Archive for January, 2016

First-ever major exhibition on Hemingway – and it even has his wartime “Dear John” letter.

Saturday, January 30th, 2016
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Ernest Hemingway: Between Two wars. Entrance to the exhibit. Morgan Library & Museum. Jan/ 2016

Entrance to the exhibition. (Photograph: Zygmunt Malinowski)

From our roving New York City correspondent, photographer Zygmunt Malinowski filing from … Hawaii! You can read more of his posts here and here and here and here. Meanwhile:

When he was nineteen, young Ernest Hemingway enlisted as a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War I. Within a month, he was severely injured with shrapnel wounds to his legs. Notwithstanding his trauma, he helped other soldiers to safety first and so was awarded medal for bravery.

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In Milan, 1918. (Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

The story behind the exhibition “Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars” begins about then. His personal letters (including his 1920s Paris letters correspondence with Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sylvia Beach), partial drafts of manuscripts, first edition books, and photographs can be found at New York City’s Morgan Library and Museum, located near Grand Central Station. It is in the first major exhibition ever for Hemingway (1899–1961), one of the major American writers of the twentieth century.

The war was not all suffering. While convalescing in the hospital, he fell in love and became engaged. Nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, seven years his senior, was the daughter of Polish-Russian-German émigré. However, she broke off the engagement with a Dear John letter – and that, too, is featured in the exhibition.

The romantic setback was only one episode during his war experience. He left a more enduring record with his successful wartime short stories and novels, including Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway later wrote to Fitzgerald, who read and commented on some of his drafts: “war is best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.” And so it was with him.

The exhibition is a treasure trove of his written records, handwritten and printed, included in annotated notebooks, single pages, and letters. I felt I was standing over this literary giant’s shoulder, watching a work in progress (he received Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954). Some of his handwritten pages in pencil give the impression that he was in a hurry to jot down his thoughts – his quick and careless handwriting runs slantwise on unlined pages.

The exhibition includes the drafts of Farewell to Arms, in which he rewrote the ending again and again. During an interview George Plimpton asked him why he reconfigured the ending so many times. Hemingway replied: “To get the words right.”

The exhibition, organized in collaboration with John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Library in Boston, ends its New York run on Jan. 31, and then continues to Boston where it will reopen in the spring at the JFK museum. (Read about it in the lower lefthand corner here.)

Tibet’s Tenzin Seldon and the slow “silencing of our cause.”

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016
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Tenzin Seldon is now in Bangkok, working with the U.N.

Tenzin Seldon was Stanford’s first undergraduate from Dharmsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The recent Ozy article that calls her the Dalai Lama’s righthand woman overstates the case (she’s met him “more than 10 times”), but I knew when I met her that she would be a powerful spokeswoman for Tibet and the decades-long “silencing of our cause.” After a stint at Oxford, the 26-year-old is now in Bangkok, working with the U.N.

I didn’t know much about her backstory, however. Like so many Tibetans, it’s a somewhat chopped-up history:

From her apartment in Bangkok, Seldon tells me about her refugee-kid days. An Indian-born child, she first attended boarding schools on the subcontinent before finding herself in the U.S. as a preteen. Here, she encountered her mother, who’d left her in India a decade earlier. Seldon says she “never quite fit in” anywhere and “always felt confused.” …

Seldon’s father — who remained in India as the minister of education — took her to vigils and protests as a 5-year-old, before she could even spell “nonviolence.” She attended a small public school in Minnesota, moved to California in high school and then headed to a local community college for two years before starting at Stanford. Seldon has “the sensibilities of the West, of America,” says Tenzin Tethong, the president of the Dalai Lama Foundation and former prime minister of Tibet.

Chinese hackers have infiltrated her computer and intercepted her emails – that’s to be expected – but they aren’t slowing her down. That’s to be expected, too:

You can find Seldon’s version of the nation in dignified protest around the world: She’s gathered 100-plus Tibetan and Chinese students to debate censorship and suppression under the moderating hand of His Holiness himself; she speaks out at multilateral delegations. She appears as the young, fresh face of Tibet in documentaries. And, of course, at the endless protests in the U.S. and the U.K., which find her quietly presiding — no megaphones or pickets here.

Seldon’s is perhaps the most high-profile political marketing job in the world, grander than the work of an average press secretary — when you don’t have a physical country with borders to protect and defend, your job becomes defining those borders. For decades, the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government’s strategy has been a kind of public evangelism for the Tibetan cause. Their success depends on world leaders acceding to their pressure. And if you’re not self-immolating, the next most important task is to present a face of peace and tranquility as an unofficial diplomat of sorts.

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“Resolution, resolution!” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I met Tenzin during the visit of the Dalai Lama to Stanford back in 2010. She was organizing a private meeting with the Dalai Lama and Bay Area Chinese students and leaders. Here’s what I wrote then:

During his official Stanford events on Thursday, the Dalai Lama constantly stressed the importance of dialogue in resolving conflict – and he meant what he said.

At a late-afternoon private gathering at the Stanford Park Hotel, he spoke to nearly 100 Chinese university students from Stanford and Berkeley, as well as faculty, artists and a dozen Tibetan students from around the Bay Area.

Unlike his public talk at Maples Pavilion or the address to students in Memorial Church, this event was not sponsored by Stanford. The private event was organized by Tenzin Seldon, president of Stanford Friends of Tibet and the university’s first student from Dharamsala, where the spiritual leader’s government-in-exile is based. Seldon said of the Chinese students gathered in the courtyard, “These are the change-makers of the future.”

Perhaps the most moving query was by Fang Zheng, a wheelchair-bound young man who lost both his legs when he was crushed by tanks in Tiananmen Square. In a Chinese exchange that evoked applause and laughter, he asked the Tibetan leader where he anticipated meeting this year’s imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, the writer Liu Xiaobo. Tibet’s Nobel Peace laureate answered, to more laughter, that it was hard to anticipate the future, but the likeliest spot was Beijing.

His advice to those fighting for more freedom in China showed less levity and more steel: “Resolution, resolution – persist to the end.”

Read the article about Tenzin here.

An autographed copy of Canterbury Tales? I believe him.

Sunday, January 24th, 2016
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Personal-library-of-Richard-A-Macksey

We’ve written about this library before, and the man behind it. Behold the 70,000-volume personal library of retired Humanities professor Richard Macksey of Johns Hopkins University. He has sometimes claimed that his collection includes an autographed copy of Canterbury Tales and a presentation copy of the Ten Commandments. Unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out. More demonstrably, he has Marcel Proust‘s copy of Swann’s Way, and many first editions of William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and others.

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At home.

Dick Macksey’s library is featured this week in Robaroundbooks’s “Bookshelf of the Week” here. In the combox, one former student, Bill Benzon, chimed in with a memory of his own: “I was a student of Macksey’s back in the 1960s and was in that library shortly after it was constructed (out of a garage). It wasn’t so cluttered then, but the shelves were full. Macksey was a film buff and would have people over to his place regularly to discuss films. He lived a couple blocks away from campus so it was easy to see a film on campus and then go over to Macksey’s for the discussion.”

Check out my own post from a few years ago, “He lived on three hours of sleep and pipe smoke” – here.

Their crime? Persian sonnets. Now they’ve escaped Iran.

Friday, January 22nd, 2016
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Two Iranian poets fled their country this week. Their crime? Persian sonnets. Iran is cracking down on freedom of expression – and the poets, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Moosavi, were facing floggings and long prison terms. According to the Associated Press:

Mousavi-Ekhtesari

Free at last.

Ekhtesari, a practicing obstetrician, told The Associated Press on Monday that both she and Mousavi, a trained doctor who teaches literature and poetry, escaped from Iran in recent days and made it to another country. She declined to elaborate out of continuing concerns about their safety.

Ekhtesari faced an 11½-year prison sentence, while Mousavi faced nine years on charges ranging from propaganda against the state to “insulting sanctities.” Each also was sentenced to 99 lashings for shaking hands with members of the opposite sex. They likely were targeted because their work is known abroad. Both are self-described “postmodern Ghazal” poets who seek to revive the traditional Persian love sonnet by applying it to contemporary political and social issues.

Hard-liners in the police, judiciary and military view any rapprochement with the West as a threat to the Islamic Republic and a sign of moral decay. That fear saw authorities arrest a group of young Iranian men and women in May 2014 for making a video, showing them dancing to Pharrell Williams‘ song “Happy.”

Those arrested more recently, rights groups and analysts say, serve as pawns in the hard-liners’ struggle with moderates ahead of February’s parliamentary elections.

Among those targeted are 19 reporters imprisoned in Iran, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a December survey, making the Islamic Republic the world’s third-worst jailer of journalists behind China and Egypt. Among the four Iranian-Americans freed in the swap this weekend was Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian. A fifth American held in Iran, student Matthew Trevithick, also was released.

The convictions in the two poets’ case were based on forced false confessions, a routine practice in Iran in politically motivated cases in which there is no evidence against the defendant.

iranpoets

Good luck to you both!

“These sentences show that repression in Iran is intensifying,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “Hardliners aren’t just going after political activists, they are determined to stamp out any social or cultural expression with which they disagree.”

The rights group recently learned that filmmaker Keywan Karimi was sentenced to 6 years in prison and 223 lashes on similar charges.

“The Iranian Judiciary is signaling it will brook no dissent, and appears intent to instill fear in the citizenry through these harsh sentences,” said Ghaemi. “Not only are the prosecutions of these poets a violation of Iran’s own laws and its international obligations regarding freedom of expression, lashing has been designated by the UN as tantamount to torture.”

(Photos courtesy International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.)

What was the most important moment in René Girard’s life? “Coming to America,” he said.

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016
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Rene Girard (1)

Outside the Stanford Faculty Club. (Photo: Ewa Domanska)

René Girard‘s biographer – that’s me – chats with blogger Artur Sebastian Rosman over at Cosmos the in Lost. We did the interview about the important French theorist and immortel of the Académie Française shortly after his death on November 4. I was pleased Artur decided to run it yesterday, on the day of René’s memorial service. Read the whole thing here. Excerpts below:

Artur Rosman: Were you familiar with Professor Girard’s theories before you met him? What did you think of them?

Cynthia Haven: His name was familiar to me as an important French theorist, but that was about all.

The more I learned and read, the more I was surprised that more hadn’t been written about him in the American mainstream media. After all, he’d made his home in the U.S. since 1947.

Many felt his ideas were abstruse and difficult. On the contrary, I found the ideas to be pretty straightforward, and not hard to explain – although some of the applications of his ideas, and the research he uses to support them from the fields of, say, anthropology, can be challenging. I began writing a series of articles about him. He told me afterwards that this was the first time ordinary people understood what he was doing, although I think he was being overly generous. He signed my copy of Mimesis and Theory, “To Cynthia, with all my thanks for her splendid contribution to my scholarly reputation.”

I find his ideas have enormous explanatory power not only for the world we see around us – but the world we find within us. People may question his reading of archaic societies or historical events, but the place to verify his theories is within oneself. We imitate each other. We are driven by competition and rivalry with the real or imagined “other.” We struggle to acquire status symbols, which we fantasize will make us more like the one we idolize . We join in Twitter mobs, or Facebook mobs, that castigate and vilify the person or group we think is responsible for all our ills, and whose elimination will bring peace at last. The Democrats. The Republicans. Donald Trump. …

I recently ran across this quote from René’s The Scapegoat: “Each person must ask what his relationship is to the scapegoat. I am not aware of my own, and I am persuaded that the same holds true for my readers. We only have legitimate enmities. And yet the entire universe swarms with scapegoats.” True for us all, still.

***

AR: What were the most formative experiences in Girard’s life? How did they shape his thought?

CH: I once asked René what the most pivotal experience of his life was, and he replied that the major events were in his head. That’s what everyone else said about him, too. However, events in our heads are put there by the things we see around us. Events in our head tend not to stay with us unless they explain what we see around us. Otherwise they’d be no use.

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Another important decision in his life: with his wife Martha outside his Stanford home.

I pressed harder, and he responded emphatically, “Coming to America.” That event in 1947, he said, made everything else possible. René is an American phenomenon, as much as a French one. Without America and the bigger vision it offered after the war, there would have been no books, no theories, and no academic career.

He had been trained as an archiviste-paléographe at one of France’s grandes écoles, the École des Chartes in Paris. It was the same school his father had attended. It was a training ground for archivists, librarians, paleographers. The suit didn’t exactly fit him. In the rigid French professional hierarchies at the time, the opportunities it provided were narrow.

And of course America led to other things. An exceptionally happy marriage, for example. Martha McCullough was in one of his first classes at Indiana University. The name stumped him midway through roll call. “I’ll never be able to pronounce this name,” he said. They met again a year or so later, when she was no longer his student. And he fixed the name problem for her in 1951, when they married. The stability and contentment of that 64-year marriage cannot be underestimated in supporting his very long, very fruitful career.

Let me add two more. Another formative experience was the “strange defeat” of France in 1940. Franco-German relations fascinated him throughout his life. It’s a straight line from the toy soldiers he played with as a child, reenacting the Battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo, to his final book, Battling to the End. Certainly the topic frequently recurred in my own talks with him. Clearly he was pondering the real nature of the struggle for much of his life. It would be the centerpiece in Battling to the End.

And finally, of course, his conversion experience. “Conversion experience” is a mysterious, much-misunderstood term. He didn’t say much about it – he said the subject was difficult to explain, and counterproductive to his work in advancing his mimetic theory. But one time he discussed it was in the book I mentioned earlier,When These Things Begin. Here’s what he said about that period in autumn 1958, when he was working on his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which discusses Cervantes, Proust, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky: “on the twelfth and last chapter that’s entitled ‘Conclusion.’ I was thinking about the analogies between religious experience and the experience of a novelist who discovers that he’s been consistently lying, lying for the benefit of his Ego, which in fact is made up of nothing but a thousand lies that have accumulated over a long period, sometimes built up over an entire lifetime.”

rene-girard

Au revoir.

“I ended up understanding that I was going through an experience of the kind that I was describing. The religious symbolism was present in the novelists in embryonic form, but in my case it started to work all by itself and caught fire spontaneously. I could no longer have any illusions about what was happening to me, and I was thrown for a loop, because I was proud of being a skeptic. It was very hard for me to imagine myself going to church, praying, and so on. I was all puffed up, full of what the old catechisms used to call ‘human respect.’”

Read the whole thing here.

bookUpdate on 1/23: Some nice pick-up over at the World Literature Today blog hereWe’ve been longstanding friends with the eminent WLT – even before our profile of leading Polish poet Julia Hartwig. “Invisible, you reign over the visible: Julia Hartwig’s reality mysticism” was republished by the Milena Jesenská Blog here.

Memorial service and reception for René Girard on Tuesday, Jan. 19. Be there.

Saturday, January 16th, 2016
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Martha and René Girard in 2008. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A memorial service will be held Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 2 p.m. in Stanford Memorial Church for the renowned French theorist René Girard, who died in November at age 91. We have written about him so many places on the Book Haven, it is hard to know where to begin, but you might try here and here and here and here. We’ve even written about the memorial service before, a month ago here. Consider this a final reminder.

Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Peter Thiel, and René’s son Martin Girard will be among those speaking at the service.

A reception will follow at the McCaw Hall at Arrillaga Alumni Center at 326 Galvez on the Stanford campus, from 3 to 5:30 p.m.

The renowned Stanford French professor was one of the 40 immortels of the prestigious Académie Française. René Girard joined the Stanford faculty in 1981.

He is the author of nearly thirty acclaimed books, including the provocative and seminal Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), Violence and the Sacred (1972), and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978). His last major work was Battling to the End (2007).

He died at his Stanford home on Nov. 4 at the age of 91, after long illness.

Read the full obituary here.

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Reception at the Alumni Center (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The Stanford Memorial Church is one of the easiest places to find on the Stanford campus – you can see it as you drive down the campus’s landmark Palm Drive. The century-old building has been called “the University’s architectural crown jewel.” The Arrillaga Alumni Center is a few minutes away on foot, and I’ve been promised there will be signage (plus a lot of other people heading in the same direction).

Arrive early to find parking. And bring an umbrella. It looks like rain.

 

One of the best books of the 20th century? Werner Herzog is coming to Stanford to talk about J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine

Friday, January 15th, 2016
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J.A. Baker wrote The Peregrine at a precarious moment in environmental history: By the 1960s, the falcons had almost vanished entirely from the English countryside, thanks to aggressive use of pesticides. Baker’s response, an ecstatic panegyric to peregrines, stunned critics with its originality, power and beauty.

The little-known 1967 masterpiece will be the subject of an onstage conversation with legendary film director Werner Herzog, who has said that The Peregrine is one of his favorite books.

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The young J.A. Baker, author of “The Peregrine.” (Photo courtesy Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex)

The Another Look book club event will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2. Free tickets have sold out; registration for the waiting list is offered through the Another Look book club’s website. The Peregrine is available at Stanford Bookstore and at Kepler’s in Menlo Park.

Herzog’s interlocutor will be Robert Harrison, an acclaimed author and Stanford’s Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular radio talk show Entitled Opinions. 

‘One of the finest pieces of prose’

Herzog has made edgy films about grizzly bears, prehistoric cave drawings in southern France, Rajput festivals, and more – but he also prides himself on his role as an author and screenwriter. The Peregrine is required reading in Herzog’s Rogue Film School, and he has called it one of the greatest books of the 20th century, praising “an intensity and beauty of prose that is unprecedented, it is one of the finest pieces of prose you can ever see anywhere.” [Read more here about what he’s said about the book. – ED]

The Peregrine, which received England’s prestigious Duff Cooper Prize, has no plot and no characters. Instead, Baker distills 10 years of observations into a single autumn-to-spring period, written as a diary. Baker’s passionate, unsparing descriptions of peregrine falcons in the fenlands of Essex convey the urgency of the historical moment:

“Before it is too late, I have tried to … convey the wonder of … a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa,” he wrote. By the spring of 1961, tens of thousands of birds were found littering the countryside, dead or dying in agony, along with other animals.

peregrine copyThe ecology movement has moved on to more global issues, but The Peregrine marks a point in history when the dangers were local and immediate. In that sense, it can be seen as a companion volume to Rachel Carson‘s book Silent Spring.

Some critics have attributed the elegiac tone to Baker’s own history. He had just been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and by 1969, when his second and last book was published, he was seriously incapacitated – just as Carson was mortally ill when she wrote Silent Spring.

Both Baker and his birds got a reprieve: The most lethal chemicals have been banned, and the peregrine population, once considered at risk of global extinction, has returned to levels not seen for centuries.

And Baker himself would live quietly until 1987, finally succumbing to the cancer that had resulted from the drugs prescribed for his condition.

‘Persist, endure, follow, watch’

In the days before Facebook, Twitter, selfies and Google searches, it was possible for a man to be little known outside his circle of friends. Privacy suited Baker, who was described as very reluctant to disclose anything about himself or his private views. In the years since his death, his trail has vaporized, leaving behind only his startling classic. A few details have become known in recent years.

Baker was born in Chelmsford in 1923, a son of the lower middle classes. His formal schooling ended at 16. He had no literary connections before the publication of his book. While initially said to be a librarian, he was in fact a manager of the local automobile association (though he couldn’t drive), and later a manager at a local depot of Britvic, a beverage company. He had a long and happy marriage.

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At the 2009 Venice Film Festival. (Photo: Nicolas Genin)

Sometime in his daily schedule, he found time to bike or hike to the Essex countryside, recording his observations in passages such as this one: “They had no song. Their calls were harsh and ugly. But their soaring was like an endless silent singing.” Baker became one of the most important nature writers of the last century.

“Baker’s legacy is real and lasting, evidenced in the fact that we’re still talking about it 50 years on, and cases like me are still trying to get inside his head,” wrote author and conservationist Conor Mark Jameson, who called the book “a love story of sorts.”

He noted that Baker “showed us how to relay feelings as well as bald records, how to write up notes, how to look, how to listen.

Experts then and now have challenged the accuracy of Baker’s observations, and a small controversy has erupted around the book – underscoring that this is an imaginative work as well as a personal record. But none challenge the mesmerizing beauty of his prose, which captures his despairing view of man and his own single-minded pursuit of the bird that obsessed him.

According to British naturalist and author Mark Cocker, “he drills down into the moment to haul back to the surface a prose that is astonishing for its inventiveness, yet also for its clarity and precision.”

Cocker added, “In fact if there is any criticism, it arises because there is so little down-time in the prose.”

Some have commented that The Peregrine is not so much about watching a bird, but is about becoming one: “Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms,” Baker wrote. “Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must become the thing he hunts. What is, is now, must have the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree. Yesterday is dim and monochrome. A week ago you were not born. Persist, endure, follow, watch.”

***

Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected have been Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces that people may not have read before. Visit the anotherlook.stanford.edu website for more details.

 

A typical cat-and-a-half? You decide.

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016
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A few days ago, we posted about the Siberian kitten named after poet Regina Derieva, and my dear friend Alexander Deriev referred to the occasion when the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova called her protégé, Joseph Brodsky, “a typical cat-and-a-half.” I’d never heard this before (though both poets identified strongly with cats), and the punctuation of the sentence seemed odd, so I did a little digging.

What I found was a very good article about the relationship of the two poets by their mutual friend, Anatoly Naiman in a 1999 issue of the London Review of Books. The relevant excerpt (and yes, it does have the odd punctuation):

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From one cat…

What Derzhavin was to Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova was to Brodsky: the mentor who anointed him as the next great Russian poet. When Brodsky died, the journal Zvezda printed Akhmatova’s quatrain ‘I don’t weep for myself now’, with a new dedication to Brodsky in brackets. This is what Akhmatova used to call ‘popular wish-fulfilment’ – in other words, plain forgery. Akhmatova never dedicated a poem to Brodsky and the only excuse for thinking that ‘I don’t weep …’ might have been dedicated to him derives from the reference to ‘the golden stamp of failure’ – imagined by some to be a reference to his ginger hair.

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…to another.

Certainly, ‘we’ – by which I mean a group of four young Leningrad poets that included Joseph and me – found our way to Akhmatova in her last years, and her relations with Brodsky were on a higher level than her relations with the rest of us. She already knew what rank of poet he was in 1964, and we didn’t. A quarter of a century later, his biographer, Valentina Polukhina, interviewed me on a bus journey from Nottingham to Stratford. I was sitting by the window and the sun was broiling me, so that I associated the question, ‘When did you realise he was a great poet?’ (or even ‘genius’) with the various unpleasantnesses of the journey and snarled: ‘I still haven’t.’ Once I had cooled off, I decided that the question had been wrongly phrased. From our early twenties – or, to be more precise, starting when he was 19 and I was 22 – we had seen each other almost every day for years on end, but neither then nor later would it have been possible for me to say to myself: ‘That’s the great poet Joseph Brodsky!’ Akhmatova understood immediately that he was a great poet. Once, referring to her cat, Gluck – who exceeded the normal dimensions of his breed – by his nickname ‘Cat-and-a-Half’, she unexpectedly added: ‘Don’t you find that Joseph is a typical cat-and-a-half?’

regina-cat1When he died, I called Isaiah Berlin and said I’d like to talk to him about Joseph, and especially to hear what he was like when he first arrived in the West. Isaiah said that he, too, wanted to talk with me, not about that, but about what he was like ‘then, in the Akhmatova years, because everything was sown and came to fruition at that time, and the emigration years were merely the reaping of the harvest’.

Read the whole thing here. It’s worth it.

Six weeks old and a lot to live up to: Siberian show-cat named for poet Regina Derieva

Sunday, January 10th, 2016
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The melancholy look gave her a name. (Photo: Mikael Ågren)

I have friends who named their cat “Eliot,” after T.S. Eliot, the poet who wrote “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” I’m sure other cats have been named after, oh, Wystan Auden, or Sidney Godolphin.

siberiancat2But for the late poet Regina Derieva, this is a first. (Read about the Stanford acquisition of her archive here.)

“Just this morning I got the best Christmas gift ever – notification that a new-born kitty was named after Regina,” her husband, Alexander Derievwrote to me. And no ordinary cat by a longshot. The Swedish Society of Siberian Cats has chosen the Russian poet for its newest show cat. Derieva joined Anna Akhmatova in this unusual honor.

“The naming of cats is a difficult matter, it isn’t just one of your holiday games,” wrote Eliot. But it doesn’t seem to have been the case for these two kittens, born on November 22. “First of all, we have a tradition of giving our cats Russian historical names,”” said Mikael Ågren, one of the directors of the 15-year-old society based in the small city of Gävle. “This time, we found these two newborn kittens looked so melancholic and poetic that started to search through Swedish Wikipedia for some special names for our sister kitten. We aren’t at all experts in poetry, but the fact that both Anna Akhmatova and Regina Derieva were born in Odessa made the decision for us. After that, we found Swedish translations of both writers’ work and read them with great interest.” It helped that Derieva spent the last fifteen years of her life in Sweden.

siberiancat3According to Alexander, who spoke with Ågren, the first ten cats were imported to Sweden directly from Russia in 2000. Now the total population of Siberian cats in Sweden is around 5,000. “The society is quite active in marketing and promoting their cats. Their ‘pupils’ participate in national and international exhibitions and cat shows every year,” he said. And so it will be for the little show-cat, Regina Derieva.

The names are fitting for another reason. Both Derieva and Akhmatova were cat-lovers and cat magnets. Derieva, in particular, identified with the lynx. And they weren’t the only reasons. Alexander recalled that in Anatoly Naiman‘s memoirs you can find the following passage: “Once, referring to her cat, Gluck – who exceeded the normal dimensions of his breed – by his nickname ‘Cat-and-a-Half’, she unexpectedly added: ‘Don’t you find that Joseph is a typical cat-and-a-half?’” That would be her protege, future Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, another cat lover. Akhmatova’s lifelong friend Valeriya Sreznevskaya described her friend this way: “She was a sparkling water sprite, an avid wanderer on foot, climbed like a cat…” Alexander added, “And Modigliani in his drawings of Akhmatova depicted so well her feline’s body and expression.”

Check out the baby pictures below. Notice a resemblance?

UPDATE ON 1/13: Breaking news on kittens and Derieva in the Odessa press here.

baby-cats

Notice the resemblance? (Photo credits Russian State Archive of Literature and Art for Akhmatova, Stanford University Libraries for Derieva, and Mikael Ågren)

“Where are we going? Home, always back home”: On love, loss, and death…

Thursday, January 7th, 2016
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Thomas reading Shakespeare’s sonnets in the woods outside Bucharest, 1997.

The poet Edward Hirsch wrote, “Implicit in poetry is the notion that we are deepened by heartbreaks, that we are not so much diminished as enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish–to let others vanish–without leaving a verbal record.”

A dear friend, Thomas Budd, died this week in his native Yorkshire. You don’t lose friends of such longstanding easily. When I met him in 1979 in London, you would not have guessed that he wasn’t a native Londoner, but what’s bred in the bone… After many sojourns abroad, he finally returned a few years ago to West Yorkshire, more specifically, a small village on the south end of the Yorkshire dales called Otley. And that is where his life ended.

“A deeply kind, sincere and quietly beautiful man,” said a mutual friend. Not a bad summary, but one must add that he loved language, and Shakespeare, and poetry, so it right to celebrate his life with them – celebrate even in the sobriety of loss. Circumstances conspired to remind me of him today (as if I could forget) with two poems and a bit of prose.

Dana Gioia inadvertently started it. The Virginia Quarterly Review just published his “Meditation from a Line from Novalis,” with its refrain, “Where are we going? Home, always back home,” a translation of the German line that serves as an epigraph from Novalis:

Whether through genius or incompetence,
His fragments blur together—but into what?
Not quite philosophy or even art,
But the disclosure of some primal secret.
“Love is the final purpose of the world.”

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At the National Gallery, 2012.

You can read the whole poem here. The German Romantic poet, who proposed a sort of “magical idealism,” is little-known today. “Our life is not a dream but must become one.” Schelling kept watch over him as he died, and, according to this poem, marveled at how joyfully he faced death, even at the terrifyingly young age of 28.

I visited Thomas in Otley in 2013. I’m pretty sure I began to hear the edges of a long-abandoned Yorkshire accent reappear in my all-too-brief stay with him that winter. In voice and manner, however, he still reminded me of that native Londoner Alec Guinness, one of my favorite actors. So it was a pleasant coincidence to find, this morning, that a friend had brought my attention to Guinness’s recording of T.S. Eliot‘s “Four Quartets,” one of my favorite poetic works, on youtube. If you can avoid the grating voice that introduces the quartets (she mispronounces “Dry Salvages,” too), it’s worth a hearing. It’s the same cassette recording I lost somewhere years ago, after I had played and played and played it again, and I had thought never to hear this matchless voice read these words:

… As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. …

“In my end is my beginning.” Now you can hear it, too, in the youtube video below.

Finally, today also, someone brought my attention to these words from Evelyn Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited. Charles Ryder says it to Julia Flyte, about their doomed love (and in the sense Waugh means it, perhaps all love is doomed):

“Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.”

Au revoir, Thomas.