Archive for December, 2012

Moscow’s 800th birthday party in 1947: Robert Capa captures a poignant moment

Monday, December 31st, 2012
Share

Women “celebrating” in Moscow 1947.

Slavic scholar Grisha Freidin is a child of Moscow – he and his family emigrated to the U.S. when he was teenager.  So that means he recalls the city’s 800th birthday party on September 7, 1947.  “I remember playing with the colorful commemorative insignia (few things were colorful then) and hearing my parents, probably in answer to my questions, refer to the celebrations with uncharacteristic ebullience. Clearly it was a major landmark of the post-war years in Stalin’s Russia.”

The era’s most famous war photographer, Robert Capa, was on hand to document the event with John Steinbeck – and add a little nuance to the official party line of a a people looking inexorably forward to a glorious future.  Grisha looked up Capa’s photos, and has a compelling essay over at his blog, The Noise of Time:

And yet, whatever the restrictions, this war photographer was able to convey the atmosphere of the 1947 Moscow. Indeed, many images are composed to give expression to the wrenching tension between the ordinary folks’ desire to cash in a little of that great WWII victory – to ease gently into the long-deferred private life – and the unspoken command shouting at them from every poster: “Attention! To the Glory of the Empire, March!”

Capa’s and Steinbeck’s work were serialized in The New York Herald Tribune, later published as A Russian Journal, with Photographs by Robert Capa, a book which is still in print.  I’m not sure even Steinbeck could top Grisha’s observations on the photograph above.  From his blog:

Muscovite Grisha

The woman facing the camera is wearing a thick shawl and a heavy coat, the other is in a light dress, epitomizing the two sides of the Russian “Indian summer” and, perhaps also, the desire to use hope to trump the cold reality, for “it was a brilliant cold day,” as Steinbeck noted in his Journal. Both women are young and beautiful and strikingly dignified. But their faces suggest a more complicated story. The furrowed brow, the lines around the mouth, the alarm in the eyes of the woman facing the camera – what is behind them? And what about her dancing partner? Alone in the frame in a white flowery dress, her hair beautifully arranged, but her gaze is fixed on a point in infinity and her  profile is frozen into a classical tragic mask. Her right arm, bare and vulnerable, is gracefully stretched out, and the slight curve of her back is protected by the hand of her partner, apparently, stronger and more practically dressed. The tension is palpable. Were the music to stop at that moment, one of them and perhaps both would hunch over and burst out crying. To make sure your are not imagining all of this emotional dynamite, you check their expressions and posture against the other two female couples in the background: they, too, look tentative, dispirited, and forlorn, though lacking in grace and dignity compared to the couple in the foreground. The out-of-focus smiling faces to the right of the dancers only amplify the grotesque contrast between the intended mood of the festivities and the pain of the city’s post-war life. So much sadness fills this instant captured by Capa that it can never be effaced or redeemed.

Read the rest of Grisha’s post, which includes a dicussion of Henri Cartier-Bresson‘s photos of the city a few years later, is here.

“So much sadness … can never be effaced or redeemed.”

How the French invented love: Renate Stendhal weighs in

Friday, December 28th, 2012
Share

Renate Stendhal takes a long, thoughtful look at Marilyn Yalom‘s How the French Invented Love over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. (The Book Haven discussed Marilyn’s new book earlier here.)

Ms. Stendhal writes:

“Did the French invent love? Or would it be more true to say that love is endlessly reinvented every moment, in every culture, every epoch? What the French did is what Arabian and Persian cultures had done before them: invite the beastly, sexual part of human nature into culture. The French cultured and cultivated love from the Middle Ages onward until it became l’amour à la française — a reason for national pride. The clichés of French sexiness, French charm, French people’s ease about their own and their presidents’ affairs are hard to dispute; they go together with the well known sensuous importance in France of food and flirtation, verbal brilliance and fashion. There has been a recent flurry of books by Americans attempting to decode the better sex lives of the French and the enduring mystery of French women. (Among them, What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind; Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide for Finding Her Inner French Girl; All You Need to Be Impossibly French: A Witty Investigation into the Lives, and Little Secrets of French Women; French Women Don’t Sleep Alone; The Skinny, Sexy Mind: The Ultimate French Secret; and La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life.) Marilyn Yalom’s new study, How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance, reaches beyond the stereotypes by focusing on literature, making an erudite, elegant, and charming case for France’s love ‘invention.’”

I’m not sure that the idea that the French are the world experts in love isn’t itself a kind of invention.  It often goes at odds with my own observations of my French friends.  The sting of betrayal and the ugliness of lies hurt them just as much, and there, as everywhere, families are rent by the suppressed hostilities and the unspoken tensions.  (Look at all the lives that get ripped apart in Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, for pity sake!)  Maybe the idea that somewhere, somehow, sex doesn’t carry psychological price tags is one of our most pervasive myths. But that may be a minority opinion.

Marilyn certainly knows her stuff, whether giving her own opinion on Dominique Strauss-Kahn or then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, who made the unfortunate comment that it was ridiculous for civil service exams to include questions about the 1678 classic La Princesse de Clèves: “As president Sarkozy’s popularity declined among the French, sales of La Princesse de Clèves soared,” Marilyn Yalom observed.  As Stendhal writes, “Yalom’s literary examples of French passion and naughtiness are told in a relaxed, conversational tone that mixes her analyses of books and history with anecdotes about her own experience living and teaching in France.”

The relaxed, conversational tone – bien sûr!  Check out the LARB review here.

A tale of two cities: Newtown and Toulouse

Thursday, December 27th, 2012
Share

A city that dates back to the 8th century B.C. (Photo: Camille Harang)

On my last night in the village of Lagrasse, my Calcutta companion and his two friends were all on their computers, trying to find a way for me to get to London more expeditiously than winding the long way back to Avignon, then Paris, then the chunnel to London with a combination of trains, cars, and taxis.  We had almost given up when we found a cheap flight from Toulouse to Heathrow – saving me a little money and a lot of time.

Cécile Alduy

It was a city I was barely aware of.  So it is strange to have it come to my notice twice today, a few weeks since my brief visit there. First occasion: I read Janet Lewis‘s The Wife of Martin Guerre, in which that ancient city plays a pivotal role. Second occasion:  Cécile Alduy tweeted me about her New Yorker article today, “Two Schools: Newtown and Toulouse.”

She wrote:

In France, where I was visiting my family for an early-winter break with my four-year-old daughter, the reaction to the Newtown school shooting was one of horror and of bewilderment—“Incomprehensible,” “unbelievable,” “unthinkable,” or, more often, dingue(crazy). Disbelief altered the faces of Parisians usually known for their urban cool. In spite of the biting cold and urgent plans for Christmas shopping, they could be seen, haggard, reading the headlines in the green kiosks of the street newsstands over and over again, or staring at the news channel in cafés that normally cater to soccer fans. When they learned that I’ve lived in California for close to ten years, they’d ask me, “Why? Why?” … The answer, that the American Constitution appears to guarantee a right to bear arms and that no politician is ready to take on the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun lobbies, was met by an uneasy silence. And then this, whispered, looking away: “How can you put your daughter in a preschool in San Francisco and sleep at night?”

Yet, she points out, “French schools are not immune from deadly madness.” Last March, “Mohamed Merah, a self-proclaimed jihadist on an American no-fly list, erupted at the Ozar Hatora Jewish School in Toulouse at 8 A.M., a camera affixed to his belt, and started to fire indiscriminately at the playground with an automatic pistol.”

Sandy Hook Memorial in Newtown (Photo: VOA)

She compares the two cities, the two nations, and their attitudes and their laws regarding guns and violence.  Read the rest of it here.  Merah, she said, is a terrorist “in the legal sense of the term,” she writes.  But Adam Lanza?  He, too, spread terror, “though the meaning of his action will remain forever sealed.”  As someone said to me, perhaps it has no meaning, and in a nihilistic age, that is its meaning.

Like every other issue in this country, gun control in the wake of the massacre quickly became a polarized tit-for-tat, with blame, snark, threats, grandstanding, and name-calling, all resulting in skyrocketing gun sales.

There was a moment when everyone, even the NRA, realized that something had to be done.  I hope that moment hasn’t passed, because I don’t think this is the sort of issue that can be resolved by one side running over the other and shoving something down the opposition’s throat (Cory Booker on the “false debate” here).  We’ll need everyone onboard, together, to address this as a nation.

Scholarly penny jar helps young authors get published

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012
Share

As the years pass on, royalties diminish for most titles, unless the books are made into movies, which is rarely the case in academic publishing.  Here’s one thoughtful press’ idea on how to put the “long-tail” checks to good use:

It’s Christmas. On street corners, seasonal Santas ask for small change and hardscrabble charities ask for contributions to their penny jars – because every little bit makes a difference.

The same is true for university presses. Everyone knows it’s a hard time in the publishing industry, but among the hardest hit have been young, unpublished scholars looking to make their mark in the world.

“It’s easy to get published when you’re a senior scholar with a track record. When you don’t have tenure, it’s harder for you to persuade a publisher to take you on,” said Alan Harvey, the director of the Stanford University Press.

This fall, Stanford Press developed its own solution with an Authors Fund. How it works: authors published by the Stanford Press – whether they are employed at Stanford or elsewhere in the academic world – donate some or all of the royalties from their books to help cover the publishing costs of books written by their junior colleagues.

Although the program is only a few months old, about 50 authors have already assigned all their royalties to the fund. Harvey said the first offer came within minutes of the initial email.

Never was it more needed.  The plight for young authors is worsening: “It’s getting more and more difficult because, while publishing first-time authors is part of our core mission, we’re expected to operate as a business, so we’ve got to look very carefully at any project with a high level of financial uncertainty,” said Harvey.

“Traditional sales channels are slowly closing up – for example, libraries don’t automatically buy these books anymore.  Yet publishing books is still part of the requirement for tenure and promotion. We’re caught somewhere in the middle: we are committed to the part we play in the tenure and promotion process – but at the same time we have to live sustainably.”

The Press has had a long history of supporting first-time authors; about 10-15 percent of its lists are first-time authors. “It’s higher, definitely higher, than most university presses,” Harvey said.  This labor has borne high-quality fruit:  The list of first-time authors published by Stanford Press includes a number of senior members of the Stanford community, such as historians Gordon Chang, Paul Seaver and Steve Zipperstein.

Donations to the Authors Fund may be small – the equivalent of a scholarly penny jar. As published books move into the “long tail” of sales, royalties dwindle and can become more of an administrative burden for authors than a revenue source. The Authors Fund offers authors the option of saving on paperwork while at the same time benefiting the scholarly community.

“The total to date is modest, but it is slowly increasing,” Harvey said. “The point is, it really does make a difference.” For example, even one or two thousand dollars can have an impact on whether a book is published in hardcover or paperback, on the size of the print run or on the list price.

Harvey’s clever solution to new problem (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Moreover, donated royalties continue into the future. “If it supports two books this year, it could well support two books next year – maybe even four books” said Harvey.

“If everyone who made $50 or less (per year) donated their royalties, we’d wind up getting enough to make a real difference.”

Harvey said he would “hesitate to call the Authors Fund entirely unique, given the wide range of fundraising activities among university presses.” But using donated royalties as a penny jar to underwrite new authors is definitely a unique twist for a 21st-century problem.

 

Enjoy Les Misérables. But please get the history straight.

Monday, December 24th, 2012
Share

A marvelous little church with a story to tell. (Photo: Nichole Robertson)

It’s Christmas Eve.  The world awaits in joyful expectation the coming of… Les Misérables in a theater near you.

Evocations of the 16th century (Photo: Nichole Robertson)

But please, do me a big favor, in the spirit of the season.  Please don’t say this film is about the French Revolution.  Many of us have repeatedly corrected the media, Huffington Post included, for this oft-repeated gaffe.  No surprise, perhaps, since even Director Tom Hooper seems a little dim about French history.

So let me help everyone sort this out.  The French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789.  The principal events of Les Misérables take place in 1832. Different century. The July Revolution two years earlier had put the Orléanist monarchy on the throne, under the popular “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe.  Popular for awhile, that is.  Despite his unpretentious manners and a character that Les Miz author Victor Hugo commended as “good” and “admirable,” the income gap widened and the conditions of the working class deteriorated.  By the spring of 1832, a deadly cholera epidemic had exacerbated a severe economic crisis.

His death pulled the trigger.

In the early morning hours of June 5, crowds of workers, students, and others gathered in the streets of Paris.  The immediate trigger was the death of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque, who had been a friend to the poor and downtrodden.  The crowd had hoped to accompany Lamarque’s hearse before it took the general home to his native district in the southwest of France.  Those mourning and those with a political agenda merged into a mob that numbered in the tens of thousands – some witnesses claimed it eventually grew to 100,000.

The 30-year-old Victor Hugo was nearby, in the Tuileries Gardens, writing a play.  Then he heard gunfire from the direction of Les Halles.  Instead of going home to safety, he followed the sounds of gunfire through the deserted streets. He was unaware that the mob had taken half of Paris, and the barricades were everywhere in Les Halles.  According to Wikipedia, Hugo headed north up the Rue Montmartre, then turned right onto the Passage du Saumon, finally turning before the Rue du Bout du Monde (if this street still exists, it has a different name now): “Halfway down the alley, the grilles at either end were slammed shut. Hugo was surrounded by barricades and flung himself against a wall, as all the shops and stores had been closed for some time. He found shelter between some columns. For a quarter of an hour, bullets flew both ways.”  Three decades later, he would write about the unforgettable experience in Les Misérables.

I had hoped to visit some of the route during my recent visit to France.  Alas, my trip was too brief, and I couldn’t quite figure out what had happened, and where, on my Paris map.  I had to make the journey vicariously, later, through Mark Traugott‘s The Insurgent Barricade (University of California Press).

No wonder I was confused.  Traugott’s map of the insurrection shows that Lamarque’s funerary procession made a wide arc around the city’s right bank.  The insurrection affected both sides of the Seine, but the flash points were here, on the right bank.

Dragoons had been under orders to refrain from the use of deadly force, but when a shot rang out from somewhere, the crowd began to throw stones at the military.  The cry “To the barricades!” resounded through the streets. But what, exactly, did that mean?

According to Traugott:

“Insurgents began uprooting the saplings planted to replace the larger trees cut down during the July Days. They also scavenged planks and beams from nearby construction sites and improvised tools for prying up paving stones. These classic raw materials were natural choices because they added mass, helped knit the structure together, and were usually found in abundance right at the site of the barricade construction. Between 5 p.m., when the first sporadic gunfire was exchanged, and 6:30, when pitched battles were initially reported, dozens of barricades had been completed on both the right and left side of the Seine. Individual structures took as little as fifteen minutes to erect.

“Even as the first barricades were going up, a frantic search for arms began. Some rebels had to be content with sabers, staffs, or scythes, but rifles were the weapons of choice, and bands of insurgents boldly seized them from small patrols of soldiers encountered in the streets.  Others joined in pillaging the premises of Lepage frères, the largest of several Paris gunsmiths whose establishments were looted.”

Why, you may ask, have I chosen to illustrate this post about a doomed revolt with the elegant photos of Nichole Robertson over at Little Brown Pen?

This little gem of a 16th-century church is Église Saint-Merri.  The insurgents staged a desperate last stand in and around this church, at the heart of the district where the fiercest fighting took place.

Empty chairs at empty tables. (Photo: Nichole Robertson)

The insurgents pleaded for help, but no help came. The citizens of Paris were not as quick to join the revolution as they were to join the unruly funeral procession.  In the theatrical production of  Les Miz, the army officer warns the insurgents via a loud-bailer:

You at the barricade listen to this!
No one is coming to help you to fight
You’re on your own
You have no friends
Give up your guns – or die!

And it was true.  According to Traugott, “The casualty toll among the insurgents, mounting as high as 800 dead and wounded, was particularly heavy because the people of Paris withheld their support, leaving most of the committed insurgents of June 1832 to pay for their rebellion with their lives.”

If nothing else, please remember is that the whole point of the French Revolution is that the revolutionaries  won.  Remember the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Robespierre et al.?  This was different. In 1832, writes Traugott, “The last guns were silenced a barely twenty-four hours after hostilities had begun.”

Eléphant_Bastille_Les_Misérables

Gustave Brion’s illustration for the novel in 1865

Postscript on 27 July, 2013:  Comments are continuing to trickle in for this post.  Today, Reader Karen wrote to ask: “Have enjoyed reading all the comments, but am still searching for an answer to the elephant in the movie.  Did that actually occur?  Was there an elephant structure in the area during that period?   If so – why?  Will it help if I actually finish reading the novel?”

I couldn’t resist the educational opportunity.  From Wikipedia:

The Elephant of the Bastille was a monument in Paris which existed between 1813 and 1846. Originally conceived in 1808 by Napoleon, the colossal statue was intended to be created out of bronze and placed in the Place de la Bastille, but only a plaster full-scale model was built. At 24 m (78 ft) in height the model itself became a recognisable construction and was immortalised by Victor Hugo in his novel Les Misérables (1862) in which it is used as a shelter by the street urchin Gavroche. …

The elephant itself was described negatively by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables; little other account of contemporary public perception is available.

It was falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it. “The aediles,” as the expression ran in elegant dialect, had forgotten it ever since 1814. There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen; cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail, tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years, by that slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates the soil of large towns, it stood in a hollow, and it looked as though the ground were giving way beneath it. It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker.   —Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862

Tolkien, Auden, and an evening of mushrooms and Elvish

Friday, December 21st, 2012
Share

Fond of Elvish…

Lovely piece in the New Yorker about J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings, and just in time for the current hubbub about Peter Jackson‘s adaptation of The Hobbit, the movie.  I’ve never understood the Tolkien craze – I took an unsuccessful stab at The Hobbit as a teenager, and indulged in a weekend binge of the movies a few years back just to get the hang of it – but Erin Overbey goes some way to explaining the devotion to me:

We love to think about the dorky minutiae: how Hobbits invented the art of smoking pipe-weed, why trolls speak with Cockney accents, whether Middle-Earth is spherical. These elements aren’t distractions; they’re the magical details that elevate Tolkien’s books. People may come to Tolkien for the Milton-esque struggle between good and evil, but they stay for the fresh mushrooms and the Elvish.

Apparently, so did W.H. Auden, one of Tolkien’s early champions and defenders.  In 1926, he heard Tolkien reading from Beowulf so beautiful that he decided on the spot that Anglo-Saxon was worth pursuing – it shows in Auden’s poetry.  He also became a close friend of the Oxford professor.  Thirty years later, he wrote in the New York Times about The Return of the King, the third installment of the Lord of the Rings cycle:

I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect. A few of these may have been put off by the first forty pages of the first chapter of the first volume in which the daily life of the hobbits is described; this is light comedy and light comedy is not Mr. Tolkien’s forte. In most cases, however, the objection must go far deeper. I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light “escapist” reading. That a man like Mr. Tolkien, the English philologist who teaches at Oxford, should lavish such incredible pains upon a genre which is, for them, trifling by definition, is, therefore, very shocking.

Perhaps the most memorable bit of Overbey’s piece is her description of Auden’s invitation to speak at a Brooklyn Tolkien Society in the 1960s.  He looked, according to a witness, remarkably like “a Tolkienish wizard surrounded by a crowd of young and eager Hobbits.”  Overbey writes:

So was he.

He began by talking about his personal relationship with Tolkien and the major influence his former professor had had on his life. Tolkien, he said, had originally fallen in love with the Finnish language, which has affinities with Elvish, because it has “fifteen or sixteen cases.” (“Fifteen!” one of the young attendees exclaimed.) Auden went on to tell the group how Tolkien had often admitted that he really had no idea where The Lord of the Rings was going when he first started the trilogy. In fact, Auden said, he wasn’t even sure how the pivotal character of Strider would develop as the narrative grew. Auden also let his rapt audience in on Tolkien’s fascination with “the whole Northern thing.” For Tolkien, Auden said, north is “a sacred direction.”

The nerdy group of lawyers, students, businessmen and military men snacked on unspiked eggnog and non-alcoholic cider – and also on fresh mushrooms, a preferred Hobbit dish.  “The discussion spanned a variety of Tolkien-related topics: the correct method of writing in Elvish, the best way to assemble an accurate cosmological model of Middle-Earth.”

Read the whole New Yorker piece here – or Auden’s New York Times piece here.  Or watch the trailer for the movie below.  I might even make it to a theater before the New Year chimes in.
.

TLS: When did Keats become a great writer? Ask Gigante.

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012
Share

“What was he really like?”

In case you missed it, a recent Times Literary Supplement article reviewed four new biographies of John Keats – one of them Denise Gigante‘s The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George (we interviewed Denise here).

“What was he really like?” asks Jonathan Bate. “When, and under the influence of what shaping forces, did he become a great poet? Any literary biographer who can answer those two questions will have achieved the holy grail of Life-writing. The second will always be a matter of literary judgement, but the first becomes a great deal easier to explore when there is a cache of letters, diaries and intimate recollections.”

He concludes with special attention to The Keats Brothers:

But it is Gigante’s The Keats Brothers that comes closest to answering the question of when Keats became a great writer. It was in the summer of 1818, when he went north and began writing long letters, first to [brother] Tom and then to George and [sister-in-law] Georgiana. Previous biographers have recognized the importance of the walking tour with [friend Charles] Brown – the impressions of Wordsworth country, the visit to the tomb of Burns, the extraordinary vision of an old peasant woman, “squab and lean”, smoking a pipe as she is carried along by “two ragged tattered Girls” – “What a thing would be a history of her Life and sensations”. But Gigante’s method of writing the Lives of John and George in parallel allows her to bring into focus the key fact that other biographers sometimes forget: that the reason why Keats went north in the first place was to say goodbye to George as he set sail for America from Liverpool. George’s distance – and, soon after, the even profounder absence created by Tom’s death – was the primary force that shaped Keats in the year from the autumn of 1818 when he wrote his greatest poetry.

As Christopher Ricks reminded us nearly forty years ago in Keats and Embarrassment, John “always made an awkward bow” (that is the last sentence of his last surviving letter). The astonishing thing about the parting in Liverpool – and neither Nicholas Roe nor Denise Gigante dwells on this as fully as they might have done – is that he didn’t wait to see off the ship. He didn’t even know the name of the ship. Together with Brown, the surrogate brother, he slipped away at dawn. He couldn’t bear to say goodbye.

Denise’s fame has crossed the Pacific.  She sent us the review of a Chinese interview about her newest effort here.  The piece discusses her interest in association copies, and the way they intensify the bond among readers and writers.  As for the future of the book, it cites her earlier comment: “In the end, we will always be tactile creatures.”

Hey!  That’s exactly what she told the Book Haven here.

More on bad sex: “Eros calls for something better.”

Sunday, December 16th, 2012
Share

John Adams over at The Gentle Rereader offered such an elegant coda to our recent post on the Literary Review‘s bad sex award (we wrote about it here and here) that we couldn’t leave it alone in the comments section, where he had put it for us.  Here it is:

Barzun’s big thoughts on bad sex in books

Prize-giving as ridicule doesn’t seem to be having the intended effect. Even badly written sex sells. Eros calls for something better. As ever, Jacques Barzun looks deeper into a question, in this case of sex scenes in books. In Venus at Large: Sexuality and the Limits of Literature he concludes:

“Since sexuality is of our very being, sex cannot be called illegitimate, immoral, or uninteresting. But it is terribly limited; and its appeal being unfailing, it is – or it ends by being – a cheap device. When, moreover, sex is present to make up for deprivations in the culture of a whole age, it becomes a burden to literature. As Shaw said in praising the purity of Poe, ‘Literature is not a keyhole for people with starved affections to peep through at the banquet of the body.’ One is permitted to think that the glut of sex in our prose and verse fictions will remain as the special mark of our work, the brand of the times on our genius; and one may perhaps imagine further that sooner or later a Cervantes will come, who in a comic saga of sex will bury our standardized bedroom adventures like so many tales of chivalry.”

Before reaching that conclusion, though, he surveys a broad array of literary sex examples before distinguishing those from sexuality:

“Sex – that is to say the particulars of the act – is an inescapably trite and insignificant event for literature. … Sexuality is on the contrary the very atmosphere in which all literature breathes and lives. But sexuality can be made palpable in thousands of ways, ancient, modern, and still to be discovered. There is surely more to the sexual instinct and its derivatives than the rapid mechanical transaction we have been given as its sum and summit. There are tendernesses and hesitancies, sensations and fantasies that are not of the readily nameable sort, and the language for them does not as yet exist. It is the business of art to create it.”

(Excerpted in A Jacques Barzun Reader, Michael Murray, ed., HarperCollins, 2002, pages 175–186; full essay in Encounter magazine, March 1966, pages 24–30.)

Thank you John and Jacques.  We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.  In fact, we didn’t.

 

George Szirtes and “a spirit of place”

Friday, December 14th, 2012
Share

“My ancestors are an absence.”

Poet George Szirtes and I have something in common, besides the memory of speaking about Czesław Miłosz last week at the glorious British Academy on Carlton House Terrace (the site a longtime residence of Prime Minister William Gladstone).

We share a heritage. The Szirtes family left Hungary in 1956, when George was an eight-year-old.  My family left a generation earlier, and it was only in recent years I had a chance to visit Budapest. He returned to Hungary in 1984, although “there had been a brief, curtailed family visit in 1968 when the invasion of Czechoslovakia sent us scurrying out.”  The 1984 return proved decisive in forming him as a translator – for which we are grateful, for not many venture into that alien tongue, whose closest antecedents are Turkish and Finnish.

He is mostly known, however, as an English-language poet, and has won a long list of awards, most notably the 2004 T. S. Eliot Prize.

Author and poet Bethany W. Pope (a recent Twitter acquaintance of mine) interviewed the poet-translator for Quarterly Conversation.  Here’s a snippet:

B.W.P: Translation seems to me like something very similar to what I do when I write in the person of my ancestors. In my collection A Radiance, I wore their psyches as a way of inhabiting the people I love and bringing them closer. Has the fact that you were forced out of Hungary influenced your need to reconnect with your heritage in this way, and is that what you are doing when you engage in an act of translation?

G.S: It wasn’t so much the language I was reconnecting with back then as with a spirit of place that was, I felt, latent but unembodied in my own work. That is a more precise way of putting it than I felt at the time. The language was in the place. Since then I think it is likely that the language itself has reoccupied part of my neural system.

My ancestors are an absence. I never knew any of them as people and have no record of them in terms of documents. Two or three photographs, that’s all. I have no dynastic sense except in that I am of a race of people that have generally been chased from place to place and are occasionally murdered, which equips one with a vulnerability based on expectation. [Writer Gyula] Krúdy didn’t have that problem. He had a Hungarian version of it: the evanescence of location.

B.W.P: How has living and working so long in the UK influenced your take on Hungarian culture? I was wondering if existing for such a long time outside of it made it easier or more difficult to connect with the writers with whom you work?

Gladstone slept here.

G.S: I really only know Budapest culture at first hand. Capitals are not the same as the provinces. Budapest offered so many possibilities. There was a democratic resistance there before 1989 that was intelligent, deeply read, ironic, inventive, affectionate yet brusque. I think that culture has turned out to be more brittle than I thought it would be, but I could be wrong. In terms of their relationship to me, they were welcoming of me, but my nine months there in 1989, under the historical pressure of that year, showed me I could not be of them. In terms of my working relationship to them, they have given me far more than I could have hoped for. My “real” life is in my immediate family and in the English language. They have enriched that language for me, by entering it with me. They have expanded me. There’s nothing difficult about working with them.

Read the rest here – including an account of that 1984 trip.

An evening of bad sex…but is it bad enough?

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012
Share

She’s honored. (Photo: Elena Torre)

Some time ago, we announced the Literary Review‘s finalists for the one of the world’s most dreaded competitions – a prize for the most embarrassing passage of sexual description in a novel.  The awards ceremony for the 20th annual award finally took place last week at the In & Out (Naval & Military) Club in St James’s Square, where 400 guests raised a toast to the winner.

And the winner is … Canadian writer Nancy Huston, with her novel Infrared.  I know, I know … you want me to deliver the goods.  Well, here’s the Literary Review‘s version of why they bestowed the award on Huston:

“Sentences from the novel such as ‘Kamal and I are totally immersed in flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements’ caught the judges’ attention. One long passage in particular stood out:

‘He runs his tongue and lips over my breasts, the back of my neck, my toes, my stomach, the countless treasures between my legs, oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alternation, never will I tire of that silvery fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water, my self freed of both self and other, the quivering sensation, the carnal pink palpitation that detaches you from all colour and all flesh, making you see only stars, constellations, milky ways, propelling you bodiless and soulless into undulating space where the undulating skies make your non-body undulate…”

My goodness, I don’t think it’s all that bad.  Is that the worst they could do?  I think the other finalists were daffier – go here and see if you agree.  (By the by, John Updike received the lifetime achievement award in 2008.)

A friend recently protested against the Literary Review‘s anti-award, saying it inhibited writers from trying to describe sex at all.  I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.  Gone are the days when a writer like Henry James could describe the sexual fever of a hand brushing across the back of another.  Gone are the days when Jane Austen could convey more passion with a blush more than most of today’s writers can express with an orgy.  We’ve lost the ability to describe the range of nuances in affection, love, devotion, rejection in our haste to describe the relentless interlocking of body parts.

According to Literary Review editor Jonathan Beckman, that’s exactly the reason why former editor Auberon Waugh founded the prize in the first place:  “He was genuinely convinced that publishers were encouraging novelists to include sex scenes solely in order to increase sales. The award’s remit was ‘to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it’.”  I couldn’t agree more.

The Paris-based Huston has received more conventional awards, such as the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens and Prix Femina, but she seems to hold a special place in her heart for her newest distinction.  In a statement read at the ceremony, she announced, “I hope this prize will incite thousands of British women to take close-up photos of their lovers’ bodies in all states of array and disarray.”

To which we can only add:  Please no.  Not that.  Anything but that.

Huston is married to the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov.  On Twitter, Elif Batuman responded: “I just learned that the winner of this year’s Bad Sex Award is married to Tzvetan Todorov and it is ROCKING MY WORLD.”  No further explanation offered. After all, it was only a tweet.