Stalin essentially rewrote the entire volume completely.”

One rather wishes, in fact, that he had been less attentive.  His interest in Osip Mandelstam and his poems – in particular, some verse ridiculing the Soviet chieftain – proved fatal.   (Mandelstam wrote that the words and influence of this “Kremlin crag-dweller” and “peasant-slayer” on literature were “leaden,” his “fat fingers … greasy as maggots.”)  Mandelstam died in a transit camp in the same momentous year that killed Bukharin – 1938.

In a recent interview with Chris Wiman, who recently published some “versions” of Mandelstam’s poems, the editor of Poetry Magazine was asked: “Was there a sense in which the horrors of the Stalinist era ‘made’ Mandelstam as a poet?”  Wiman replied:

Honestly, I don’t think so, though they certainly made that one poem. The horrors have made the legend of Mandelstam and are inevitably the lens through which we read his work and life. But if there had been no Stalin and no purge, Mandelstam still would have been a poet of severe emotional and existential extremity.

"The Sun!"

Then there’s this: Mandelstam was an artistic genius, the sort that any century produces only a handful of. If he hadn’t been driven mad and killed by Stalin, he might have managed to write something of Dantean proportions, that sort of huge unity and music. Dante, after all, was one of his literary gods: one of Mandelstam’s best pieces of prose is also one of the best essays on Dante ever written.

Joseph Brodsky would have agreed: ‘It’s an abominable fallacy that suffering makes for greater art. Suffering blinds, deafens, ruins, and often kills.  Osip Mandelstam was a great poet before the revolution. So was Anna Akhmatova, so was Marina Tsvetaeva. They would have become what they became even if none of the historical events that befell Russia in this century had taken place: because they were gifted.  Basically, talent doesn’t need history.”

In any case, Mandelstam had the last word after all.  Poets always do.

The ranks of human heads dwindle: they’re far away.
I vanish there, one more forgotten one.
But in loving words, in childrens’ play,
I shall rise again, to say – the Sun!

In praise of folly: fake kings and ripping tales

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Will the real King Sebastian please stand up?

In 1594, Gabriel de Espinosa arrived in Madrigal de las Altas Torres with his common-law wife and their little girl in hopes of setting up a more profitable pastry shop than the one he had left behind in Nava. Instead, he became the focus of a hare-brained escapade to present himself as King Sebastian of Portugal, who had been stabbed and shot to death in the denouement of the Battle of Alcazarquivir in Morocco, then left out into the sun until he was unrecognizable. Espinosa was one of a number of pretenders (so many that a word was coined to accommodate them – sebastianismo), but one of the most far-fetched.

He looked nothing like the dead king. Age and misfortune had left their marks, he and his handlers claimed. The plan was to chuck out Spain’s Philip II (that’s right, the same one who made overtures to his sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth of England), who had assumed the throne of Portugal after Sebastian died without heir. A large part of the plot involved sweet-talking the king’s lovely niece, Ana of Austria, who was a year or two short of professing her final vows as a nun, and getting her to plight her troth to him instead. What’s more astonishing, he succeeded.

This dizzying tale is told with insight and brio by Iberian scholar Ruth McKay in The Baker Who Pretended to Be King of Portugal (University of Chicago). As the Stanford-based author writes in her prologue: “The weather was terrible, the king was dying wars were going badly, and Spain’s fortunes were waning.  So it was a time for grasping at straws.  When the world appears to be collapsing, people cling to whatever they have at hand, to whatever seems likeliest to help. … This story of a false Sebastian has a great deal to teach us about news and politics and about how people manage to live among forces they might not understand.”

Her graceful, intelligent prose continues:

“Though I may at times give in to temptation and paint this conspiracy and its actors in comic tones, I want to make clear that I do not consider these people amusing.  The story of the pastelero has been told for centuries as a curiosity; it has been held up as an example of the exoticism and credulity of the past, something to make tourists and readers see history as entertainment.  In my view, the characters in the story display fearless imaginations, they rise to conceptual, political, and physical challenges we cannot conceive of, and they are very, very serious.  They should be taken on their own terms, not as simple curiosities or curious simplifications.  Their choices, even those choices punished by death, reveal what they thought was right or possible, and their descriptions and memories were a way of stating opinions.”

I’ve known Ruth for upwards of five years now.  But I didn’t know what a ripping tale she could tell, in scholarly fashion.  I hadn’t read her previous books, “Lazy, Improvident People”: Myth and Reality in the Writing of Spanish History and The Limits of Royal Authority: Resistance and Obedience in Seventeenth-Century Castile. Problem is, this impressive work is likely to get overlooked.

Perhaps I didn’t look in the right places, but I only found one review, and it was gratifyingly glowing.  From Felipe Fernández-Armesto‘s review in the Times Higher Education Supplement:

“Of the many fictional retellings of Gabriel’s story, [Jose] Zorrilla‘s is the best. Ruth MacKay has now given us a factual account that rivals it for sensitivity and artistry. Instead of focusing on the hackneyed ‘mystery’ of Gabriel’s identity, she headlines the far more puzzling problem of his credibility. … The case in favour of his claims was always absurd – based on the allegation that he possessed more Holland linen than a commonplace baker, or that his gait and bearing were regal, or that he was suspiciously skilful in riding, fencing and foreign languages (except, with calculated effects on his own air of mystery, Portuguese). But he had charisma or perhaps wizardry – even his pastries, according to one customer, cast a spell. …

With deft writing and lightly borne scholarship, MacKay makes the imbroglio intelligible in historical context: the restiveness of Philip II‘s subjects in the 1590s, when the king’s imperial project seemed to be unravelling at excessive cost to taxpayers, and the surprising mobility of Iberian society, in which people of every class could move unrestrainedly around the country, and disguise and self-reinvention were routine means of self-liberation.”

Do yourself a favor.  Read it.


Ken Fields, 113 crickets, and “the sound of life”

Friday, June 22nd, 2012


“Digital humanities,” of course, is the buzzword du jour here in Silicon Valley – but that’s hardly the only drive to blend high-tech and the non-tech.  The brand-new quarterly journal 113 Crickets offers a new take on combining books and bytes. It attempts to “promote connections between the disciplines of technology and literature through the publication of both technology-orientated books and works of fiction.”  The journal is part of Hillary Johnson‘s “genre-agnostic” publishing venture called “Dymaxicon” (dynamic + maximum + content), explained in the Huffington Post here. The journal is hoping to build a relationship with the Stanford Creative Writing program in its subsequent issues.

113 Crickets came into my hands via poet Ken Fields, during a long lunch on the patio of the Faculty Club.  He handed the spring issue to me.  “The Stanford connection is me,” he said.  The editor of 113 Crickets is  Ken’s friend, Tobias Mayer. Here’s another connection:  Ken has some poems in the debut issue.  Five poems in the series “West of Amherst” conjure the shade of Emily Dickinson.  He saved the best for last, though.  The excellent “Meditation,” stands alone and is the final work in the volume, dedicated to the Franco family, in memory of Doug Franco.

“Doug Franco took several classes from me when I first started teaching.  A math major, he was interested in poetry and painting.  He remained in Palo Alto as a business man, with a strong sense of community.  He, his wife Betsy, and three sons, one of whom is the actor James Franco, are all artistic,” Ken wrote to me later.  “I saw Doug often, and his wife Betsy, a writer, sat in on a couple of my classes.  Doug was a memorable man who died this year, far too young.”

Here’s the poem:


for the Franco family

Breathe in. Breathe out. This is the sound of life –
Music and sex, the cry we enter with,
The sigh as we leave.  We are a swinging door
Through which the wind blows, even in sleep.
Hum it, and cherish it, and let it go,
Syllable floating on the empty deep.

In Memory of Doug Franco

Lionel Asbo, at last

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Another review from the Times Literary Supplement – however, unlike yesterday’s review of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, this one is online and not behind a paywall.  You can read it here.

We’ve written about Martin Amis and his recent visit to Stanford here and here and here, and that round of talks has piqued my interest in the British novelist – the only thing I had read by him prior to this year is  a short, business-like letter he sent me when he was the literary editor of the New Statesman in the late 1970s (like everything else, it is somewhere in my garage).  I’ve been waiting for reviews of the British edition of the book.  I wasn’t disappointed with the TLS review by  Jonathan Barnes, author of The Somnambulist and The Domino Men.

TLS staffer David Horspool writes, in his introduction to this week’s edition (it hasn’t arrived in American mailboxes yet): “In reviewing the new novel by Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo, Jonathan Barnes introduces us to a character few would want to live next to, either before his National Lottery win, in the ‘knowingly Dickensian’ London borough of ‘Diston’, or in the shallow glamour-world he occupies afterwards. Lionel, Barnes concludes, ‘squats in a line of descent from [other] monstrous slobs’ created by Amis, from Keith Talent to John Self.”

Let me finish with Barnes own words about Amis’s novel:

Expert, finely wrought and unique (as Philip Hensher has noted, “no page of his could be mistaken for anyone else’s”), Amis’s style is so dear to him that he is unwilling to discard it even for a paragraph or a sentence, as if he cannot bear to adopt a mask of any sort.

Unless, of course, his high style is itself the mask that Amis wears – has always worn. Style is the means by which he filters and interprets the world, its traumas and most savage extremes. It often seems as if the application of that remarkable prose helps him to make sense of disaster, even perhaps to feel safe. It is suggestive that his style grows still grander, and the register still higher, when it is applied to those things which are most painful to him. In his memoir, Experience, while waiting to meet his hitherto unknown daughter for the first time in the Hotel Rembrandt, he fusses over the establishment’s name: “A potent name and a challenging spirit, for students of the human face; and very soon two human faces would be opposed, as in a mirror, each addressing the other with unprecedented curiosity”. Describing Frederick West, he produces the following “one-sentence verdict”: “West was a sordid inadequate who was trained by his childhood to addict himself to the moment when impotence became prepotence”. In a piece on 9/11 written in the immediate aftermath of the event he imagines the second plane in the attack first as “eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien” and then as “the worldflash of a coming future”.

His style, perhaps, has always been a shield, a necessary means of protection from a judgemental world, the residents of which seem, no doubt incorrectly, to believe that they know him personally. This most famous quality of Amis’s writing may exist chiefly to provide a carapace for that “pinned and wriggling” soul. That it should also turn out to be so startling, so distinctive and so persistently impressive can be considered a magnificent side effect.


TLS praises Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

More praise for Adam Johnson‘s The Orphan Master’s Son, which we wrote about here and here and here and here.  This time the kudos are from Kelly Falconer, the literary editor of the Asia Literary Review.  She is also a former Korean linguist who served in the U.S. military as a Korean cryptologic analyst. The review is in the June 15 Times Literary Supplement, which landed in my Stanford mailbox today.

Most of the review recounts the storyline of the shapeshifting hero, Jun Do.  Falconer concludes:

Author, author! (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In Korean, jun do is a homonym and Jun Do himself embodies all of its various meanings, including topsy-turviness, as befits Alice in Wonderland absurdity of life in North Korea; a transmitter, of images and the truth, revealed with the “simplest answer”; a leader, unwittingly or not; inversion, as he takes on the identity of Commander Ga and also changes Ga into someone who is good; an advance on payment and someone who will have great difficulties, for Jun Do is fated to pay in advance for something he will gain later – freedom.

Adam Johnson … visited North Korea in 2007 as part of his research for the book, which is infused with subtly elided allusions both biblical and literary.  But he is never high-handed; instead, his assured sense of playfulness tricks readers into letting down their guard and unexpectedly taking in the most shocking details that increase the intensity of the tale.  Johnson’s deft hand gives us an accomplished, strangely entertaining and thoughtful insight into the oppressive, brutal and otherwise opaque regime in North Korea, where to see is not always to believe.

It’s always a pleasure to repeat any praise of Adam.  He is a warm and quirky and wonderful man.


Haboob haiku for traffic safety: “I will brake for you”

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas, in 1935

World turns brown with dust
can’t see red taillights ahead
until – oh crap! Oops.

Doesn’t quite have the rhythm of the thing, does it?  Try this one, on a more lovelorn note:

I don’t yet know you –
Curious but fearful, haboob –
I will break for you

I guess it works if you somehow count “curious” as two syllables.  Otherwise, this one’s a 5-8-5.  And shouldn’t that be … brake?

Perhaps we’re winding down from the seriousness of  Sir Geoffrey Hill‘s 80th birthday yesterday with the silliness of this.  But we covered Koko the Gorilla‘s poetry contest, and haikumania – this seems like a logical follow-up.  Dust storm poetry – or haboob poetry, if you want to get exotic about it.

Dust storms are a driving hazard.  So, according to CNN, the Arizona Department of Transportation invited one and all  to take to Twitter (@ArizonaDOT) and write haikus – perhaps the most popular verse form in the history of the world.  It’s even jumped species.

“The challenge … is really designed to raise awareness that this is a problem and that drivers shouldn’t expect to sail through a dust storm,” Department spokesman Timothy Tait told Reuters.

You’re supposed to slow down and pull to the side of the road.  And while you’re off to the side, you might try composing a little haiku on your smartphone.  Post it at this Twitter hashtag:  #haikuchallenge

“There’s no cash prizes, but we are offering bragging rights,” said Tait.

People are still tweeting on the hashtag, although the official haboob haiku campaign wound up last weekend. Mother Nature applauded the effort with this on Saturday: