Archive for May, 2015

Neustadt finalist Dubravka Ugrešić: “Risk is a moral category.”

Sunday, May 31st, 2015
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(Photo: Zeljko Koprolcec/Wikimedia Commons)

Not risk-aversive. (Photo: Z. Koprolcec/Wikimedia Commons)

A few days ago I wrote that my friend Daniel Medin of the American University of Paris said he was “over the moon.”

That was true, but for more reasons than we had time to say. He wrote me in the wee hours (Paris time) to say, “So much good news, I don’t even mind being up this early.” The main reason was that one of the authors in the university’s Center for Writers and Translators – László Krasznahorkai – had just won the Man Booker Prize. Here’s another: two of the writers he works at have been named as finalists for the Neustadt; one is Can Xue (M&L5), too, on the heels of taking the just-announced Best Translated Book Award for The Last Lover. She was recently featured in Music and Literature, here.

The second, Dubravka Ugrešić, is the author of several works of fiction and essay collections. She went into exile from Croatia after being labeled a “witch” for her anti-nationalistic stance during the Yugoslav war. She now resides in the Netherlands.  Other contenders include Caryl Churchill (England), Carolyn Forché (United States), Aminatta Forna (Scotland/Sierra Leone), Ann-Marie MacDonald (Canada), Guadalupe Nettel (Mexico), Don Paterson (Scotland), Ghassan Zaqtan (Palestine).

The Neustadt Award, a prize offered by the University of Oklahoma’s World Literature Today, is considered the “American Nobel,” and is often a harbinger of the Swedish award. The winner will be chosen in October. Read more about it here.

Daniel is understandably chuffed. “Happiest for the recognition these authors are getting for their (brilliant, uncompromising) work,” he wrote. Daniel, who is co-editor of Music and Literature, recently interviewed the Croatian author. It’s very, very good  – and it’s online here.

A few excerpts from the interview:

DM: In your essay on Susan Sontag, you introduce the importance of “literary apprenticeship.” Could you discuss this notion at greater length?

DU: One has to earn the right to write, the right to “a voice.” I propagated an old-fashioned apprenticeship. I was a passionate reader from an early age. I studied comparative literature. I wrote about other writers. I translated them, too, from Russian to Croatian. I assembled anthologies. I edited, selected, and collected works of classical writers (Chekhov and Gogol, for example). I edited scholarly editions. I did a bit of literary history, criticism, and theory. I rediscovered some forgotten Russian writers (such as Leonid Dobychin and Konstantin Vaginov) and wrote about them. I think that the notion of a literary work ethic is extremely important, especially today when practically anybody can write, produce, and distribute his or her own work. This work ethic presupposes knowledge and a deep respect toward—and compassion for—your ancestors and contemporaries, toward your trade. It also assumes a deep awareness of what one is doing, why one is doing what one is doing, what the sense of the work is, what it brings to the cultural context, what it brings to the reader, and so on and so forth.

***

ministryDM: Could you please elaborate [on “literature as seduction”]?

DU: Yes, literature as mental, aesthetic, linguistic, emotional, intellectual, and sensual seduction. In that sense, Scheherazade is an ideal author, not solely because of her skill as a storyteller (although that too!), but for the risk that hovers above this activity. There are so many writers in this world who never ever question their trade. Fewer are prepared to confront all the dangers—and all the consequences—of their work. I experienced writing as a dangerous or double-edged activity. I was awarded the biggest prizes for literature in the former Yugoslavia (the NIN prize for fiction, for example), but only a few years later—at a time of nationalism and war—I was expelled from my cultural community and ostracized because of my writing. Instead of conforming to a changed situation, which is what the majority of people did, I took a risk. Then bore the consequences. I left my country.

museumDM: It sounds like you’re proud of that.

DU: No; I am sad because of it. I learned a lesson I would have rather avoided, namely that the majority of writers, intellectuals, artists, and thinkers will conform to any situation—whether it is war, dictatorship, communism, fascism, extermination of the “Other,” et cetera. However, going against the mainstream is not an aesthetic category. Risk is a moral category, which shapes our attitude toward our vocation as well as our ideological, political, aesthetical, and ethical choices.

***

DM: You’ve already explained why you channeled these new experiences into fiction, instead of memoir or autobiography. Yet at least half the books you’ve published in English are collections of essays, and even the novels themselves borrow often from essayistic strategies and tone. What attracts you to this particular form of writing? Were you steeped in a particular culture of essay writing, for example a Central European one?

DU: The choice of an essay came naturally to me at one point in my life. I stepped into it like into an old comfortable shoe. In that respect, the strategy of “fictionalizing” an essay and of “essayizing” fiction also came naturally. That impulse was there from the very beginning, I would say. Besides, stepping outside his “domain” is an act of artistic freedom: that’s why some excellent writers (first recognized as fiction writers and poets) also became first-rate essayists. Joseph Brodsky, Danilo Kiš, and Milan Kundera come to mind.

The choice to write essays came with a radical change of my life: the outburst of nationalism (i.e. fascism, at this particular time and place) in former Yugoslavia, with the fall of the SFRY, the war, and subsequent exile. The essay was, at least for me, the most appropriate form to protest against human conformism, lies, killings, national and ethnic homogenization of the society (e.g. fascization of society), against trivialization and standardization of culture, and so on and so forth. I turned to the essay at a crucial moment, when things desperately (at least from my point of view!) needed to be explained, when I lost my familiar addressee and my familiar cultural environment.

***

Theodor W. Adorno

Heretical essays

DU: The best definition of the essay came from Theodor Adorno, who said that heresy is at its essence and core. However, we have to be careful with all these notions today: the notion of heresy included. In our contemporary society—which is highly homogenized by the global marketplace—intellectual and artistic heresy is like oxygen. Globalized culture sucks that oxygen from our mental landscape. The global marketplace pretends that it offers us a diversity of products but in fact sells us the powerful substitute of the holy ONE. Today, we get one “subversive” philosopher, one “subversive” artist, and one subversive “writer”: the global market can’t bear more than one! In other words, we get one Coca-Cola, but we believe that by consuming it we consume the whole world. Celebs are our modern prophets, whether they sell the photos of their impressive posteriors, like Kim Kardashian, or their seductive theories, like Slavoj Žižek, or millions of their books, like Haruki Murakami. I don’t have anything against Kim Kardashian or, God forbid, against the great Slavoj Žižek, or my fellow writer Haruki Murakami, but the holy ONE policy (created, ultimately, by consumers themselves) is a quite obvious sign of a society homogenizing its tastes and needs. That’s why many cultural “species” (forms, patterns, genres, practices, ideas, and cultural spaces) are disappearing. The global market standardizes our tastes, our intellectual and cultural needs. In the result, we all read one book, one Bible, one Koran, we all follow one “prophet”; we all wait in long lines to buy a new book by one writer, or in line to see the exhibition of one artist. There is a market pressure to love Him, to buy Him, and as we live in a religious world, we like to establish our modern “prophets” (in visual art, the entertainment industry, literature, film, etc.). And then we like them and respect them because everybody else likes and respects them…

 

Do yourself a favor. Read the rest here.

 

“The courage of the poet”: Regina Derieva’s poems celebrated – quietly, in Saint Petersburg

Friday, May 29th, 2015
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Kushner admired “the courage of the poet.” 

May 24 was the celebration of the late Joseph Brodsky‘s 75th birthday in Saint Petersburg, with a week of readings, lectures, and exhibitions throughout the city. The celebrations rather overshadowed a quieter fête elsewhere in town, for one of the Nobel poet’s epistolary friends, the poet Regina Derieva (we’ve written about her here and here and here).  Russia’s leading literary journal Zvezda hosted an event that launch two volumes (Volume 1: The Poems. 1975 – 2013; Volume 2: Prose. 1987 – 2013), the first edition of the poet’s work since her death in December 2013.

derieva-book1Because of the competing hullabaloo, the attendance on the Zvezda premises was small, but select, including the poet Alexander KushnerZvezda publisher Yakov Gordin, scholar and author Valentina Polukhina, and the poet Alexei Purin, among others.

I wrote about her for the Times Literary Supplement here. The wandering poet was born in Odessa in 1949, came of age in Karaganda in Kazakhstan, and then emigrated first to Israel, where she and her husband were mainstays of the Russian community in Jerusalem, and finally settled in Sweden, where she is buried. Throughout all her peregrinations, she remained a quintessentially Russian poet.

At the gathering, T.V. and radio journalist Mikhail Fateev discussed the religious aspect of Regina’s writings and shared a story about how he distributed Regina’s first book, which had been released in Israel by the Franciscans, to church communities throughout Saint Petersburg.

While reading Regina’s poems Yakov Gordin observed that ‘one of the main impulses running through all her poems of whatever periods is an inexhaustible anxiety.'”

Kushner discussed the dense, hermetical associations of her poems, and admired “the courage of the poet, who continued to compose poems in a language not used in the country where they were written.” He corresponded with Derieva in the 1970s, and even then appreciated her early poems.

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Derieva

Incidentally, Pushkin prizewinner Kushner is one of the most admired poets in modern Russia. He was a friend of Joseph Brodsky’s from Petersburg days, and the Nobel winner recommended (successfully) that Farrar, Straus, & Giroux publish a translation of his poems, the first of two Kushner books published by one of America’s premier publishing houses. Kushner was also a friend of the Derievs, and they had a final meeting in Stockholm in 2006.

Valentina Polukhina spoke about the poetics and stylistic features of Regina’s work and its extraordinary aphoristic quality. A few other poets read poems by Regina, as well as ones dedicated to her.

According to Fateev, “those who participated clearly appreciated this occasion for remembering Regina and reciting her poems.” The photos from the event were taken by him.

Gordin

Gordin observed her “inexhaustible anxiety.”

polukhina

Polukhina discussed Derieva’s poetics.

fateev

He distributed her books in Petersburg, fresh from Israel.

The Booker Prize: Big night for Krasznahorkai, and his editors and translators, too.

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015
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Krasznahorkai’s German publisher, Hans Balmes, took a photo of Daniel Medin with the man of the hour.

There is much to celebrate in László Krasznahorkai‘s winning the Man Booker International Prize – I say that as someone of Hungarian descent, and heir to that impossible language. Certainly one reason to pop a few corks is the Hungarian novelist’s frank and humble appreciation for some of the people who made it happen. His remarks were welcome for another reason: one of the recipients of his comments happens to be among our friends, poet and translator George Szirtes. (We’ve written about him here and here – and about the London onstage conversation between the author and Colm Tóibín here, and we’ve written about the Krasznahorkai here and here, too).

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Poet and translator George

In “My Hero: George Szirtes and My Other Translators” in The Guardian, Krasnahorkai writes: “I have had six translators into English but the first was George Szirtes, who was born Hungarian but moved to England as a child and relearned the language as an adult. I knew his poetry and felt I understood his sensibility. When my publisher asked who would be a good translator, I suggested him. George said: ‘OK, but I’m not a translator, I’m a poet.’ My publisher replied: ‘Krasznahorkai wants you, so we’re prepared to be patient.’ He began with my second novel The Melancholy of Resistance and it took years.”

The £60,000 award has made other friends happy, too: “I’m over the moon about the prize,” wrote Daniel Medin of the Cahiers Series and the American University of Paris. The Cahiers Series (we’ve written about it here and here) published Krasznahorkai’s Animalinside, hence the jubilation. “I was excited even before they announced the winner – such a terrific, diverse group of finalists. Dozens of translations will appear as a result of this, and scores of new readers will now find their way to his books,” Daniel told me.

“All I would add is that the two publications I’ve been involved with: Issue 2 of Music &Literature, which provides a thorough overview of his entire career, and Animalinside are both, by design and by circumstance, optimal points of entry to his work.” We pass that info on.

Daniel Medin is also a contributing editor to The White Review in London, which featured a Q&A between author and translator in 2013:

G.S.: Why do you think  Sátántangó has been so successful right now? Has something happened in the world, or in literature, that has opened doors for it?

Animalinside2L.K.: I think readers who already knew Sátántangó, the film by Béla Tarr and myself, and had read The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War and Animalinside were waiting to read this too. And it seems that at the time of publication, Sátántangó was the kind of book many people actually wanted. People who wanted to escape the middle ground of high-formal pyrotechnics and the exhaustingly new; those who were waiting for a book that says something about the world; those who want something other than entertainment, who don’t want to escape from life but to live it over again, to know that they have a life, that they have a part in it, and have a preference for the painfully beautiful. My explanation is that we have no great literature. But readers need it, not as medicine, not as delusion, but because they need someone to tell them there is no medicine.

G.S.: Why is it so important for you to map things so clearly? Why is it so important to specify precise location?

L.K.:  Because it’s always important to know where things are. And a thing can only precisely be where it is.

G.S.: What do you read apart from the classics such as Kafka?

L.K.: When I am not reading Kafka I am thinking about Kafka. When I am not thinking about Kafka I miss thinking about him. Having missed thinking about him for a while, I take him out and read him again. That’s how it works. It’s precisely the same with Homer, Dante, Dostoevski, Proust, Ezra Pound, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Attila József, Sándor Weöres and Pilinszky

Read the whole thing here.

 

animalinside

 

“No place in the world for me”: Brodsky’s birthday fêted with an unpublished interview and more

Sunday, May 24th, 2015
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The poet in Ann Arbor, a year after emigration.

Today would have been Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 75th birthday. This weekend, there’s a celebratory conference in Saint Petersburg. Some of the presents arrived early – for example, Elisabeth Markstein‘s interview with the poet in The BafflerMarkstein died in 2013, and although the interview was published in Russian in Colta shortly  afterwards, this is its first appearance in English.

In her book, Moscow Is Much More Beautiful than Paris: Life Between Two Worlds (and thanks to Kurt Leutgeb for bringing the book to my attention), the award-winning translator and author describes how news of the emigration began with a phone call while she was getting her hair done: “I sat, my head with curlers sticking out all over, under the dryer hood with dear Mrs. Luise. ‘Telephone for you!’ I crept out from under the hood. ‘Hi, Markstein?’ The voice spoke Russian. ‘It’s Joseph Brodsky here.’ He has had to emigrate, he says. Could we pick him up from the airport today right away? It was the 4th of June, 1972. ‘Of course. We will be there.’” Markstein recalls their first meeting at the home of scholar Efim Etkind:

marksteinI had met Joseph Brodsky a few years before at the Etkinds’ place in Leningrad. I was there with our daughter Mirli; she must have been three years old. I had put her to sleep on a couch in the living room. (No one would expect that a Soviet university professor had a guest room!) So: Brodsky came in, beaming with happiness because on this day his son was born. We all congratulated him. Mirli could not think of sleep after this and flirted with Joseph. He, in a good-natured way, flirted back.

The trip to the airport was unnecessary. Brodsky’s publisher [Carl Proffer] came from the States to meet him. We didn’t connect with Joseph until that evening. He was confused, despairing, full of longing for his homeland. He had left his country, because even after his trial and the resulting banishment, the KGB was after him tirelessly. While still in Leningrad, before the flight, he had written a letter to Brezhnev, then the Soviet arbiter over the fate of men. Many people criticized Brodsky for this, accusing him of being craven and servile. But me, I was so moved by the letter, which had been published in a newspaper—a proud and at the same time helpless pleading. A significant poet begged for mercy from an completely senile Kremlin lord. For that reason, I’d like to quote a few sentences from it: “It is bitter for me, to leave Russia. I was born and grew up here, I lived here and am indebted to this country for everything that is in my heart. All the bad things that have happened to me, my country generously compensated me with good things, and I never felt myself to be disadvantaged. Not even now. I ask you to give me the chance to continue my existence on the Russian soil and in Russian literature.” To be published in Russia—Brodsky’s only wish. A pure fantasy. The few things of his that had appeared in print would be removed from the Soviet libraries, like the books and translations of all other involuntary emigrants.

The late Carl Proffer, who founded the Russian publishing house Ardis with his wife Ellendea Proffer, shared his own memories in her indispensable Brodsky Among Usrecently published in Russia, where it skyrocketed to #2 on the bestseller list (we wrote about its debut here): “It was Sunday, June 4, and the flight arrived more or less on time at 5:35. As the bus approached from the plane I saw Joseph in the window, and he saw me. He gave a V-for-victory finger flash. Downstairs at the window there was a ten-minute delay when one of his two bags was lost, the first of a series of mechanical details that would slow everything down for days. As Joseph emerged and we embraced, I discovered that a Viennese with strong ties to Russia, Elisabeth Markstein, and her husband were also there to meet him. He and I took a cab together; his repeated reactions were one of nervousness, saying, ‘strange, no feelings, nothing,’ a bit like Gogol‘s madman. The number of signs made his head spin, he said; he was puzzled by the vast variety of cars of different makes. He said there was so much to see that he couldn’t see (he repeated this for several days).” brodskyamongusBrodsky and Proffer had dinner with Heinz and Elisabeth Markstein that evening, and they discussed the Brezhnev letter. Carl Proffer’s memories: “Markstein said he should publish the letter, but Joseph said ‘No, it was a matter between Brezhnev and me.’ Markstein asked, ‘And if you publish it, then it’s not to Brezhnev?’ And Joseph said, yes, precisely. The Marksteins were very kind, and they offered the services of their young daughters to show us both around Vienna. But for the most part we were on our own, and since for the first time we were spending a great deal of time together alone, we talked a lot, especially at night.” (The Brezhnev letter, or one version of it, is included in the new Stanford collection – I wrote about that here.) Ellendea continues the story: “The shock of arrival converted to anger in Joseph: as the two men walked around Vienna, Joseph began spontaneously condemning entire groups of writers (especially Evtushenko and Voznesensky) and dissidents in general. These were things he had said before, but now it was with a kind of hysterical intensity and much more profanity.” In the Baffler interview, he attacks some of his closest friends and colleagues left behind in Petersburg. This then, was the context for his remarks. Several readers have commented on his surprising hostility – it may be one reason why the interview remained unpublished. But this interview is fascinating for many other reasons – really, almost all the Russian poets interviews are worth reading and rereading (that’s why I recommend my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations – it’s terrific, and not because of me). From the Markstein interview:

EM: Do you consider yourself a Soviet poet?

JB: I object rather strongly to all definitions except Russian, because I write in Russian. Still, Soviet would be correct. Whatever its accomplishments and crimes, it exists, and in it I existed for thirty-two years. And it did not destroy me.

EM: I’m glad you brought this up. There are émigrés, and Soviet citizens too, who try to deny its existence, pretend it’s not there. But how can you? The Soviet Union is a historical and cultural fact.

JB: A cultural fact. Exactly. So many Soviet artists drew their inspiration not from divine intervention but from the idea of resistance. That is something to consider, with gratitude even. True, I unexpectedly found myself in the position where one can feel grateful. While you actually live there . . . I’m not sure what it is, what is wrong with my nervous constitution, but when I lived there, I couldn’t quite raise myself to anger or to hatred. Anger, yes, but never hatred. I always remembered, you see, that the regime and its manifestations were individual, ordinary people. I couldn’t give it a single face. For a resistance fighter, for a questing dissident, such emotion is death. Therefore, I’m not a fighter. An observer, perhaps.

brodsky7The Viennese Markstein spent her childhood in Switzerland, Moscow, and Prague. She was expelled from the Communist Party and barred from the Soviet Union in 1968 (according to German Wikipedia) when she was discovered smuggling letters of Alexander Solzhenitsyn out of Russia. She was appalled by the Soviet invasion and apparently said so. She continued that line of thought with the poet:

EM: In Czechoslovakia in 1968, in some cities during the first seven days of Soviet occupation, or maybe it was just one city, there was a slogan, “Remember that you are people of culture.”

JB: This is precisely what ruined their cause.

EM: How so? I believe they had won more ground than was expected.

JB: I really don’t think so. They behaved like schoolchildren. They decided that the principles they were defending, that somehow they had discovered a new way of defending those principles. But in fact, if you really want to enforce them, if you don’t want them to remain just empty words, bubbles in the air, then the only way to do it is by shedding blood. Otherwise, all you will get is a better or worse form of slavery. Once you start talking freedom, how you deserve it, how you want it, how it’s been denied you, how you refuse to remain a slave, you’ve got to take up arms. There is no other way to fight a slave-master. True, they did disgrace the Soviet Union, but pragmatically speaking . . .

EM: I used to think that death is preferable to life on one’s knees. But now I’m not so sure. I’m beginning to think that any life is better than death.

JB: True. But still, the question is, what should we remain alive for? Man is not a rock, he can’t exist just for his own sake. There’s always the “what for.” I understand that here, in the West, I won’t find the answer. Because when I look around, I don’t understand what people live for. My impression is that they live for the sake of shopping. That human life exists for the sake of shopping. The only solution is to stay on the margins, to not get too involved—in shopping, I mean. If I had grown up here, I don’t know what I would have become. This is a very disorienting feeling. I just don’t understand what it’s all for. It must be a very Russian, very totalitarian idea that something so good must come only as a reward, not as a given.

Read the rest here. In her memoir, Markstein notes: “Brodsky continued his flight to London. I never expected letters from him. At the end of 1972, we received a postcard from Venice with greetings for us and the girls for Christmas and the New Year. ‘Imagine: All washed up on these shores. Because there is no place in the world for me.’ I translate intentionally literally, because only then is the pain audible. Still, Venice soon became Brodsky’s favorite city – and where he, it so happened, wanted to be buried, on the Island San Michele. Years later Brodsky was again in Vienna, but didn’t call on us. What does that mean? It confirms for me once more that poets definitely must be egocentric.”

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The Proffers with Brodsky in San Francisco, 1972 (Photo courtesy Casa Dana)

Dana Gioia on little-known poet Dunstan Thompson: “ambitious, original, mercurial, uneven”

Friday, May 22nd, 2015
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Dunstan Thompson photoPoet Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has performed many good deeds for literature; here’s one that has generally gone unnoticed: he has promoted the work of many little-known poets and writers, both living and dead, who have received fame, acclaim, and wider circulation soon afterwards. In many cases, I think his imprimatur has been decisive. He was one of the early champions for Kay Ryan, the Marin community college teacher who went on to win a Pulitzer and just about every other major poetry award, as well as being named U.S. poet laureate. We can add Kim Addonizio, Weldon Kees, and even Robinson Jeffers to the list.

That observation alone would make it worthwhile to pay attention to his article in the current Hudson Review, “Two Poets Named Dunstan Thompson.” Thompson’s not entirely forgotten … at least not anymore. D.A. Powell and Kevin Prufer compiled a tribute volume, Dustan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master in 2010. Later this year, Thompson’s Selected Poems, edited by Gregory Wolfe, will bring his work (we hope) to a wider audience.

The Connecticut-born Thompson (1918-1975) was educated at Harvard and enlisted in the U.S. Army in World War II. Borges translated some of his work after Thompson’s Poems (Simon & Schuster) was published in 1943. His second poetry collection, Lament for the Sleepwalker, appeared in 1946. A 1954 novel, The Dove with the Bough of Olive was not well received. A travel book The Phoenix in the Desert was published in London in 1951. He had published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, but his next three manuscripts remained unpublished. What happened in the final decades is most interesting.

Dana’s essay is highly recommended; it’s one of his finest. And you get two poets for the price of one. Here’s why:

Two contradictory views of Thompson and his poetry have emerged, which seem to reflect an irreconcilable dichotomy inherent in both his life and work. Each faction has made exclu­sive claim to his legacy. For one group, Thompson stands as a pioneering poet of gay experience and sensibility. He was one of the first poets—and certainly the best of the World War II era—to write openly about homosexual experience. Although his language remained slightly coded—even straight sex could not be depicted literally at that time without censorship or prosecution—there was little ambiguity about the hidden world of casual sexual encounters he describes so powerfully in his neo-Romantic and rhapsodic poems. An heir to Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, Thompson stood, to quote Jim Elledge, as “a kindred soul” to contemporary gay poets.

To the second group, Thompson ranks as one of the important English-language Catholic poets of the twentieth century. A neo-classical writer of cosmopolitan sensibility, he cultivated an austere and formal style to explore themes of history, culture, and religion. In ways that seem more European than American, the mature Thompson also used the long perspectives of Christian and Classical history to understand the modern world after the devastations, dislocations, and atrocities of a troubled century.

There is no question that Thompson’s poetry falls into two parts—the early work published during the 1940s and the later work gathered posthumously in 1984.

The “vast and insistent threnody” of the first era “transcends its own sentimentality mostly bit its sheer feverish persistence. All of the wrong notes seem small in comparison to its large, symphonic sweep.” The highly musical poems (“The boy that brought me beauty brought me death”) reflect a poet who “reveled in the hypnotic quality of formal rhythms. His mode is essentially rhapsodic – an attempt to cast an emotional spell over the listener.” The second period occurred after he had settled in the obscure Norfolk village of Cley, initially for financial reasons, but then he and his partner, the journalist Philip Trower, stayed and stayed, far away from the mainstream literary world. “If Thompson’s early verse is flamboyantly neb-romantic, the later work is calmly neoclassical. … His style cooled becoming more austere and controlled. The tone shifted from vatic to conversational.” He adopted free verse as another tool in his repertoire, and wrote dramatic monologues, narratives, hymns, satires, epigrams, epistles, devotions, discursive meditations. “The older Thompson obsessively ponders the past as window into the human condition.”

Dana concludes: “Dustan Thompson is not a major poet, but he is also not a minor writer in the conventional sense of doing a few things exquisitely well. He is ambitious, original, mercurial, and uneven in equal measures. His central themes – love, sex, desire, faith, war, and history – are not minor subjects.” Read about both poets – Dunstan Thompson I and Dustan Thompson II – over at The Hudson Review, here.

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Refuge: Cley on the River Glaven (Photo: John Beniston)

 

Remember the Lusitania! Five-day Stanford exhibition commemorates the centenary of a shipwreck.

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015
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lusitania_postcard_final“In 1982, Gregg Bemis made the cheapest and most expensive financial transaction of his career: For one dollar he acquired full ownership of the RMS Lusitania, the British transatlantic passenger liner struck by a German torpedo in 1915. Given the legal battles he’s fought and millions of dollars he’s spent since then to verify his ownership and access the wreck that lies 300 feet below the waves in the North Atlantic, Bemis concedes the venture was ‘a personality failure on my part. I like to stick to things, I like to see them through to the end.’ No end is in sight, though, because what started as a business interest has become a personal mission. Bemis wants to finally settle a long running controversy: Why did the ship sink so fast, and was there a cover-up?”

Poster Collection, UK 524, Hoover Institution Archives.So begins Joshua Alvarez‘s article in the current Stanford Magazineabout Bemis, a Stanford alum. The article is a preview for a five-day exhibition at the Hoover Tower Rotunda.

Quick! Hurry! The exhibition begins Wednesday, May 20, and ends Sunday, May 24. It showcases artifacts recovered from the wreck of the Lusitania on loan from Bemis and Oceaneering International (such as the porthole pictured above), together with photographs, posters, documents, newspapers, medals, maps, and other artifacts permanently housed at the Hoover Institution Library & Archives. The event commemorates the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania.

Below, two photos of then 76-year-old Bemis as he makes his own dive to the wreck in 2004. He was a lot older than the Lusitania itself, which was launched in 1907 and destroyed in 1915. Bert Patenaude wrote an introduction to the Hoover exhibition; we wrote about Bert and his own book in “Forgotten Tale of How America Saved a Starving Russia,” here – this is what he had to say about the Lusitania:

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Poster Collection, UK 198, Hoover Institution Archives.“On the afternoon of May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine about a dozen miles off the southern coast of Ireland. The ship rapidly began listing heavily to starboard and sank by the bow in only eighteen minutes. Nearly 1,200 of the 1,959 men, women, and children on board perished that afternoon, 128 of them Americans.

“When the Lusitania sailed from New York on May 1, 1915, the ship faced dangers that the British government and Cunard, the ship’s owner, fully understood. Three months earlier, the Imperial German government had declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone and gave notice that Allied ships entering the area would be sunk on sight. The day of the Lusitania’s departure, the German embassy in Washington published an advertisement in US newspapers warning passengers of the risks involved in a transatlantic voyage aboard a British passenger ship.

“Today, one hundred years after the disaster, people learning about the fate of the Lusitania and the furious reaction it triggered will likely be surprised that the United States somehow managed to maintain its neutrality and stay out of the European conflict for another two years. In retrospect, however, it seems the incident ignited a long coiling fuse that would lead, in April 1917, to America’s entry into the First World War.”

Read more about the exhibition here. Or read Alvarez’s article here. But most of all hurry and go see the exhibition before the weekend is over.

Bemis dive to wreck 6-25-04

Above and below, Bemis dives 300 feet to the wreck. (Photos courtesy Gregg Bemis)

Bemis - after diving to Lusitania

Translator, poet Matthew Ward and his “immense intellectual hunger.”

Friday, May 15th, 2015
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Gary Ward

A fierce poem from a feverish bed. (Photo courtesy the Ward family)

In his brief life, Matthew Ward translated works by Colette, Jean Giraudoux, and Roland Barthes into English – but his favorite project was Albert Camus’s The Stranger. His celebrated “American” translation of the classic earned him a PEN award in 1989, as well as critical acclaim.

In a sense, the translation was born at Stanford, where Ward learned French and fell in love with France during his stay in Tours as part of Stanford’s Overseas Studies program in 1971 (he earned his B.A. From Stanford in 1973). Clearly, Ward’s translation of The Stranger is a perfect choice for the “Another Look” book club discussion at 7:30 p.m., Monday, June 1, at the Stanford Humanities Center – and not only for aesthetic reasons. It represents a sort of homecoming.

If Ward’s Stanford roots are not widely recognized, part of the reason may be that he was known in those days as “Gary,” an energetic, gregarious presence who was very, very smart. “He had an immense intellectual hunger,” recalled Stanford English Prof. John Bender, who was the faculty advisor in Tours the year Ward attended, and recalled the poet and translator’s “eagerness and sparkle.”

“He wanted to know everything, whatever he could know.” Most of all, recalled Bender, “he was passionately interested in French.”

During the six-month sojourn in Tours, Ward also forged an important friendship with Monika Greenleaf, now an associate professor of Slavic literature at Stanford, but then a “scholarship kid” as he was. “I have an intense memory of his face and body when he became enthused about something:  his big brown eyes would glow, then a huge mocking grin and demonic chuckle, and a flurry of gestures. It was always a manifesto about literary style, freedom, religion, young men’s conquests of their world, and above all, Joyce” – and, she quickly added, Kerouac, Hemingway, Ginzburg, Camus, and Proust, too.

“He and I bonded above all in our mutual and rivalrous pursuit of le mot juste,” she said. “Being Irish, he had the scintillating verbal gift that comes with the territory.”

Irish was only half the story. He grew up as one of nine children in a Spanish-speaking, working-class family in Denver. ”I internalized Romance languages listening to my mother,” he told The New York Times. ”Our family goes back to 1598 in old New Mexico, with a governor as an ancestor. And I really do have a mother named Carmen.”

Greenleaf remembers the Stanford students taking a night train to Spain during the running of the bulls at Pamplona, “standing the whole way talking – about Hemingway, of course – and drinking.”

“We were so hung over the next morning that we climbed trees to watch the spectacle and ended up falling asleep among the branches.” Ward and a friend, however, “took off down the street in front of the bulls.” The kids had little money, and lived on potato omelettes, wine, and cioccolate calliente. Traveling to the Basque city of San Sebastián, “we got off the train and ran straight into the ocean waves to wash off.  That town and its churches perched on the edge of the ocean seemed like a paradise to us.”

When the sun went down, Ward would entertain them with his stories and his poems: “He always had a diary with him and filled it with extravagant Joycean sketches, which he would read to us at night.  We all liked to catch glimpses of ourselves in the textures he created.  He was constantly practicing to become a writer,” she said.

At the party to celebrate the end of their stay in Tours, Ann Bender recalls swing-dancing with Ward. He was the only student who knew the dance steps of the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. “He was very much a people person,” she said, despite the usual writer’s life of solitude and thought.

Back in Palo Alto, Ward rented a cottage behind the home of English Prof. William Chace, who remembers him fondly as a great conversationalist and immensely smart. Ward received an acknowledgement in Chace’s The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. “I think he helped me just talking about the topics,” he recalled. “What did Gary contribute? Friendship and good humor.”

After Stanford, Ward went for advanced degrees in Anglo-Irish literature at University College in Dublin and at Columbia University; Chace left Stanford to become president of Wesleyan and later Emory University. “He wrote us to say he had become involved in the atelier of Richard Howard, translator of great things,” recalled Chace, and that he had taken a pen name, too. Ward told his mother he was dropping “Gary” for his confirmation name,“Matthew.” It had more of an authorial ring to it, he told her.

Hardscrabble life of a translator

The breakthrough moment came when Judith Jones, the legendary editor at Knopf who had worked with John Updike, Anne Tyler, John Hersey, Elizabeth Bowen, and William Maxwell, felt that a new translation of Camus was needed, one that was closer to the spirit of the author than the 1946 translation by the highly respected translator Stuart Gilbert, which was faulted for its British flavor. (One example: “You’ve knocked around the world a bit, and I daresay you can help me.”)

”I jumped at the chance and worked with Judith on it for nearly three years,” said Ward. “It gave me an opportunity to push my one grain of sand up the beach of culture.”

stranger

“I jumped at the chance.”

The dramatically new translation was praised by The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and others. Ward told The New York Times, “what I’ve done is closer to the author’s intent, and that’s what counts.”

“Camus admitted using an ‘American method,’ particularly in the first half of the book,” Ward said. “He mentioned Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner and James M. Cain as influences. My feeling is that The Stranger is more like Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice than Camus cared to admit.”

By that time, Ward was living in a fourth floor walk-up in Manhattan. Bender recalls his visit to Stanford, where they talked about translation and the hardscrabble life of a translator. “He had lived a life without a lot of material rewards in it, and yet he did extraordinary translations,” said Bender. “All this acclaim, but it paid almost nothing.”

Greenleaf, by then at Stanford, also remembered a reunion about the same time in the 1980s. “We talked our heads off, as of old, and toward the end he read me excerpts of a narrative poem in progress, called, I believe, ‘The North.’ It was thrilling to recognize his mature talent.  He sent me a paper copy, but I lost it during one of my moves, and I don’t know if it was published.

“He let me know when his translation of The Stranger won its prize, and we were sure that this was the beginning of his writerly renown. I found out about his infection with AIDS through a fierce poem he sent me from his feverish, sore-ridden body and still incandescent mind, not at all resigned.  I cried hot tears reading it.”

Ward died on June 23, 1990, at the age of 39. A memorial evening to celebrate his life was organized in Greenwich Village. Chace and his wife drove to the event from their Connecticut home, with plans to return afterwards. As the clock was moving closer to midnight, Chace asked the playwright and gay rights activist Larry Kramer when the formal remarks would begin. Kramer looked back at him with surprise. “What do you mean? I go to these every night,” he replied. As the AIDS crisis swept through the city, formal memorials had been abandoned – the strain would have been unbearable, he explained. No one had the energy anymore.

Twenty-five years’ distance makes any strain bearable, but it doesn’t fill the missing chair or put the subtracted voice back into the conversation. Ward left his traces in many of the pitch-perfect intuitions that informed his translation of The Stranger, fulfilling his wish that his work “would bring a new generation to the great Camus novel.”

 

More honored than read? Albert Camus’s The Stranger reconsidered

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
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FRANCE. Paris. French writer Albert CAMUS. 1944.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic 1944 photo in Paris. (Courtesy Magnum/Cartier-Bresson)

 

I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine,” wrote Albert Camus, describing his impoverished childhood in French Algeria. “Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well in the world and in history, the sun taught me that history is not everything.”

Albert Camus’ The Stranger is drenched in the North African sun, but heat and light take an ominous turn. The Nobel Prize-winning author’s tale of a senseless murder on the hot Mediterranean beach has been a staple of high-school classes for decades, ever since it was published by the up-and-coming writer in 1942. But does it carry a new meaning for our time?

Acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff has chosen The Stranger for the Another Look book club event at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 1 at the Stanford Humanities Center.  With Tobias Wolff’s retirement at the end of this academic year, the spring event on Camus’ The Stranger will be the last in the popular three-year series.

Gary Ward

Translator Matthew Ward (Courtesy Ward family)

Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look, will moderate the final event. He will be joined by cultural and intellectual historian Caroline Winterer, director of the Stanford Humanities Center; and Stanford lecturer Marie-Pierre Ulloa, a scholar of French intellectual life in 20th-century Algeria who has received France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of the nation’s highest cultural honors. The event is free and open to the public.

According to Wolff, “The Stranger is not an overlooked book. But I believe that among adult readers it is more honored than read. We usually encounter it in our student days, and I doubt that many of us read it again later on.

“Yet it’s very much worth our renewed attention in this moment for the questions it raises about our attempts to find meaning in our lives, about the often violent encounters of different cultures, about the way we create consoling, even heroic, narratives to explain and absolve ourselves while remaining willfully blind to the personal and social forces that actually drive us, about the question of free will – do we have it? –  and about the problematic nature of institutional justice and punishment, indeed of all human judgment.

The event will spotlight the translation of Matthew Ward, who learned French at Stanford. He died of AIDS in 1990, two years after his translation was published, and a year after it received a PEN award. In a New York Times article, Ward said he used an “American method” to translate Camus.

“He mentioned Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner and James M. Cain as influences,” said Ward, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Stanford in 1973. “My feeling is that The Stranger is more like Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice than Camus cared to admit.”

According to the New York Review of Books, Ward’s highly respected version rendered the idiom of the novel more contemporary and more American, and an examination of his choices reveals considerable thoughtfulness and intuition.”

Camus was born in 1913. His father died less than a year later in the Battle of the Marne. His illiterate mother moved with her two sons into a cramped family apartment without electricity or running water. Camus wrote that poverty “was never a misfortune for me: it was always counterbalanced by the richness of light. And, because it was free from bitterness, I found mainly reasons for love and compassion in it. Even my rebellions at the time were illuminated by this light. They were essentially – and I think I can say it without misrepresentation – rebellions in favor of others. It is not certain that my heart was inclined to this kind of love.”

strangerWith the publication of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in the same year, Camus became a public figure and an existential legend, though he eschewed the link with Jean-Paul Sartre‘s philosophy. Within a few years, he would also become a hero of the Résistance in occupied France. During the war years, he formed an important friendship with Sartre, and also a rivalry with the man who called him “the street urchin from Algiers.” Their break, over Camus’ refusal to justify or excuse the atrocities of Stalin as they became known, would be as famous as their camaraderie.

The 1957 Nobel Committee hailed Camus “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” Camus was killed in a car accident in 1960 – some claimed it was a Soviet secret police job, although proof has been elusive.

He left behind a range of novels, plays, essays and short stories, but perhaps none as enduring and popular as The Stranger, with its anti-hero Meursault, who is condemned, not so much for murder, as for “not weeping at his mother’s funeral,” according to the author. Camus, an avowed atheist, said enigmatically, “Meursault is the only Christ that we deserve.”

The books will be available at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, Stanford Bookstore on campus and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.

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The Another Look book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have received 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.

Are literature and evil inseparable?

Monday, May 11th, 2015
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250px-GeorgesBatailleAre literature and evil inseparable? “Yes!” says Georges Bataille. Otherwise it would be boring. The French theorist discusses his book, La littérature et le Mal, in the only television interview that exists with him, filmed in 1958. His interlocutor is Pierre Dumayet. I find his concept of evil a little naïve, but see what you think. (With a hat tip to Morgan Meis and 3quarksdaily for this one.)

Geoffrey Hill bids farewell to Oxford: “The craft of poetry is not a spillage but an in-gathering.”

Friday, May 8th, 2015
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Asked if he liked a particularly severe photograph of himself, he replied: "It terrifies me."

Characteristically vital, vexing, and invigorating.

Over at Forms of Loving: Readings in Poetry, poetry critic Maria Johnston noted maestro Geoffrey Hill‘s final lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry (it’s a four-year appointment), which the social media suggested was “a characteristically vital, vexing and invigorating critical event,” she wrote.

You can judge for yourself: a link to the May 5 talk is here, and a link to his previous lectures is  here.

Johnston celebrated the event with some of his “greatest hit” remarks from his inaugural lecture, “How Ill White Hairs Become a Fool and Jester,” delivered on 30 November 2010. We’ll share some of them, too:

“Do poets approach language as the neutral instrument for confessional themes – on occasion, themes of perjury – or do they, in the very act of writing, manifestly reveal language itself, particularly language twisted into poetic shapes, as a substance of imagination radically perjured?”

“I am a traumatised old man, and my opinions on the matter of poetry in English, particularly contemporary poetry, are decidedly peculiar. I do not have any great desire to encourage the presence of contemporary writing in the university because I believe that contemporary poetry already receives far more encouragement than is good for it.

Blackmur wrote in 1935, and I regard it as one of the great modern, or Modernist, formulations of what poetry is: ‘The art of poetry,’ he says, ‘is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse by the animating presence of a fresh idiom. Language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter in hand, but adds to the stock of available reality.’ My God, if only I could have written that!

brokenhierarchies“If I were to offer anything to the conventional young poet (apart from the proverbial revolver and a bottle of brandy) I would say: Don’t try to be sincere, don’t try to express your inmost feelings, but do try to be inventive.”

“The craft of poetry is not a spillage but an in-gathering; relevance and accessibility strike me as words of very slight value. I have written elsewhere that accessibility is a perfectly good word if the matter under discussion concerns supermarket aisles, library stacks or public lavatories, but has no proper place in discussion of poetry or poetics. Poetry of the new millennium is as it is because of what English poetry has been during preceding centuries and a degree of humility when faced with that fact would not come amiss from our latest celebrities.”

“What is needed from a contemporary critical mind that has both depth and reach of a capacity that few have at any given time but which Ricks has demonstrated super-abundantly, is an analysis of how the skim of contemporary culture relates to, is inextricably part of, the gigantic scam of our times: the bankers’ scam, the Blair-Brown scam, the coalition scam, the big society scam, the education scam, the national happiness scam.”

Stay tuned for Johnston’s review of Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952 – 2012, to appear in Poetry Ireland Review later this month.