Archive for January, 2014

Humble Moi … in Polish!

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014
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Three books on my Warsaw tablecloth.

So look what arrived in the post today! Three thick books of Czesław Miłosz: Rozmowy zagraniczne, 1979-2003.  I’ll bet it means nothing to you.

miloszTurn to p. 435. That’s right. That’s me.  “Świętość istnienia.” My Q&A with Czesław Miłosz, “A Sacred Vision,” which ran in the Georgia Review in 2003, is finally in Polish.  Wydawnictwo Literackie in Kraków, the co-publisher of the Nobel poet’s work in Poland, has just released another volume within its Collected Works of Miłosz series. This time it’s a volume of interviews published outside Poland – that may sound like a narrow niche, but recall that  Miłosz wasn’t getting a lot of press in Poland between 1951, when he defected, and the 1980s.  For that matter, he didn’t get many interviews in the West before the Nobel in 1980. Clearly, he made up for lost time: the full edition of Miłosz’s conversations that Wydawnictwo Literackie is planning will run to several volumes. The endeavor is a prestigious one, my contact at Wydawnictwo Literackie said, but at the same time a non-profit effort. Go to the publisher’s website here; the list is pretty impressive.

I was pleased that the volume picked up thirteen interviews from my own Czesław Miłosz: Conversations. Some of those, such as James Marcus‘s excellent interview for Amazon, might have disappeared in the whirlpool of time without republication – it’s no longer online, and hasn’t been, to my knowledge, for years. I’m not sure Carl Proffer‘s 1983 interview, from the pre-internet days, is that easy to find, either. The Polish publisher expressed gratitude for my humble book, which helped them greatly in culling for the best interviews.  Delighted to have been of service.

“Świętość istnienia” is the very last interview in the volume.  The first shall be last, or the last shall be first…something like that. I was the last person to interview Miłosz on Grizzly Peak before he returned to Poland in 2000.  Maybe it’s simply that the last will be last. In any case, you can still get my volume, in the English tongue, here.

Happy 182nd birthday, Lewis Carroll! And here are his tips for your next email…

Monday, January 27th, 2014
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Where he lived: Tom Quad at Christ Church college, Oxford (Photo: Toby Ord)

It’s Lewis Carroll‘s birthday!  I’ve become more fond of the Oxford author since I’ve become terribly fond of his haunts – I have regularly stayed across the street from Christ Church college at Oxford, where he lived forever. It’s grand.

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Very early selfie

Christ Church college has produced thirteen prime ministers. More importantly, it produced W.H. Auden, and is the academic setting for Evelyn Waugh‘s Brideshead Revisited.  So Charles Dodgson, too, attended the famous college, and continued his association with it till his death.

But here’s another thing he should be remembered for, besides Alice in Wonderland, and besides mathematics, besides even the photographs. He wrote and received nearly a hundred thousand letters – 98,721, to be precise. He was so good at it that he gave advice on letter writing, in a missive titled “Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing.” You can read the whole thing here.  It includes some handy advice on stamp cases, as if you ever thought of possessing such a thing.

How to begin a letter? First, check the address.  Then he advises, “Next, Address and Stamp the Envelope. ‘What! Before writing the Letter?’ Most certainly. And I’ll tell you what will happen if you don’t. You will go on writing till the last moment, and just in the middle of the last sentence, you will become aware that ‘time’s up!’ Then comes the hurried wind-up—the wildly-scrawled signature—the hastily-fastened envelope, which comes open in the post—the address, a mere hieroglyphic—the horrible discovery that you’ve forgotten to replenish your Stamp-Case—the frantic appeal, to every one in the house, to lend you a Stamp—the headlong rush to the Post Office, arriving, hot and gasping, just after the box has closed—and finally, a week afterwards, the return of the Letter, from the Dead-Letter Office, marked ‘address illegible’!” Well, that’s more than eight or nine words right there. And what’s with all the caps?

He also has some more practical modern advice, for those of us dedicated to electronic correspondence. To wit:

Your friend is much more likely to enjoy your wit, after his own anxiety for information has been satisfied. Start with “Aunt Maude is dead,” and then work in your jokes after that.

“When once you have said your say, full and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on, like a Circulating Decimal.”  

“If it should ever occur to you to write jestingly, in dispraise of your friend, be sure you exaggerate enough to make the jesting obvious: a word spoken in jest, but taken as earnest, may lead to very serious consequences.” 

And try not to have the last word, he advises.  Even when your opponent is smugly satisfied that he has stunned you into shamed silence.  It’s not worth it.

Steve Leveen at the Huffington Post writes more about it here.

Congratulations, once again, to Dana Gioia!

Saturday, January 25th, 2014
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Dana at Stanford in 2007 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Once again, Dana Gioia has a new honor: This time, the Sewanee Review has just announced that he will receive this year’s Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry.

Previous winners have included Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, W.S. Merwin, Anne Stevenson, Donald Hall, X.J. Kennedy, and others.

Dana, known for his poetry, criticism, and arts advocacy, holds the newly created Judge Widney Chair in Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.  He’s also a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and has received a number of honors in recent years, including the Laetare Medal. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here and, oh, perhaps a zillion other places.

His most recent collection is Pity the Beautiful – we’ve written about it here, and I’ve published excerpts from the volume, also here.  Writing in Best American Poetry, David Lehman stated unequivocally:  “I have no hesitation in declaring it to be his finest to date . . . These poems in which sentiment is refined by technical prowess, and simple words combine to make music and meaning merge marvelously and memorably.”

Pity-The-BeautifulI love all the Gioias – including those I have never met (his parents, for example) – so perhaps my favorite passage from the announcement is this one:

Gioia’s poetic philosophy—particularly his belief that poetry should “touch on those things that are central to people’s lives”—can be traced back to his childhood in Los Angeles, where his Sicilian father and Mexican mother raised him. He remembers that his mother, who, he says, received no education beyond high school, recited poems to him by heart and read others from a “crumpled old book that had belonged to her mother.” Because of this, Gioia says, “I have never considered poetry an intrinsically difficult art whose mysteries can be appreciated only by a trained intellectual.”

The awards ceremony will take place February 19 at the University of the South in Sewanee.  David Mason will give a lecture on Dana’s work on the 18th.

Breaking bad news to Gore Vidal

Friday, January 24th, 2014
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In 2009 (Photo: David Shankbone)

Facebook posts rarely live longer than a butterfly or moth, but fortunately this one did –  it landed on the cyberspace pages of Truthdig.  Steve Wasserman, one of my favorite editors evah, first met the author Gore Vidal in Los Angeles, 1979, while Steve was working as an editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Opinion section:

We took an immediate liking to each other and he began writing for me, more I always thought out of a lifelong compulsion to irritate the New York Times, which he’d long been convinced had had it in for him, than for any particular affection for the Los Angeles Times. Over the years, he became something of an Auntie Mame figure for me, giving me pep talks at Patrick Terrail’s fashionable restaurant, Ma Maison, where we would sometimes meet for dinner, encouraging me to lead as wide and as fruitful a literary life as talent and ambition would permit. We saw each other from time to time at his Hollywood home on Outpost Drive, in New York at the Plaza Hotel, and once at New Year’s in Venice at the Hotel Palace Gritti, where he complained that Susan Sontag and he were the only American writers of any distinction that Bob Silvers would publish in the pages of the New York Review of Books.

Years later, I became editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Gore’s 1999 novel, The Smithsonian Institution, was about to be published. It was a modest entertainment, a satire in the manner of Duluth and Myra Breckinridge. I thought it an occasion to publish a lengthy consideration of Gore’s overall achievement as one of America’s foremost men of letters. Artwork suitable for using on the front page was commissioned and we chose a suitable reviewer.

Here’s the bad news: the reviewer thought the book sucked, big time.  How to break the news?  Or should he let Vidal read it over his morning coffee, just like everyone else?  Read the rest of the story, which was born on Facebook, here.

A “damn fine aphorist” shares a few thoughts among hundreds

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014
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A pensive Patrick. Stanford Bookstore’s Doug Erickson helps a customer in the background (Photo par Humble Moi)

A small, but enthusiastic, audience gathered at the Stanford Bookstore last week to hear archaeologist-poet and art historian  Patrick Hunt’s presentation of his most recent book, A Few Hundred Thoughts (Corinthian Press). According to the leading authority, James Geary, on his blog, All Aphorisms, All the Time, Patrick’s got an additional title we didn’t know about: he’s also “a damn fine aphorist.” His new book some honed-down thoughts culled over decades (with a few fabulae at the end of the volume).

A few of my favorites:

Only leaves know the true color of sunlight.”

Humans have stomachs twice the size of their brains and three times the size of their hearts.”

A constellation is a village where stars live.”

Anguish is proof of the soul.”

Stars obey the same laws as snails.”

Unlike comets and more like candles, souls don’t burn up but down.”

hunt1Clearly, he roamed territory that was witty, observant, thoughtful, and profound … but what’s the difference between an aphorism and a saying, anyway? Here’s what he writes in his preface:

Greek property in ancient society was often marked out by a boundary pillar, a horos stone that set up a determined space. One word for the act of marking boundaries was ‘aphorízein (“to mark off by boundaries, to set bounds, to define”). Derived in part from this Greek verb, an aphorism is a pithy saying, conveying defined truth in a tightly determined construction of a few words whose boundaries were set by verbal economy and precision.

In his talk, Patrick attempted to distinguish between the apothegm, the maxim, the epigram, the proverb, and the aphorism. The epigram, he said, “is meant to have stingers,” a sharp bite at the end. Maxims illustrate principles or rules. The aphorism, he said, is “intellectual judo – much like poetry, every word counts.” He hailed Voltaire, Montesquieu, Wilde, Twain, as “aphoristic masters.”

From his book: “These aphorisms are often sourced from the end lines of my poems intended as summations. They also derive from my theses of various belles lettres, essays and book chapters,” he wrote, adding, “It is hoped there are no platitudes, tendentious saws, bromides or non sequiturs and fallacies here, but that cannot be guaranteed.”

I don’t claim to be wise,” he demurred humbly to the assembled fans. Far be it for us to quarrel with an aphoristic master, but if he’s right, he made a very credible facsimile. I expect I’ll be returning to his book again and again.

Postscript on 1/23: The inimitable Dave Lull, patron of bloggers, alerted my attention to the newest post from aphorist emperor James Geary, about Patrick and this post – it’s here. We referred to him, and now he refers to us, and we are referring back to him again. It’s one of those infinite regression thingummes. Or maybe tennis.

The hidden Walter Benjamin

Sunday, January 19th, 2014
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Portrait of the artist as a jerk.

“It’s always disconcerting to discover a favorite writer was kind of a jerk. How does this realization affect our understanding of Walter Benjamin’s work?” Book Haven friend and writer Morgan Meis considers Howard Eiland‘s and Michael W. Jennings‘s new biography published by Harvard University Press, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life.

The resulting essay about the influential German essayist and critic in The Smart Set“Jerk Reaction,” is bound to raise hackles.  He begins:

It is hard to write a biography about a person who hides. Walter Benjamin really hid. The great critic and philosopher hid, often enough, right there in his writings. They are often elusive texts that can take years of reading, over and over again, before the mists begin to clear. What, for instance, is Benjamin really talking about in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility?” Is it a theory of art and historical change? Is it a political manifesto about the revolutionary potential of film? Is it a long lament about the loss of that magical quality “aura?” The more you read the essay (in its various versions), the harder it is to decide just what Benjamin is saying. But it is impossible to dismiss the essay altogether. The ideas contained within it have a way of staying put in your mind, festering there. That was Benjamin’s special talent, to elude and to linger.

This makes for a writer who has baffled interpreters for a couple of generations since his suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Some are convinced that Benjamin was primarily a Marxist. Some think of him as a cultural critic. Others detect the sensibilities of a religious mystic. Many see an aesthete, the last of the great European flâneurs. Not all of these interpretations are mutually exclusive. But some of them are, which makes Benjamin among that elite group of major intellectual figures about whom almost no one completely agrees. An accomplishment in itself.

Read the rest here.

Love in the oddest places…

Saturday, January 18th, 2014
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p.s. You’ve been Rickrolled!

Postscript on 2/12:  Credit where credit is due. Yahoo News outed the author of this prank: “Even more impressive, the essay on scientist Niels Bohr actually makes perfect sense. It’s hard enough to write a physics essay, but we don’t even want to think about how much time it took student Sairam Gudiseva to “rickroll” his teacher.”  The site (here) defines rickrolling this way: “Going back years, rickrolling is a term for getting victims to watch Rick Astley when they least expect to. Sometimes, during a boring video, the merry prankster will cut to Astley a few minutes in and let his melodic rock crash over you like the rushing tides of the Pacific Ocean, so gentle, so free.”

Congratulations Sairam. Hope you aced it!

“It’s our time. It’s our humanity. We have to be part of it too.” Philip Roth on George Plimpton

Friday, January 17th, 2014
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Plimpton escaping his glamor in 1987 (Photo: MDC Archives)

My only interaction with George Plimpton, the legendary founder of The Paris Review, occurred about a dozen years ago.  I was aware that I was dealing with a “famous person,” but he didn’t seem to be … that is, he wasn’t acting as if he considered himself to be a grand person with me only a fly on his schedule. The matter at hand was Sven Birkerts‘s interview with Joseph Brodsky, which I planned to republish in Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. Apparently, there were several versions and we were sorting them out.  I can’t remember how the issue is resolved, and I can’t remember precisely the conversations, except I refer to them in my later correspondence, so I know they must have happened.

brodsky2Hence, I was interested to read Philip Roth‘s treatment of Plimpton in Exit Ghost. The words, of course, are embedded in a work of fiction, and come from the mouth of the elderly writer Nathan Zuckerman, who is returning to New York City in 2004, after 11 years of seclusion in the Berkshires. He is shocked to learn of his colleague’s death, in his sleep at age 76, the year before – and he is doing some late-life wrestling with his own mortality, too. In Roth’s novel, Plimpton ingenuously winds his way into the last 50 pages, and accounts for some of the most moving passages in the book. Here’s one such passage, though not his final word on the subject:

George escaped his glamour without losing his glamour, only further enhancing it in autobiographical books seemingly driven by self-deprecation. Climbing into the ring with [boxer] Archie Moore he was simply practicing noblesse oblige in its most exquisite form – a form, moreover, that he had invented. When people say to themselves “I want to be happy,” they could as well be saying “I want to be George Plimpton”: one achieves, one is productive, and there’s pleasure and ease in all of it.

Nobody on such casual good terms with the mighty and the accomplished and the renowned, nobody so in love with the excitement of deeds and words, for whom the suffering that is mortality seemed so remote, nobody with as many admirers as George had, with as many attributes as George had, nobody who could speak to anyone and everyone as easily as George did … On I went, thinking that the closest George would ever come to dying would be to simulate it in an article for Sports Illustrated.  …

ExitghostHow could George be dead? I kept coming back to that. George’s having died a year ago made everything absurd. How could that happen to him? And how did what happened happen to me for these past eleven years? Never to see George again – never to see anyone again! I did this because of that? I did that because of this? I defined my life around that accident or that person or that ridiculously minor event? How outlandish I seemed, and all because, without my knowing it, George Plimpton had died. Suddenly my way of being had no justification, and George was my – what is the word I’m looking for? The antonym of doppelgänger. Suddenly George Plimpton stood for all that I had squandered by removing myself as forcefully as I had and retreating onto Lonoff’s mountain, to seek asylum there from the great variety of life. “It’s our time,” George said to me, his singular voice ringing with its spirited confidence. “It’s our humanity. We have to be part of it too.”

Ivy Low Litvinov: surviving Stalin … and D.H. Lawrence, too

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014
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Ivy Low Litvinov and friends in the U.K. …before it all began. (Joseph Freeman Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)

“It is one of the wonders of the age that Ivy survived to die a natural death,” wrote American diplomat and historian George Kennan in a 1989 letter. Dying in one’s bed wasn’t the usual exit from Joseph Stalin‘s Russia, and Ivy Low Litvinov, as the wife of the genocidaire’s foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, wasn’t a likely candidate for a natural end. Yet she lived in Moscow with their children until 1972, when she returned to the U.K. The recipient of Kennan’s letter, the Book Haven’s own Elena Danielson, Hoover Institution archivist emerita, tells this and other tales about the British author in the current Sandstone & Tile here (beginning on p. 18):

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(Photo: Joseph Freeman papers, Hoover Institution Archives)

“In November 1943, Ivy was traveling from Washington to Moscow and showed up, without warning, at the Stanford Library. She wanted to read a collection of original letters by her friend, British novelist D.H. Lawrence, in what was then known as the Felton Library. The research at Stanford was Ivy’s refuge in a dangerous time. In 1939, her husband had been dismissed as foreign minister and disgraced by Stalin, only to be recalled to active duty in 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. He served as Stalin’s ambassador to Washington for a crucial year and a half, from December 1941 to spring 1943. He and Ivy arrived in the U.S. on December 7, while the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. The Litvinovs, especially Ivy, were wildly popular guests in Washington and New York in 1942. She lunched with Eleanor Roosevelt and dined with Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the wealthiest women in America. By 1943, however, Maxim – again in political difficulties – was abruptly recalled from Washington to Moscow and an uncertain fate.”

Still, she had a few dreamy days at the Stanford Library, where she recollected her loving, and stormy, history with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda. She wrote in a letter to a friend: “In t. meantime I retire into my literary life and have been reading up on Lawrence & making unexpected discoveries… I went to Stanford University & was shut up for 2 days in t. adorable Felton Library, which has a rich collection of Lawrence being accumulated in the last 12 years, but I t. first person to ask to see it. In his letters found most amusing references to self. All this I have assembled & begun to write article.”

Elena writes, “Ivy may have spent most of her adult life in the Soviet Union, and she went down in history as the wife of Stalin’s foreign minister, but she always viewed herself primarily as Ivy Low, the writer. She was born into an environment where the people closest to her were constantly reading and writing for publication.”  She wrote for The New Yorker, Manchester Guardian, Blackwood’s Magazine, Vogue, as well as two published novels – and she did finally write her article “A Visit to D.H. Lawrence,” which was published in Harper’s Bazaar.  “Ivy’s research on Lawrence at Stanford helped her steady her nerves while awaiting her perilous return to the Soviet Union.”

Hoover acquired her papers, including letters, manuscripts and photos, in 1987 – not far from the D.H. Lawrence collection at Green Library.

It’s a fascinating story – read it here (again, beginning on p. 18).

Why every kid in China knows Mark Twain

Friday, January 10th, 2014
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Not just a funny guy.

Mark Twain is popular in China – and not only (predictably) for Huckleberry Finn, which has more than 90 different translations into Chinese. A lot of his fame comes from an obscure short story called “Running for Governor,” Twain’s imaginative account of his (fictional) 1870 gubernatorial run in New York.

Amy Qin, who calls Twain the “founder of the American voice,” tells the story in the New York Times hereand says that Twain’s tale of American incompetence, greed, sham, corruption, and lies made the piece required reading for middle school students across China, “along with other short stories that were seen to reinforce the anti-Western, anti-capitalist, socialist education agenda.”

According to literary scholar Guiyou Huang on the Library of America website, “ ‘Running for Governor’ was translated and filtered down into the high school textbooks throughout the country as a model piece of critical realism that exposes the so-called false democracy in a capitalist country. In other words, all high school graduates [in China] know who Mark Twain is.”

Our favorite Twain expert, Shelley Fisher Fishkin inevitably enters into the NYT story (we’ve written about her here and here and here and here, among other places):

“In a speech delivered in 1960 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Twain’s death, the eminent Chinese writer Lao She hailed Twain as an ‘outstanding writer of critical realism in the United States’ and a bracing social critic who had been reduced by Americans to a figure who told jokes.

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She knows everything. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“That Twain was until recently remembered more as a humorist than as a satirist or social critic in the United States is not inaccurate, said Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an English professor and expert on Twain at Stanford University.

“’In a sense we threw out the baby with the bath water,’ said Professor Fishkin, citing the imperatives of the Cold War as a major reason for the distortion of Twain’s more serious accomplishments. For much the same reasons that China played up Twain’s social commentary and critiques of imperialism, the United States, she said, played them down. …  today in the United States, more than a hundred years after Twain’s death, many of his critiques of hypocrisy, ignorance and greed — ‘Running for Governor’ included — still ring true. ‘Twain the social critic who uses satire to skewer his society’s foibles is a Twain that is increasingly of value to us today,’ Professor Fishkin said.”

Read the Twain story over here.  Or read the story about the story here.