Archive for May, 2013

A day in the life of Stanford: onstage, in half-an-hour

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

photo 2How often do you see volleyball team chatting with deans, Taiko drummers mingling with landscape gardiners, medical researchers in a tête-à-tête with major donors?  “It was what a university community should be.  That, to me, was moving,” said dancer Aleta Hayes, one of the performers for last night’s The Symphonic Body (we wrote about the event here.) And she was right.

When a live mic was stuck in front of my face two days ago, I asked the performers what they got out of the experience.  During and after the performance last night, I found out, without any explanation needed.  The sense of Stanford community was joyously evident, at the Bing Concert Hall event, and at the reception afterwards.  Although about 75 “performers” were onstage, choreographer Ann Carlson  worked through about 1,000 recommendations to get to the final cast – a lot declined or dropped out.  So even more people were involved in the experience than might have been  apparent last night.


Hayes with her dance troupe, Chocolate Heads (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Here’s how Carlson worked:  she followed the chosen performers around for a day, watching their gestures, listening to their phrases –  “then telling us how to act like ourselves,” said Matthew Tiews, Executive Director of Arts Programs.  Onstage, landscape workers pruned invisible trees, Continuing Studies dean Charlie Junkerman removed and cleaned his glasses over and over again, Philippe Cohen, executive director of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, stood up repeatedly and pointed to something on the invisible horizon.

“It touches my bone-deep and dead serious belief that all movement is dance movement,” said dancer Diane Frank.  “It means that every moment of movement might be transformative, might refresh our senses, if we attend to it wholeheartedly, alert to its qualities in the doing.  Real dancing is an embodied attitude toward movement, not a training regimen.”

Philippe Cohen with project manager Laura Goldstein

Cohen on the job. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

She added, “Besides, I like to connect with other people and to laugh a lot – both were large parts of the rehearsal process.”

During the question-and-answer period with the audience afterwards, one viewer noted the ephemeral nature of the project – nearly a year of work for a single, one-night performance.  Was the ephemerality part of the nature of the night?

“Definitely.  Absolutely.  I’m not doing this for a career,” said Cohen. “It was incredibly meditative.  At the end of the day, we had to put everything out of our mind.  That was absolutely wonderful.”

TonyDid anything surprise the cast about the performance?  “I was surprised that I was in it,” admitted Associate Dean Debra Satz, to laughter.

As usual, Mary Nolan had the last word.  When someone asked the performers “What comes next?”  Her reply was instant:  “the Tony awards.”

“Artistry in the everyday”: Ann Carlson’s The Symphonic Body – tonight!

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013
photo 1

“A kind of post-modernism that allows chance and randomness to play a part.”

The theory is that choreographer Ann Carlson‘s The Symphonic Body, which will be performed tonight at 8 p.m. in the Bing Concert Hall, is entirely self-explanatory.  You should be able to walk in cold and appreciate what you see onstage.

I don’t buy it, at least not entirely.  But then, I’m not a “hang loose in the moment” kind of guy.  I like to have a little background about the artist’s intentions.  So consider this a public service for others, like me, who are high-information art-lovers.

Here’s a start, from the Stanford website:



The Symphonic Body is a performance made entirely from gestures. It is a movement based orchestral work performed by people from across the Stanford University campus. Instead of instruments, individuals in this orchestra perform gestural portraits based on the motions of their workday.  These portraits are individual dances, custom made for each person, choreographed from the movements they already do. The particular choreographed gestures themselves become part of a larger movement tapestry within each performer and within the piece as a whole.  By engaging with this performance practice members of the Stanford community come together in concert to expand, renew and re-experience the artistry embedded in the everyday.

A visit to the Bing Concert Hall rehearsal yesterday brought its surprises.  Scattered among the 50 or 60 performers were some very familiar faces: Debra Satz, associate dean for the humanities and arts; dancer Aleta Hayes, a lecturer in the Drama Department; Charlie Junkerman, dean of Continuing Studies, and  Philippe Cohen, executive director of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.

According to Peggy Phelan, professor in the arts:

The body that Ann has orchestrated in tonight’s performance is composed of students, researchers, staff, faculty, deans. Some are athletes; some are musicians; some are tree cutters; one is a Classicist; some are administrators, some are continuing education students. Some are seasoned performers; some have never been to a symphony or performed in one before. All of them rehearsed and entered into an act of collective creation. They are unlikely to have met before this occasion and they are unlikely to work together again. They created this body through a network of recom- mendations. They were named as people others found inspiring. Ann approached them and invited them to join. The members of this symphony are united by the gesture of saying Yes, the most vital word in Stanford’s vocabulary. To be the auditors of this Yes requires patience, attention, and relaxation. Strum your fingers, tap your toes and hear those everyday sounds as your own symphony. Use their music as a way to enter your own. Carlson’s makes Yes the chorus of an expanded soundscape; watch closely and you’re sure to hear it.

photo 2

Ann Carlson conducts

Ann’s visit coincides with Anne Carsons residency at Stanford, where she is a Mohr Visiting Poet – the two Annes are friends.  Unfortunately both visits occurred during a very busy month for me. The whole shebang would have blown by me entirely, had it not been for Florentina Mocanu-Schendels persistent beseeching, telling me that both Annes are people I absolutely must meet. Florentina, assistant director for The Symphonic Body,  was, as always, right.

I went cold into the rehearsal and meeting with Ann, at the Bing Concert Hall.  She was small, bright, energetic, wearing incongruous, brand-new sneakers – at least they looked brand new – and carrying a heavy-looking bag. I look forward to meeting the second Anne tonight, at the performance.

The poet Anne’s credentials are stunning: she’s received the Lannan Award, the Pushcart Prize, the Griffin Trust Award for Excellence in Poetry, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the MacArthur “Genius” Award.

This from the Poetry Foundation website:



Anne Carson is a professor of Classics as well as a poet, essayist and translator. “In the small world of people who keep up with contemporary poetry,” wrote Daphne Merkin in theNew York Times Book Review, “Anne Carson, a Canadian professor of classics, has been cutting a large swath, inciting both envy and admiration.”Carson has gained both critical accolades and a wide readership over the course of her “unclassifiable” publishing career. In addition to her many highly-regarded translations of classical writers such as Sappho and Euripides, and her triptych rendering of An Oresteia (2009), Carson has published poems, essays, libretti, prose criticism and verse novels that often cross genres. Known for her supreme erudition—Merkin called her “one of the great pasticheurs”—Carson’s poetry can also be heart-breaking and she regularly writes on love, desire, sexual longing and despair. Always an ambitious poet whatever her topic or genre, Merkin wrote of Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, “I don’t think there has been a book since Robert LowellLife Studies that has advanced the art of poetry quite as radically as Anne Carson is in the process of doing.”

Sudden fame. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

As for performance artist Ann, she’s been keeping the 50 or 60 Stanford students, faculty, and staff on its feet. What’s in it for the performers?  “It’s fun, there are no lines to learn, some one else is directing/conducting, all I have to do is sit there and follow the program, no pressure, and it looks like it’s cool to watch,” said drama professor Rush Rehm.  “Art with little effort, using personal gestures and movement, and shaping the ‘commonplace’ by playing with time, groupings.  Sound like he’s taking it easy?  Give him a break.  He’s been rehearsing Beckett’s Happy Days, “which is the just about most demanding, meticulous play ever written, diabolical in its specificity.

“The Symphonic Body is like recess for me!” he said.  “It’s part of a kind of post-modernism that allows chance and randomness to play a part.”

During the rehearsal, one of performers, Matthew Tiews, Executive Director of Arts Programs, obeyed the impromptu spirit of the moment and handed me a live mic to address the performers with a question. I was caught offguard.  “What do you get out of this experience?” I asked.

Mary Nolan, Stanford grounds supervisor, responded in a beat: “Notoriety.”

A long-delayed homecoming: The Golden Gate returns to Stanford

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

Golden gate

I’ve always loved Vikram Seth’s novel-in-verse The Golden Gate, ever since it first came out in 1986.  A dozen years later, I interviewed Seth in London – article here. Now the book is coming to Stanford, in its operatic incarnation.  Here’s what I wrote for the Stanford News Service:

The homecoming is long overdue: The Golden GateVikram Seth’s 1986 novel-in-verse, was born among Stanford’s sandstone buildings and palm trees. Now the Bay Area will have a chance to hear highlights of composer Conrad Cummings’ opera of the novel.

4 Park Scene

Phil (Kevin Burdette) reassures his son Paul (Elliot Kahn) in “The Golden Gate”

A multimedia presentation at the new Bing Concert Hall Studio at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 30, will include readings of Seth’s verse by current Stegner Fellows and Stanford students, a video of a 2010 staged workshop of the opera at Lincoln Center and a discussion with Cummings. John Henry Davis, who directed the Lincoln Center workshop production, is also directing the Stanford program. Seth will provide a video welcome.

“It’s beautiful, compelling, powerful – and it’s a production that deserves to be seen in the Bay Area,” said English Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin, producer of the program, “From Lyric Novel to Lyric Stage.”

The event is sponsored by the Department English and its Creative Writing Program, the American Studies Program and the Stanford Arts Institute. The event is sold out, but unfilled seats will be released at 7:45 p.m. before the program begins.

The ‘Great Californian Novel’

San Francisco native Cummings, who teaches at Juilliard, discovered The Golden Gate soon after it was published and was hooked by “that special magical nostalgia I feel for my hometown San Francisco: the magic of the vistas, the feeling of the air, the presence of the ocean, the sense of space, and a certain sense of grandeur and personal emotion.”

In his book, Seth deprecated his foray in formal sonnets as “this whole passé extravaganza,” but he received rare accolades. The late Gore Vidal, who could be notoriously stinting of praise, wrote, “Although we have been spared, so far, the Great American Novel, it is good to know that the Great Californian Novel has been written, in verse (and why not?): The Golden Gate gives great joy.”


Conrad Cummings

Here’s how it began. In the 1980s, the graduate student from Calcutta, working on his doctorate in economics, was crunching data on Chinese villages. He crawled out one dawn from the basement of the Center for Educational Research at Stanford, where computer time was cheapest.

It was usual for Seth to unlock his bike as the raccoons were emerging from sewer gratings, but this time it was so late – or so early – that the Stanford Bookstore was just opening its doors at 7 a.m. Seth ducked in for a break and emerged with the book that would change his life: Charles Johnston’s new verse translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

What followed was a miracle: For more than a year, Seth feverishly wrote about 600 lines of verse a month of Pushkin-style sonnets. Seth, who had been a Stegner Fellow in 1977-78, used the Russian bard’s swift tetrameter, not pentameter, lines, along with a complicated rhyme scheme involving masculine and feminine endings, and also including Pushkin’s characteristic first-person digressions.

Seth wrote of harvesting olives on Campus Drive, lingering in the old Printers Inc bookshop café on California Avenue in Palo Alto and attending a concert at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium. He wrote of San Francisco’s Coit Tower and Caffe Trieste – and, of course, the landmark Golden Gate Bridge, described in the libretto:


High-built, red-gold, with their long span
– The most majestic spun by man –
Whose threads of steel through mists and showers,
Wind, spray, and the momentous roar
Of ocean storms, link shore to shore.

Not all of the local events and places made it to Cummings’ opera, which the composer said “needed to be intimate and concentrated … to focus on the intense way lives interlaced with each other.” The opera follows the tightly bound fates of five Bay Area professionals, whose loves and lives sing through Seth’s inventive verse.

“Conrad loves the novel, and it shows – you can hear it,” said Chiyuma Elliott, the Stegner Fellow who coordinated the readings for the event. “It’s risky working with contemporary authors – it’s so easy to offend someone with the way you’ve reimagined their work. I think it says a lot that Seth is participating in this opera project and is excited about the ways his book is being recreated on stage.”

But how to turn Seth’s verbal music into sound?

The birth of an opera


Vikram Seth

Speaking from his New York City home, Cummings described how the opera was born. In the mid-1980s, Cummings was an artist at the Djerassi Foundation in the wooded hills above Woodside, Calif. Charles Martin, a poet and fellow resident who had just received Seth’s novel in manuscript, advised Cummings to keep an eye out for its publication. Cummings found the book a year or so later in New York and couldn’t put it down.

Cummings told his Russian mother in San Francisco about the book “because she’s a fan of Pushkin.”

“She told me she knew all about it,” Cummings said. “That she’d met Vikram at a reading of Golden Gate at City Lights Bookstore a few days before, and that he was coming to her house to hear her readEugene Onegin in Russian.” It was as good as an introduction.

Seth gave Cummings permission to use lines from The Golden Gate in a concert piece commissioned by the San Francisco Opera Center for the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series. Called “Fragments from The Golden Gate,” the piece was favorably reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle when it premiered in December 1986, only half a year after the novel was published.

But Seth still hadn’t heard it. That part of the story picks up again in 1987 at the Djerassi Foundation, where this time Seth was in residence.

Cummings drove up the treacherous, twisty roads and fog-shrouded hills above Woodside to meet his collaborator at last. Cummings recalled the two of them, crouched over the cassette player in Cummings’ parked car at the foundation, listening to “Fragments.” Seth was pleased.

The opera was born two decades later. Opera News named it one of the best operas of the new century, and Stephen Smith of the New York Times praised it.

But it was still far from the place that gave it birth. Enter Fishkin, who championed its arrival at Stanford. “The story of my interest isn’t complicated,” she said. “Ever since I saw it at Lincoln Center, I wanted to bring it here. The Stanford connections made it perfect for the first year of the Bing Concert Hall.”

The “uncomplicated” part was born of friendship: Fishkin has been friends with Cummings since they were in the same residential college at Yale, decades ago. Now Fishkin lives in Cummings’ native land, and Cummings is the returning son. And Golden Gate has come home at last.

Remembering Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank: “He had no enemies.”

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Joe in his Princeton days (Photo: Robert Matthews)

Among the quieter events in a busy week at Stanford: about a hundred friends, colleagues, students, and family members gathered at the Stanford Humanities Center to commemorate the life and work of one of Stanford’s most eminent figures, Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank … well, “Dostoevsky scholar” … he was so much more than that.

As author Jeffrey Meyers of Princeton noted during his talk that afternoon (his remarks are published in his retrospective here):

Learned, widely read, and well informed about a wide range of subjects, Joe could talk intelligently about almost anything. The depth of his knowledge was astonishing and delightful. We talked about our current work, classic and recent books, Russian writers from Gogol to Solzhenitsyn, major biographers, struggles with editors, conferences attended, favorite films (if not, for Joe, “too depressing”), mutual friends in Stanford and Berkeley, wide-ranging travels, current politics, children and grandchildren, jokes and literary gossip. It was especially interesting to compare our reviews of the same book, Olivier Todd’s excellent life of André Malraux. I urged him to read the novels of Olivia Manning, J.F. Powers, and James Salter; he retaliated, unfairly I thought, by suggesting the German philosopher Max Scheler, “the founder of the sociology of knowledge.”

I liked to hear Joe reminisce about distinguished writers who’d been his friends—Allen Tate, John Berryman, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Robert Lowell, Anthony Burgess, and Carlos Fuentes — and urged him (unsuccessfully) to write a memoir about them. He remembered Elizabeth Bishop telling him of her visits to Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in D.C. and getting books for him from the Library of Congress. He recalled seeing Mary McCarthy in a hospital in New York, just before she died, and her pressing his hand at the time. He’d met the reclusive South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner, J.M. Coetzee, and found him “quite laconic and reserved, but with a kind of genuine inner warmth with people he likes.”

Bill Chace, president of Emory, opened the memorial event with the remark, “If Joe were with us today …,” or words to that effect.  Nobody seemed to notice at the moment the lights flickered for a moment, and then came on again.  Well, it is easy to make too much of small things, but still, for this observer it was a poignant moment, as if Joe were saying, “Don’t write me off just yet!”  One comment from Bill Chace’s remarks that I scribbled in my program:  “He had no enemies.”  From what I knew of Joe, it was true … but how?  How does one get through a life like this one without accumulating any enemies?  Given Joe’s unconventional path through academia, there must have been dozens of jealous or resentful knives sharpened for him.

JoeFrank2Perhaps part of the secret was related by Marilyn Yalom in her remarks. She  recalled how Joe used to light up when she came into the room.  It was only later that she realized that his face lit up when anyone entered the room.  We all thought he only had eyes for us – but that was only a fragment of his genial charm.

Granddaughter Sophie Lilla, a freshman at New York University, recalled the story of Joe leaping off the bus in postwar Paris, a stop before his intended one. He had seen an attractive woman on the bus and didn’t want to let the opportunity slip.  And shortly afterward, he went so far as to marry her.  Sophie said she wished she had the nerve – but I suspect she does (she’s could pass for the woman who inspired the incident so many years ago, her grandmama Marguerite Frank).  The tributes were interspersed with Benny Goodman tunes, and Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky‘s Eugene Onegin, a favorite of his.

Stanford Slavic scholar Gregory Freidin was in Paris, but colleague Gabriella Safran read his remarks – you can, too.  Grisha posted his talk on his blog The Noise of Time here.  An excerpt:

Great musicians, it is said, do not choose their calling—music chooses them. Reading and rereading Joseph Frank’s writings, it seems the spirit of modernity itself chose him to be its voice—a great choice for the age when brute force remaking the world was matched and animated by a titanic struggle of ideas.

Joseph and Marguerite Frank

Joe and the lady he saw on a Paris bus, in Linda Cicero’s now-iconic photo.

How else to explain, then, that Frank’s debut in Scholastic, bore a title more fitting for the epilogue of a career: “Prolegomena to All Future Literary Criticism?” The year was 1935. Frank was seventeen and an orphan. A mere decade later, while he worked as a reporter, came entry into the big leagues: The Idea of Spatial Form. His last book, Responses to Modernity, with a telling subtitle Essays in the Politics of Culture, was published just a few months before illness claimed him. In-between, there are almost three hundred essays and reviews, some in French, and a monumental biography of a Russian writer whose fictional characters come alive even as they reenact the metaphysical mystery play of the modern era.

Frank’s stutter, which he struggled with all his life (but I remember with fondness), looks in retrospect like a mark of election. The affliction came along with an extraordinary aesthetic talent and a gift for empathy. The stutter forced him to develop, while still in his teens, a powerful voice as a writer of critical prose. Authoritative and subtle, uncompromis­ing yet forgiving, it was so deeply resonant and expressive that had Hollywood come calling, only an Orson Welles with the strut of John Wayne could have filled the bill. Its force is already present in his  “Dedication to Thomas Mann,” published in the NYU student journal in 1937; it is undiminished in “Thinkers and Liars,” one of his last pieces in The New Republic, and it reverberates throughout the entirety of his Dostoevsky  Pentateuch, the first five books of every Slavicist Bible.

His writer’s voice was Aaron to his Moses, except that it was inflected with an extraordinary aesthetic intelligence—and a sense of empathy, too. For Frank, the world picture—like a poem for T.S. Eliot, as Frank noted wryly—had to “preserve some ‘impurity’ if it was to be humanly meaningful.”

I haven’t blogged the talk I gave on this occasion – and I don’t expect to – but you can read the earlier retrospective I wrote for Stanford Magazine here.

With all these articles and comments, and the memories of the man himself, which keep returning to me at odd moments, I’m coming to understand the scale of our loss. My appreciation for him grows, and in retrospect, I am humbled even more that he, who had so much to offer, appreciated me.  But he appreciated everyone, I suspect. Maybe that’s why he had no enemies.

Poet Anne Stevenson: “We are losing contact with language…”

Friday, May 24th, 2013

Her 17th century cottage near Llanbedr, during my 2009 visit.

Anne Stevenson turned 80 in January – and the occasion whizzed past without my noticing it.  So it was a pleasure to be reminded of my neglect by the Times Literary Supplement this week, in an article by Thea Lenarduzzi  I was also unaware of Anne’s newest “probably my last” collection, Astonishment. I wrote about Anne a dozen years ago, here, and have had the pleasure of visiting her at both her residences, in Durham, and more recently staying in Wales, where she lives with husband Peter Lucas in a 17th century cottage near Llanbedr.

“One has to maintain a distance, an air pocket between the poet and the poem—a pocket of objectivity. The poem isn’t an expression of what you could say better in ordinary language, or in theoretical language,” she told me in 2000.

“I do believe that writing poetry is not something everybody needs to indulge in. Encouraging more and more people to express themselves and, above all, to publish poems or put them on the internet, does tend to thin the blood—of literature, I mean. People forget how to read. They forget that you need to develop a strong degree of attention to read intelligently the poetry of, say, Auden or Yeats, or even Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop. You need to be sensitive to all the sounds, rhythms, echoes, et cetera, that constitute a poem to know what’s going on in it. If nothing is going on except the promulgation of some one-dimensional idea or personal experience, if the so-called poem is nothing but a cut-up piece of not-very-interesting prose, then it isn’t poetry at all. It’s not asking anything of the reader, except perhaps fellow-feeling or sympathy.”

Anne Stevenson

“A pocket of objectivity”

Not surprisingly, she is still a woman of strong opinions.  From the TLS piece:

More overtly underwhelmed by the possibilities of mixed media was Stevenson. “There’s an awful lot of poetry about”, she said, emphasizing one word in particular. “And with 9,000 teachers of Creative Writing in US Colleges, turning out ten protégés each . . . you’re bound to bring the standard down”. With characteristically wry humour she questioned that age-old obsession with “doing something ‘new’” (“it’s terribly hard to do anything new, you know”), which operates at the expense of more self-probing verse (not to be confused with the “Words about words about words to pamper the ego / Of some theoretical bore”); and “Do It Yourself Poetry” built in ignorance of proper craftsmanship (with no sense of rhythm, form, heritage ). “We are losing contact with language . . . . I wouldn’t even begin to talk about the visual arts, ‘Conceptual Art…’” (that carefully placed emphasis again, a glint in her eye, and a laugh: “I am eighty, you know!”).

“I’ll just throw all of that in”, Stevenson quipped before bringing the evening to a close with a reading of her most recent poem, “An Old Poet’s View from the Departure Platform”, its final stanza running thus:

“I gaze over miles and miles of cut up prose, / Uncomfortable troubles, sad lives. / They smother in sand the fire that is one with the rose. / The seed, not the flower survives.”

Oh, and this will keep me in my place: she says ““Blog is the ugliest word I ever heard …”  Read the whole thing here.

Dante in the news… and everywhere else.

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013



I have a truckload of Dante at my home.  I have the authoritative Charles Singleton prose translation, the Dorothy Sayers verse translation with her copious notes, along with her two volumes of Dante essays, I have the overlooked Peter Dale translation, I even have the Longfellow translation, and Daniel Halpern‘s “Dante’s Inferno: Translations by Twenty Contemporary Poets,” including Seamus Heaney, Carolyn Forche, Deborah Digges, C.K. Williams, W.S. Merwin, and others. I have books on Dante by John Freccero and Mark Musa and R.W.B. Lewis, and William Anderson and heaven knows who else… that’s in addition to several translations of La Vita Nuova and De Monarchia. What more can be said?  Lots, it appears.


San Francisco as Paradise.

Dante Alighieri is in the news again … and how could it be otherwise with a new book from Dan Brown (of Da Vinci Code fame) called Inferno?  “For all its absurdities, Brown’s book is a comfort, because it proves that the Divine Comedy is still alive in our culture,” writes Joan Acocella in The New Yorker. Otherwise…

As we saw in The Da Vinci Code, there is no thriller-plot convention, however well worn, that Brown doesn’t like. The hero has amnesia. He is up against a mad scientist with Nietzschean goals. He’s also up against a deadline: in less than twenty-four hours, he has been told, the madman’s black arts will be forcibly practiced upon the world. Though this book, unlike The Da Vinci Code and Brown’s Angels and Demons (2000), is not exactly an ecclesiastical thriller, it takes place largely in churches and, as the title indicates, it constantly imports imagery from the Western world’s most famous eschatological thriller, Dante’s Inferno. Wisely, Brown does not let himself get hog-tied by the sequence of events in Dante’s poem. Instead, he just inserts allusions whenever he feels that he needs them. There are screams; there is excrement. The walls of underground caverns ooze disgusting liquid. Through them run rivers of blood clogged with corpses. Bizarre figures come forward saying things like “I am life” and “I am death.” Sometimes the great poet is invoked directly. The book’s villain is a Dante fanatic and the owner of Dante’s death mask, on which he writes cryptic messages. Scolded by another character for his plans to disturb the universe, he replies, “The path to paradise passes directly through hell. Dante taught us that.”

Acocella doesn’t stick with Brown, however. Most of her focus is on the new translations of The Divine Comedy by Clive James and Mary Jo Bang.  Both poets take a lot of liberties.  We’ve written about the latter translation here, and as for the James translation … it sounds like it’s worth a read.  But read Acocella’s whole review here.

Acocella notes that “Translators are not the only ones drawn to Dante. Since 2006, Roberto Benigni has been touring a solo show about the Divine Comedy” – the we wrote about that here – “In 2010, Seymour Chwast rendered the poem as a graphic novel. There are Inferno movies and iPad apps and video games.” Ahhh, but she does not complete the list.  She neglected to mention San Francisco’s very own version of Dante (also on our shelves) by Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders, published by Chronicle Books, which opens:

About halfway through the course of my pathetic life,
I woke up and found myself in a stupor in some dark place,
I’m not sure how I ended up there; I guess I had taken a few wrong turns.


Chris and her “Postcards from Hell”

Meanwhile, a trip to the recent 46th International Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco, I met Chris Lowenstein, the “Chief Bibliophilic Officer” for  Book Hunter’s Holiday – who is so fond of Dante that she has a whole section of her website devoted to Dante books and artwork.  On this particular day, she showed me her “Postcards from Hell.”

Only they weren’t.  Not all of them, anyway.  She has a set of 54 cards – that’s 18 from the Inferno, 18 from Purgatorio, and 18 from Paradiso.  (Purgatory is pictured at the top of this post, and according to my Singleton translation, it says, quite rightly, “The angel who came to earth with the decree of peace, wept for since many a year…”)

“They’re in good condition, too – no writing on the cards or creases on them. That’s pretty rare,” Chris said of the cards, which are around a century old.  Needless to say, I was thoroughly charmed by them.

Here’s the description:

[SBORGI, E.]. Alighieri, Dante. LA DIVINA COMMEDIA. Firenze, Italia: Sborgi. 54 postcards, horizontal format.  3 1/2” x 5 1/2”. Color postcards printed on heavy cardstock, likely early 20th century, as Sborgi, a major printer and publisher of chromo- lithographic art cards, operated as a business from 1910-1917. Each card features an embossed and elaborately illustrated, gilt-ruled frame of angels, devils, and condemned souls along with Dante’s verse depicted in the picture inside the frame. On the left side of each card is a portrait of Dante at his writing desk. The right side of each card features selected scenes from one of the cantos of the Commedia.The verso of each card has a verse from the canto depicted on the front, some lines for writing, and a space for a stamp. All of the cards are unused, bright, and attractive with very mild corner wear. Two of the cards have small areas of rubbing on the front (Paradiso XVI and Paradiso XXXI).

They sell for $1,000.  Alas, “too dear for my possessing.” I didn’t have the coin for such a purchase, but I did take a few photos with my cellphone – at right and above.

In addition to iPad apps and video games Acocella mentions, there have been plenty of literary, art, and musical interpretations down through the centuries. Lots has been composed, written, and riffed about the Francesca da Rimini episode of the Inferno (we wrote about that here) – but too often overlooked is Puccini‘s only comedy, Gianni Schicchi, a one-act opera often paired with his Suor Angelica.

Renata Scotto performed both in one afternoon – that’s a lot of singing, and explains why some sensitive connoisseurs found this exceptional “O mio babbino caro” a little ragged around the edges – as is this low-res youtube clip. But it’s well worth the two minutes.  Scotto’s endearing interpretation of the role is matchless – concert performances of this aria by Callas & Co. tend to treat it like high tragedy, but in the context of this short opera, from an episode in the Inferno, is clearly about a spoiled brat trying to wring some bling out of daddy-o.

See what you think…