The English Pre-Raphaelite artist Henry Wallis (1830-1916) painted “The Room in Which Shakespeare Was Born” in 1853. It now hangs at London’s Tate Gallery. The Shakespeare home on Henley Street was described in an 1843 biography by Charles Knight (1842), who commented on “the mean room, with its massive joists and plastered walls, firm with ribs of oak.” Wallis also took to heart Knight’s passage describing “hundreds amongst the hundreds of thousands by whom that name is honoured have inscribed their names on the walls of the room.” Apparently, however, the bard must have been born on the floor. Motherhood was hard in those days.
Why does everyone hate poor Ian Morris, all of a sudden? They did nothing but crow and give awards to the Stanford archaeologist and historian’s last book, Why The West Rules – for Now. His newest book, War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, seems to be making all sorts of unpleasant hoopla.
He wrote a short explanation of his thesis in the Washington Post over the weekend, in an article titled “In the Long Run, Wars Make Us Safer and Richer.” An excerpt:
“Take the long view. The world of the Stone Age, for instance, was a rough place; 10,000 years ago, if someone used force to settle an argument, he or she faced few constraints. Killing was normally on a small scale, in homicides, vendettas and raids, but because populations were tiny, the steady drip of low-level killing took an appalling toll. By many estimates, 10 to 20 percent of all Stone Age humans died at the hands of other people.
“This puts the past 100 years in perspective. Since 1914, we have endured world wars, genocides and government-sponsored famines, not to mention civil strife, riots and murders. Altogether, we have killed a staggering 100 million to 200 million of our own kind. But over the century, about 10 billion lives were lived — which means that just 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population died violently. Those lucky enough to be born in the 20th century were on average 10 times less likely to come to a grisly end than those born in the Stone Age. And since 2000, the United Nations tells us, the risk of violent death has fallen even further, to 0.7 percent.
“As this process unfolded, humanity prospered. Ten thousand years ago, when the planet’s population was 6 million or so, people lived about 30 years on average and supported themselves on the equivalent income of about $2 per day. Now, more than 7 billion people are on Earth, living more than twice as long (an average of 67 years), and with an average income of $25 per day.
“This happened because about 10,000 years ago, the winners of wars began incorporating the losers into larger societies. The victors found that the only way to make these larger societies work was by developing stronger governments; and one of the first things these governments had to do, if they wanted to stay in power, was suppress violence among their subjects.
“The men who ran these governments were no saints. They cracked down on killing not out of the goodness of their hearts but because well-behaved subjects were easier to govern and tax than angry, murderous ones. The unintended consequence, though, was that they kick-started the process through which rates of violent death plummeted between the Stone Age and the 20th century.
“This process was brutal. Whether it was the Romans in Britain or the British in India, pacification could be just as bloody as the savagery it stamped out. Yet despite the Hitlers, Stalins and Maos, over 10,000 years, war made states, and states made peace.”
Now, on Tuesday, the article is still the Number #1 Heavy-Hitter at the Washington Post. Typical of the comments: Jose Benitez writes: “No doubt, you are Republican and love to watch Patriot Games with Harrison Ford. You also probably supported George W. Bush when cheating the Americans about the weapons of mass destruction supposedly had Iraq and sent thousand young fellows to die. You are an Iceman.” I very much doubt Ian knows Harrison Ford at all, let alone watches DVDs with him. Cheryl Ann writes: “what is that? joke of the day for societal disconnects? Ian Morris, you are an unevolved, tribalist monkey.” Joel R. Stegner wrote: “This is undoubtedly the most insane idea I have ever seen in any newspaper, ever. Only a person who doesn’t value life can advocate this perspective. What next? A column from a serial killer on how to achieve notoriety? Let us hope that no aspiring Hitler buys into this quality of thinking.”
Reussere obviously thought a moment, and wrote:
I am one of those that hate war in every possible way. War in my mind is the epitome of evil.
To say I was put off by the title is putting it mildly. In fact, the first time I saw it, I refused to even read it.
Having read it however, and having the overall facts presented in the proper historical light, it is clear that the author has a very valid point. No matter how evil wars and their brutal aftermath is, the truth is that what emerges afterword are often larger, more cohesive and peaceful societies with lower homicide rates. This is certainly not always true, but it is the growth of large societies and the protections that afford their citizens has grown inexorably since the stone ages and the result has been a reasonably steady decline in one on one or few on few homicides.
Please read the article and analyze what the author is actually saying instead of reacting childishly and walk away with an entirely false distortion of what is being said.
We wrote yesterday about Tadeusz Różewicz, who died at 92. Today, poet and translator (and friend) George Szirtes writes about him in The Guardian. He says the Polish poet “was one of the great European ‘witness’ poets whose own lives were directly affected by the seismic events of the 20th century.”
“‘My decimated generation is now departed and dying, duped and disillusioned,’ he said soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He saw the forgetting of history as a disaster, ‘the falling of tears on the stock exchange’ as he wrote in a poem of 1994.”
“That generation, born just after the first world war, amid the great chaotic redrawing of maps, saw the rise of fascism, the terrors of the second world war (both Różewicz and his brother Janusz – also a poet – served in the Polish Underground, Janusz being killed by the Gestapo in 1944), then watched the Iron Curtain descend across Europe and survived, if they did, Stalinism without being jailed or killed to see the clock tick towards 1989 and what they sometimes considered the false reinterpretation of their own pasts.
“Różewicz’s own recounting of his life, Mother Departs – a work part memoir, part diary, part recorded conversation, part poetry – presents us with the picture of a childhood that begins with an intensely religious mother who was born Jewish but then became part of the Catholic community. By the time Tadeusz was born the family was living in a small town, but she had spent years in a small backward village and her vivid descriptions of village life, which he recalls in Mother Departs, made a strong impression on the poet in his understanding of human potential.
“Różewicz’s first poems were religious and he never quite lost sight of the idea of good and evil. He did after all see plenty of the latter. After studying the history of art at university in Kraków he began to publish both poetry and plays and made his reputation in both, developing a collage style in plays like The Card Index.”
He concludes: “Różewicz was a major figure in modernist poetry but his modernism has little to do with theory and formal experiment as such. There is, in his harsh clarity, something beyond, a touch of early Chagall perhaps, as though life were sacred after all.”
Read the whole thing here.
Tadeusz Różewicz died today at 92 years old. It hasn’t made the Western press yet. He was one of Poland’s greatest poets, of the generation after Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert. Miłosz described him as “the most talented among those who began to publish immediately after 1945.”
“By contrasting the scenes of war that he had witnessed with the entire heritage of European culture, he arrived at a negation of literature because it seemed to be no more than a lie covering up the horror of man’s brutality to his fellow man,” Miłosz wrote. Różewicz served in the Poland’s Home Army, loyal to the government-in-exile in London. His older brother Janusz, also a poet, was shot by the Gestapo. I learned this today. Back in 2008, much less was known about this poet.
I tried to arrange a meeting with him during my first trip to Poland that year, but his home was in a remote rural area nearest to Wrocław, and I was far away in Kraków. The attempted meeting was arranged through Maria Debicz. As I recall, he didn’t speak English well, or perhaps at all … that added an extra layer of difficulty to any potential tête-à-tête. I seem to remember that an illness put the meeting out of the picture altogether. Of course I regret now what wasn’t possible then. It will have to be another time. Au revoir, though there wasn’t a “voir” in the first place.
I posted a few Polish articles on my Facebook page, then scoured to find the small, award-winning Archipelago Books volume of his poems, translated by Bill Johnston. I failed, but I found on a dusty shelf on top of a wardrobe, Polish Writers on Writing, edited by Adam Zagajewski, who encouraged the meeting. His nervous, sometimes comically irritable essay is called “Preparation for a Poetry Reading.” It’s a reading the maestro didn’t want to give. One paragraph:
“Poetry has to consummate a given place and time. If it does, it is perfect. How easy it was to create poetry and describe poetry, while it existed. Poets still use this kind of phrase: ‘As long as poetry hasn’t died in me, I can’t be unhappy.’ As if they didn’t understand that there is no ‘poetry.’ They are like children. Worse: They are merely childish. Poetry! If they’re not comparing a fist to an eye, they don’t feel like poets. What empty gibberish: ‘As long as poetry hasn’t died in me, I can’t be unhappy.’ What confidence in oneself and in ‘poetry.’ What if ‘poetry’ died in you a long time ago and you feel happy? Is poetry in you as a kind of foreign body? Poetry? The happy knew where poetry began and ended. Critics could pinpoint the place in a poem where there was poetry. They feel unhappy if they’re not describing poetry. Until you feel unhappy, ‘poetry’ won’t be born in you! That’s better. But there are even poorer poets. They say: ‘Poetry is like a bell’ or ‘Poetry is a moonlit night.’ They make comparisons. They clutch comparisons as a drowning clutches driftwood. They already know what poetry is. So they can create poetry, have poetry in them. They can feel happy. But there is no poetry. They sense this, but they don’t want to touch on the truth. They’re afraid. The old and the young.”
Then a friend, Erdağ Göknar, posted this poem on Facebook, “on the way consciousness gropes to order the world after catastrophe.” Can’t do better than this, at least not today. The fifth stanza alone is worth the price of admission:
In the Middle of Life
this is a table I was saying
this is a table
on the table are lying bread a knife
the knife serves to cut the bread
people nourish themselves with bread
one should love man
I was learning by night and day
what one should love
I answered man
this is a window I was saying
this is a window
beyond the window is a garden
in the garden I see an apple tree
the apple tree blossoms
the blossoms fall off
the fruits take form
they ripen my father is picking up an apple
that man who is picking up an apple
is my father
I was sitting on the threshold of the house
that old woman who
is pulling a goat on a rope
is more necessary
and more precious
than the seven wonders of the world
whoever thinks and feels
that she is not necessary
he is guilty of genocide
this is a man
this is a tree this is bread
people nourish themselves in order to live
I was repeating to myself
human life is important
human life has great importance
the value of life
surpasses the value of all the objects
which man has made
man is a great treasure
I was repeating stubbornly
this water I was saying
I was stroking the waves with my hand
and conversing with the river
water I said
this is I
the man talked to the water
talked to the moon
to the flowers to the rain
he talked to the earth
to the birds
to the sky
the sky was silent
the earth was silent
if he heard a voice
from the earth from the water from the sky
it was the voice of another man
. – translated by Czesław Miłosz
Stanford’s book club honors the famous French writer’s centenary with a May 12 discussion of The Lover, her autobiographical tale of her scandalous teenage affair with an older Chinese millionaire, set in her native Saigon. Read more below.
Long before most Americans could find Vietnam on a map, the French ruled Indochina, and its Chinese, French, and native Annamese denizens lived in an unequal colonial stew. So when a 15-year-old French schoolgirl had a passionate affair with a wealthy 27-year-old Chinese lover in Saigon, it created a scandal. The affair eventually became a book, and the book became a masterpiece.
The writer, Marguerite Duras, would tell the story again and again, throughout her lifetime, but never more compellingly than in The Lover, which received a prestigious Prix Goncourt when it was published in 1984, and sold two million copies.
Now, in Marguerite Duras’s centenary year, the “Another Look” book club is celebrating the author and her book at 7:30 p.m., Monday, May 12, at the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Hall. The panel will be moderated by Blakey Vermeule, professor of English, with her colleague Paula Moya, professor of English, and Stephen Seligman, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco. The event is free and open to the public.
Vermeule had read the short novel as a high school student, but on rereading it, “I was gobsmacked,” she said. “It’s one of these masterpieces that gets rediscovered again and again. It’s a very intense book, so powerful it had slipped my mind what a truly great and subtle work of art it is.” With the centenary, she thought it was an excellent moment to revisit the book the New York Times Book Review had called “powerful, authentic, completely successful … perfect.”
Duras’ simple, terse writing style reads “as if language itself were merely a vehicle for conveying passion and desire, pain and despair,” wrote British author and journalist Alan Riding. “The mysteries of love and sex consumed her, but she had no room for sentimentality in her works, or indeed, in her life.”
“I write about love, yes, but not about tenderness,” she had told him in a 1990 New York Times interview. “I don’t like tender people. I myself am very harsh. When I love someone, I desire them. But tenderness supposes the exclusion of desire.”
Duras was born in Gia Dinh, near Saigon. Her father fell ill and returned to France, where he died. Her widowed mother, a teacher, was bankrupted in a shady land deal. The family struggled as impoverished colonials in a small tight-knit, gossiping community. Duras recalls an abusive mother who had severe bouts with depression, a drug-addicted brother who beat his sister fiercely and stole from the family (and even its servants), and a beloved younger brother who died young. When she met a Chinese millionaire on the ferry crossing the Mekong River, the teenager saw a doorway to a different world. The affair continued until Duras returned to France to finish her education at 18.
In France, she worked in the French Résistance in a team under the direction future French President François Mitterand, who remained a lifelong friend. After the war, she became a member of the French Communist Party. Duras is often categorized with the writers of the postwar “nouveau roman,” a movement that loosened the grip of plot- and character-driven narrative, blurring the boundaries of time and space, but Duras resists easy categorization. She experimented with novels, plays, films, essays, journalism, and memoir. She was fascinated, in particular, by the possibilities of film, most notably writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais‘s 1960 classic, Hiroshima, Mon Amour.
She wrote The Lover at 70, when she had become a tiny old woman, her body wracked by alcoholism and cigarettes, giving interviews often read like a parody of what a French avant-garde writer is expected to sound like. She told the story in different ways with widely divergent details, so much so that until the discovery of an unpublished diary, there could be doubts that the affair had happened at all.
“She had an intensive, almost anti-social capacity to tell the story the way she wanted to tell it, in all its violence and ugliness,” said Vermeule. “The need to be utterly solitary, and socially antipathetic – very rarely does one see it in women writers. It’s not a pose they claim,” she said.
“This book is so very psychoanalytic. She’s clearly under that spell. Look at the nonlinearity of the story. As narrrator, she is almost dissociated from herself, moving from first to third person and back.”
Duras quarreled with film director Jean-Jacques Annaud as they collaborated on the 1992 film of the book, and retaliated with 1991’s The North China Lover, as a way of reclaiming her story. But no version before or since had the luster of The Lover. According to Stanford scholar Marilyn Yalom writing in How the French Invented Love, “She could transform a somewhat sordid affair into a mutually passionate romance and project into posterity her vision of love as an irresistable force that penetrates through the skin, regardless of its color.”
That vision continues to transfix readers, and The Lover continues to draw fans, decades after its first publication. In The Independent, South African playright and novelist Deborah Levy wrote in 2011, “The Lover does not just portray a forbidden sexual encounter of mind-blowing passion and intensity; it is also an essay on memory, death, desire and how colonialism messes up everyone.”
“Marguerite Duras was a reckless thinker, an egomaniac, a bit preposterous really. I believe she had to be. When she walks her bold but ‘puny’ female subject in her gold lamé shoes into the arms of her Chinese millionaire, Duras never covertly apologises for the moral or psychological way that she exists.”
The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website anotherlook.stanford.edu is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.
Yesterday’s “Company of Authors” event exceeded expectations – and we can expect a lot. Peter Stansky‘s annual recap of Stanford books was an intellectual shake-up – as he put it afterwards, “I think it is pretty exhilarating to hear what is going on at Stanford in terms of splendid writing.”
And what of my little panel on “The Power of Poetry,” which I described a few days ago? I must confess that I had a little trepidation about Rodney Koeneke‘s Etruria (Wave Books, 2014). He is an early member of the Flarf Collective, “a group of poets working in loose collaboration on an email listserve, mining the internet for their work, producing jangly, cut-up textures, speediness, and bizarre trajectories,” as I explained at the event. We at the Book Haven try to be avant-garde, really, but still… so imagine my surprise when out of his mouth rolled this lovely meditation about a subject dear to our hearts, Dante Alighieri – echoing Robert Harrison‘s insistence of movement as a theme of the Divine Comedy in general, and of the Purgatorio, in particular, since it’s the only one of the three realms in which time exists – we wrote about that here.
The affinity is not happenstance: Rodney said that reading Stanford’s John Freccero and teaching Purgatorio Stanford students years ago were “two sparks for the poem” – then he added, “so it’s nice to have it come home, as it were, to the Haven.” Our pleasure. Poem below.
As for the panel itself? Said Rodney: “Only Peter Stanksy could put a scramble of authors together like that and make it an omelette.”
La Chevy Nova
One of the great pivots in Christian history
occurs near the end of canto 27 of Dante’s Purgatorio, a
canto that opens with the pilgrim comparing the dying sky
to Christ’s vermillion wounds (note the “sun”
deftly figured here as “son”) and the Ebro
and the Ganges, which are rivers,
are empurpled—made royal—by noon
and a glad angel shows up to sing gladly
about the flame that will burn but also purifies,
which our pilgrim by the end of the canto will have to go through
like the muscles behind or just on top of the knee can burn
at the end of a long run, or perhaps (and here’s the pivot)
like the burning some do when they go from a car
at night’s end in a remote parking lot
where nothing is unseemly or sordid
but does in a fashion burn, but also does it purify
as history considered in its Christian dimension must also purify?
Dante, you’ll remember, has spent the preceding cantiche
skillfully working his personal crotchets
into a gargantuan cosmic structure — “I vividly recalled
the human bodies I had once seen burned” —
with his obduracy not once being softened;
yet he manages to nest this ugly effort
in the larger project of turning his passion for the dead Beatrice
into a redemptive program for himself, for time, the reeling stars,
the fishes, the beestes, the air and everything in it
itself and finally, one might point out, for movement itself
which is seen at the end from its center and revealed as an aspect of love.
Structure is on fire, and tercets are on fire, and process
is on fire, and motion is on fire; while the poem has learned
to preen and turn, pivot on, and no longer hurts, or points
at a world, or even at its status as an internally consistent
verbal object, only at the most tiresome conditions
of its own production.
. . . But I gaze at you and I burn
with a new vernacular; I see you, and I see vermillion,
your color—vermillion in the stoplights
and the stoplights ranged as stars
like the stars could spell out ‘B-E-A-T-R-I-C-E’
and would if they weren’t so dim and talky, stuck
in their orbits where it’s safe to promise love — “it
hurts, but you won’t die”—and you stew in a tepid
amor amicitiae, Socrates spooning
with Alicibiades, warm under sheets
against philosophy’s cold stars:
“It hurts, but you won’t die.”
That even a wound, even now, could make things pure
is enough to count me bitten
returned to the pivoting folds of this world:
count me hurt, count me bitten
Gulls distribute themselves over Oakland’s industrial center
like I leave you, come back to be near you
where I hear their glad song, or watch them scatter gladly
over the beautiful chords of this world;
and beautiful are the chords of this world
with you and everything in it;
Beautiful the Ebro above the phone lines
emitting its fine vermillion into morning
so pleasing to mine and to everybody’s eyes.
So do I live to look at you and so
does everyone: It hurts, but I won’t die —
a little sun, a little wound
“but through that little space I saw the stars.”
We’ve written annually about Stanford’s “A Company of Authors” – here and here and here and here. The unusual event offers a chance to meet top Stanford authors, all published in the last year – plus a chance to buy their books without waiting for an Amazon delivery to your doorstep. But the April 19th event next week is special for another reason: Humble Moi will be one of the moderators, on the session featuring “The Power of Poetry.” Well, not entirely special, actually. I chaired a panel with the same title last year. The charming George Orwell biographer, Peter Stansky, who chairs the event, recycled the title for the panel this year. But what better title could we have picked? What would match the power of poetry?
I met with one of my panelists last week for lunch over at the Stanford Humanities Center. Benjamin Paloff is a Slavic scholar deeply immersed in the work of Russian and Polish poets, including Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz, among others, so we had lots to talk about. He’s also the excellent translator of Krzysztof Michalski‘s The Flame of Eternity, which we’ve discussed on these pages here. But he’s on my panel for the book I haven’t seen – his latest collection of poems, Politics. Benjamin is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, visiting from my own alma mater, the University of Michigan – Tung-Hui Hu, also on my panel, is an assistant professor of English in Ann Arbor. So three of us are used to cold weather. Tung-Hui wrote me this morning from the foggy cliffs of Djerassi Ranch. Well, we’ve written about Carl Djerassi‘s philanthropic venture here, and the terrors of driving to the place here. As for Rodney Koeneke, the final member of my panel, the Stanford alum and poet is visiting us from Portland. He appears to have no Michigan connection, nor anything that’s not on the Pacific. Quite wise of him.
At least one of the other books has been on these pages: Bliss Carnochan‘s Scotland the Brave. We’ve also written about Ian Morris, Gavin Jones, Peter Carroll, and others. We haven’t written about former Stanford president Gerhard Casper (except to discuss his friendship with Hannah Arendt here and here), but we should. His new book, The Winds of Freedom: Addressing Challenges to the University, has been getting some buzz.
Peter Stansky, as always, is the master of ceremonies. We can’t do much better than give you the elegant playbill below, and urge you to come to the Stanford Humanities Center next Saturday at 1 p.m. Oh, and it’s free. How many things can you say that about nowadays?
Our roving photographer/reporter Zygmunt Malinowski has been out and about this week – yesterday, he photographed renowned Chilean author Isabel Allende, hours before her public chat with Democracy Now! journalist Amy Goodman at the Americas Society, the premier New York City institution providing a forum for Latin America. Allende will attend the 2014 Gabriela Mistral Foundation Humanitarian Award Dinner tonight and receive an award.
Said Zygmunt: “I attended the press conference for her recent novels Maya’s Notebook and Ripper, photo-op was included, even though I had to rush and skip the public conversation because of a planned trip [webcast of the discussion is here]. Her latest book is Ripper (2014), a crime novel, was something new for her. She had a rough start and it only jelled for her when she attended a Marin County conference for crime book enthusiasts.”
“Who doesn’t remember House of the Spirits?” he said of one of the magic realist author’s successful first book, which became a major film. “The film was also popular overseas. When it premiered in Warsaw in 1994 in the Palace of Culture/Congress Hall, the three thousand-seat theatre was filled to capacity. Many dignitaries attended, including government representatives, politicians, and actors.”
From Zygmunt’s notes during the press conference:
On writing fiction:
“The first responsibility of fiction writer is to make your story believable, it has to have a solid foundation. That’s why I research.” (She used a researcher for her latest book.)
A question from Writer magazine: “What is the most important thing you learned about writing?”
“Show up. In the beginning it’s work. Later it’s pure joy.”
“Don’t expect to write the great American novel in one sitting.”
“There are only very few that make their living as writers.” She remembered another writer who told her: “Don’t expect your art to support you otherwise the weight will kill you.”
Les Misérables has come to Stanford – and the Book Haven was asked to give a talk about it to a small group of students and alumni, as a warm-up for the opening-night event (see poster at right). The reason for the invitation was the high Google ranking for our earlier post, “Enjoy Les Misérables. But Please Get the History Straight.” Apparently, it appears fourth in the search engines when you type in “Les Misérables” and “misconceptions.” It was a late invitation, and we had little time to prepare. Hence, devoted followers of this blog will recognize some of this text from earlier posts, with amendments and additions. Here’s what Humble Moi said last night:
“Do what we may to shape the mysterious block out of which our life is quarried, the dark vein of our destiny will always show forth within it.”
So wrote Victor Hugo in his masterpiece, Les Misérables. And so the book seems to be part of my own personal destiny – a book which, according to the author, is “a drama in which the leading character is the Infinite. Man takes second place.”
I run a popular blog, the Book Haven, on the Stanford website. A year or two ago, at the launch of the movie version of the musical, I wrote a post called “Enjoy Les Misérables. But Please Get the History Straight,” which is now pushing close to 100 comments – not bad for a literary blog. But this is a love story that began long, long before, as an 11-year-old girl who discovered Jean Valjean, and spent my evenings with him, hiding my bedroom lamplight so my parents wouldn’t see that I was still awake long after midnight, still reading. Modern literature tends to be intensive rather than extensive nowadays, with texts that are descriptive not demonstrative – and so, despite the devotion of a few of us, Hugo’s meandering cathedral of a novel has been démodé for awhile.
Thanks to the world’s longest-running musical, which you will see tonight, this terribly out-of-fashion book suddenly is in fashion. I cannot say the same for the history of the period, which somehow fell by the wayside. We are repeatedly told to go see this story of the French Revolution.
Many of us have repeatedly corrected the media, Huffington Post included, for this oft-repeated gaffe. No surprise, perhaps, since even the Les Misérables movie director Tom Hooper seemed a little muddled muddled about French history.
I don’t have to tell a Stanford audience that the French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. The insurrection of Les Misérables take place in 1832. Different century, different sensibility. But some of the details may have become fuzzy since your years in the classroom, and many of them rush by rather quickly in the show, so it’s worth revisiting. Two years before the rebellion featured in Les Misérables, the July Revolution of 1830 had put the popular “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe on the throne. Popular for awhile, that is. Despite his unpretentious manners and a character that Hugo commended as good and admirable, the poor got poorer, crime was rampant, and poverty was everywhere. Some of the Republicans felt they had spilt their blood in vain on the 1830 barricades, that the revolution had been co-opted by the cronies who put Louis-Philippe in power.
By the spring of 1832, a deadly cholera epidemic brought Paris to a breaking point, ultimately taking 45,000 lives in the city. The epidemic’s most prominent victim was the popular General Lamarque, a Republican and Napoleonic war hero who was forever lamenting Waterloo and hating Wellington. Hence, in the early morning hours of June 5, crowds of workers, students, and others gathered in the streets of Paris. The crowd had hoped to accompany Lamarque’s hearse en route to his native district in the Pyenees, as the funeral cortege made its wide arc around the Seine’s right bank. Mourners and rebels merged into a mob that numbered in the tens of thousands – some witnesses claimed it eventually grew to 100,000.
There were cries of “down with Louis-Philippe, long live the Republic.” A group of students took control of the carriage carrying the coffin, diverting it to the Place de la Bastille where speeches followed and eventually someone waved a red flag with the words “Liberty or Death” on it – you should see some sort of a flag in the production. Soldiers 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 June rebellion began.
Hugo was an unwitting participant. The 30-year-old author was nearby, in the Tuileries, writing a play and taking the fresh air his doctor had recommended. Then he heard gunfire from the direction of Les Halles. He should have gone home to safety, instead he followed the sounds of gunfire through the deserted streets. The shops and stores had been closed for some time. He was unaware that the mob had taken half of Paris, and the barricades were everywhere in Les Halles. Hugo headed north up the Rue Montmartre, then turned right onto the Passage du Saumon, finally turning before the Rue du Bout du Monde – in English, the street at the end of the world, which was more than a fitting tag that afternoon. Halfway down the alley, the grilles at either end were slammed shut. Hugo was trapped, surrounded by the barricades. He flung himself against a wall and took shelter between shop pillars. For a quarter of an hour, bullets flew both ways. Three decades later, he would write about the unforgettable experience in Les Misérables.
The cry “To the barricades!” resounded through the streets, and the barricade is a central image in the show you will see tonight. But there wasn’t one barricade in Paris, but dozens. They took as little as fifteen minutes to set up.
According to historian Mark Traugott, insurgents ripped the saplings that had been planted to replace the larger trees cut down in the earlier revolution, in 1830. They also scavenged planks and beams from nearby construction sites and improvised tools for prying up paving stones. These raw materials added mass and helped knit the structure together. In the hour-and-a-half between 5 p.m., when the first sporadic gunfire was exchanged, and 6:30, when pitched battles were first reported, dozens of barricades had been completed on both the right and left side of the river.
As the first barricades were going up, the rebels searched frantically for weapons. Some made do with sabers, staffs, or scythes, but rifles were vital. Bands of insurgents seized them from soldiers on the streets; others looted the Paris gunsmiths shops.
But they needed more than weapons: they needed the citizens to rise up and join them. 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 rowdy funeral procession. In theshow, the army officer warns the insurgents:
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 so it was. The casualty toll among the insurgents mounted as high as 800 dead and wounded, particularly heavy because the people of Paris had abandoned them. The most committed insurgents paid for their rebellion with their lives.
That should have been a tip-off for the modern theater reviewers who got it wrong: after all, the whole point of the French Revolution is that the revolutionaries won. Recall the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and the rest. This was different. In 1832, the last guns were silenced barely twenty-four hours after fighting had begun.
That about does it for the 1832 insurrection. We could follow with the 1848 revolution. And then the 1851 coup d’état by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. And then the destruction of the last Napoleonic empire in 1871. It goes on and on. With all the upheaval, it’s a wonder they could manage an empire at all … oh, that’s right, they couldn’t… It does go some way to explaining the insane decision to sell off a third of the North American continent in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. They were distracted – in that case, by a slave rebellion in Haiti and an impending war with Britain.
We don’t have much in the world to remind us of this ill-fated one-day insurrection – except this book, and now this musical. Yet the influence of the book over the years has caused me to wonder: Can good be contagious, the way evil is? Can we make it so? One Peruvian writer thought so. He called the Les Miserables an “ideological time bomb that can explode in the mind and imagination of its readers.” It may have been a short-lived blip, but after publication there was an increased interest in philanthropy and the plight of the poor in France. Many people all over the world have drawn strength and inspiration from this novel, but I think, in particular, of this young man in a military academy in Lima, Peru, a century after Les Miserables was published. The Nobel prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa would go on to write a remarkable book about Les Mis, called The Temptation of the Impossible. He wrote: “Les Miserables is one of the works that has been most influential in making so many men and women of all languages and cultures desire a more just, rational, and beautiful world than the one that they live in.”
“I know that in the winter of 1950, in my military uniform, shrouded by the drizzle and the fog on top of the cliff at La Perla, thanks to Les Miserables, life for me was very much less wretched.”
Our man in New York City, the roaming photographer (and occasionally reporter) Zygmunt Malinowski writes to tell us that the iconic bookstore Rizzoli, at 31 West 57th Street in mid-Manhattan, will close today. “I went to see this six-story townhouse for the last time. The building’s prime location off 5th Avenue within a few blocks from Central Park, Plaza Hotel and Rockefeller Center with St. Patrick’s Cathedral nearby contributed to its popularity. Elegant interior with oak shelves, decorated vaulted ceilings, with cast iron chandeliers, and columned arches – it was truly majestic. Its collection of books was special – for instance, a section of graphic novels. Besides general interest, there were a substantial number of coffee table books,” he wrote.
It didn’t go down without a fight. It just lost potential status as a landmark, despite the pleas of thousands of booklovers and others. As reported yesterday by the International Business Times:
In yet another blow to the thousands of preservation advocates fighting tooth and nail to save New York City’s Rizzoli Bookstore, the building that houses the bookstore doesn’t meet the requirement for interior landmark protection, according to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The determination, announced on Thursday, follows months of impassioned appeals from preservationists, city officials and New Yorkers who live and work near Manhattan’s rapidly changing West 57th Street, and who have been rallying to save the century-old building, which is presumed to be facing demolition to make way for yet another glass skyscraper. More than 16,000 people have signed a petition in an effort to save the charming, six-story property located at 31 West 57th Street, where Rizzoli Bookstore has been since 1985. The bookstore is set to close its doors for good on Friday, when a rally arranged by Manhattan Community Board Five is scheduled for 10 a.m. EDT outside the building.
According to Zygmunt, a printed window sign mentioned that Rizzoli would relocate – but when? and where?
As always, he’s documented the sad day with photos. Take a look for the last time.