Archive for February, 2016

Steve Wasserman is coming home! Meet the new publisher of Berkeley’s Heyday Books.

Sunday, February 28th, 2016
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Welcome home, Steve!

As I write, Steve Wasserman is shoveling his stuff into boxes. At least I hope he is. Steve, who has been editor at large for Yale University Press, is coming home to California at last, and it can’t happen fast enough for us. “The call of Berkeley was very strong,” he said. “I am something of a native son. I have missed California like the amputee is said to miss the phantom limb.”

The occasion is indeed one for celebration. On July 1, he will become publisher and executive director of Heyday Books, an outfit that publishes books about … California. The publishing house is situated on University Avenue in Berkeley, and you can’t get more Berkeley than that. The cover photo for his Facebook page was quickly changed to show a panorama of Berkeley, with the university’s landmark campanile. Steve grew up and went to university in this city on the Bay.

I’ve written about Steve’s time as editor of the Los Angeles Times Book for nearly a decade, a golden age when it was the best book review section in the country, bar none. He always had an eye for the era; for what might be relevant, rather than immediate. He was always willing to take a chance, and trusted that boldness, innovation, and intelligence would find an audience. I was proud to be a part of it.

Those traits served him well as editor at large at Yale University Press, where he “brought luster and allure to the Yale list, acquiring important books by such figures as Greil Marcus, Michael Roth, Martha Hodes, David Thomson, and David Rieff, publishing them with flair and gusto,” said  John Donatich, the director of Yale University Press. “He will continue to consult with YUP, particularly editing several key authors still to be published.”

During those years also, he was a principal architect for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, now the largest book festival in the country.

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A life in books.

At Heyday, he replaces Malcolm Margolin, who founded the company in 1974. Margolin seems pleased about the appointment, as is everyone else: “I can’t imagine anyone with better professional skills, more depth and variety of experience, and a more impressive record of accomplishment and public service. He knows California and its many cultures with intimacy, associates easily with the best writers and deepest thinkers everywhere, and his ample playfulness and wit have always been at the service of a humane social vision.”

According to Berkleyside:

One area he will examine is Heyday’s current distribution model. While the press publishes numerous important and beautiful books about California every year, the books are only sold in California bookstores, although they are also available online. Heyday does not have a national distributor and Wasserman does not know yet if that is because people outside the state are not interested. California as a topic is often denigrated by the East Coast, he said. Wasserman hopes to enhance Heyday’s reputation and showcase its role in interpreting California.

Steve sounds more than ready to come home and take on the new fight: “It has long been the case that California has been regarded by people who don’t live there, particularly the dyed-in-the-wool Manhattanites, who are the most provincial people in the country, as a strange backwater. Very often things California are dismissed as regional, not of national interest. Of course, all of that is rubbish. I would like to publish books that while interesting Californians, have broader resonance.”

“We couldn’t be more excited about bringing him back to California,” said Stanford alumna Emmerich Anklam (class of ’15) on the Heyday staff. “To use a favorite phrase from Steve’s predecessor Malcolm Margolin, ‘What a joy!'”

And below (pardon the blurry video quality) – this is for you, Steve.

Tobias Wolff’s advice as a mentor: “Just don’t lose the magic.”

Thursday, February 25th, 2016
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Toby speaking at Stanford Libraries (photo: Sonia Lee)

Last fall, the New Yorker ran a story about author Tobias Wolff, recent recipient of a National Medal for the Arts. The article describes Stanford’s generous and gifted writer in his less celebrated role as a mentor. George Saunders, the author, makes a great witness; he is a recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships – Toby’s mentoring, in this case, was very successful. The New Yorker piece is taken from a new book, A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors (edited by Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker, University of Massachusetts Press). 

In case there are a few others who missed the story (as I had), I humbly offer this late post, with an arrow back to Saunders’s original story, “My Writing Education: A Timeline” here. Saunders’s charming mini-memoir goes some way to explaining why Toby is one of the most beloved faculty members at Stanford. And it’s a good thing it’s charming, because, as Saunders writes later: “Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing ones’ particular charms. To say that ‘a light goes on’ is not quite right—it’s more like: a fixture gets installed. Only many years later (see below) will the light go on.”

The friendship had its beginnings in February 1986, when Toby called the home of Saunders’s parents in Amarillo, Texas to tell him he had been admitted to the Syracuse Creative Writing Program, where Toby was teaching back in the 80s: “I call back, holding Back in the World in my hands. … He’s kind and patient and doesn’t make me feel like an idiot. I do that myself, once I hang up.”

Inauspicious beginnings…perhaps, but it got better:

“After the orientation meeting the program goes dancing. Afterward, Toby and I agree we are too drunk to let either him or me drive the car home, that car, which we are pretty sure is his car, if there is a sweater in the back. There is! We walk home, singing, probably, “Helplessly Hoping.” In his kitchen, we eat some chicken that his wife Catherine has prepared for something very important tomorrow, something for which there will be no time to make something else.

“I leave, happy to have made a new best friend.”

mannerofbeing Not so fast! The next day: “I wake, chagrined at my over-familiarity, and vow to thereafter keep a respectful distance from Professor Wolff and his refrigerator.”

Perhaps my favorite passage, which is very Toby, from later that semester:

At a party, I go up to Toby and assure him that I am no longer writing the silly humorous crap I applied to the program with, i.e., the stuff that had gotten me into the program in the first place. Now I am writing more seriously, more realistically, nothing made up, nothing silly, everything directly from life, no exaggeration or humor—you know: “real writing.”

Toby looks worried. But quickly recovers.

“Well, good!” he says. “Just don’t lose the magic.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. Why would I do that? That would be dumb.

I go forward and lose all of the magic, for the rest of my time in grad school and for several years thereafter.

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Gratitude. (Photo David Shankbone, Creative Commons)

Last anecdote, and you’re on your own (you’ll have to read the rest of the story here):”Toby has the grad students over to watch A Night at the Opera. Mostly I watch Toby, with his family. He clearly adores them, takes visible pleasure in them, dotes on them. I have always thought great writers had to be dysfunctional and difficult, incapable of truly loving anything, too insane and unpredictable and tortured to cherish anyone, or honor them, or find them beloved.” I’ve seen it, too. He’s a great all-round human being, and greatly adored. Perhaps he was a good role model for Saunders’s own long marriage with writer Paula Redick, a writer he met in those early days at Syracuse. They were engaged in three weeks, “a Syracuse Creative Writing Program record that, I believe, still stands.”

Oh, I know, you read all that stuff about Toby retiring last year. Yeah, I believed it, too. Read about him coming out of retirement, and much else, in a Q&A at the Stanford Daily here.

Happy 331st birthday, George Frideric Handel!

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016
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tim120Always a pleasure to hear from our friend, the Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele. Today he celebrates the birthday of Handel – a passion we both share, apparently. We’ve posted Tim’s birthday announcements here and here and here and here. Here’s what he had to say about the great composer:

Like many composers, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) sometimes found himself at odds with those who performed his music. On occasion, exasperation got the better of him, as in his collaboration with the gifted but capricious soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. One day during rehearsals at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket for Handel’s opera Ottone, she announced she didn’t like the “Falsa imagine” aria and told him to write another in its place. Handel seized her around the waist and swore he’d throw her out the window unless she sang what he’d written. (She did, and the aria became one of her signature hits.)

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He kept his temper … usually…

Usually, however, Handel kept his temper and bore his trials with ironical wit. When, prior to the opening of “Flavio,” the tenor Alexander Gordon objected to Handel’s harpsichord accompaniment and threatened to jump up into the instrument and smash it, Handel replied that he liked that idea and that they should use it in advertising the show, since more people would come to see Gordon jump than to hear him sing. On another occasion, Handel conducted a concert in Dublin featuring the violin virtuoso Matthew Dubourg. During one number, DuBourg tore off on a wild rambling solo. When he concluded, Handel, who had been marking time with orchestra, cheerily called out, “Welcome home, Mr. DuBourg!”

Welcome home, Mr. Handel! It’s your 331st birthday!

Above, Philippe Mercier’s portrait of the composer, around age 45, at his (unsmashed) harpsichord. Below, soprano Rosa Mannion’s lovely rendition of “Falsa Imagine” in a modern context.

Remembering Umberto Eco, and a meeting of great minds in Cambridge

Monday, February 22nd, 2016
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He remembers. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I didn’t know Umberto Eco, and I read Name of the Rose so many years ago that I had nothing to add to the news of his death on Feb. 19. One friend did, however: Stanford’s Jean-Marie Apostolidès posted his memories of the great Italian author in a short Facebook post. With his permission, I repost a translation of his single encounter with the maestro:

Remembrances of an intimate dinner party in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1984 (if memory serves me). Those present included the great American logician Willard Quine; Umberto Eco, wreathed in the glory of his novel The Name of the Rose, which had just appeared in English; and yours truly, the youngest of the table.

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Maestro (Photo: Rob Bogaerts, Creative Commons)

All three of us were invited by Dante Della Terza, who taught Italian literature at Harvard for many years. Dante and Umberto had known each other for ages, hence the casual nature of the dinner. Dante’s wife had concocted her best Italian specialties, accompanied by a Montepulciano wine, which I will say more about. This friendly communion allowed us to reconstruct the world on a new basis, no doubt we were a little shameless.The four men were, after dining, a little tipsy, treated like pashas by the only woman in attendance that evening. Dante’s wife had indeed spent most of her time at the stove, and I do not believe in our project, changing the status of women had been on our agenda: we were too happy with the situation as it was!

To give our drinking a little intellectual cast, I proposed to my comrades that we compile a list of the ten most important philosophers in the history of thought, those that allowed us to make today’s world a little better. Each had to list their personal choices before we arrived at a common list. Mrs. Della Terza passed pen and paper to each of us. A silence of three or four minutes fell upon the table, despite the grappa that crowned the feast and redoubled our jokes. And then each in turn read his list.

Dante Della Terza

The host for the evening

But when the time came to make the collective list, we were unable to come to agreement, our choices so diverged. Umberto and I had quite a few names in common (Aristotle among the ancients, among modern Nietzsche) but Quine – who had the most clout as an authority in philosophy – brutally rejected all our proposals. A reserved man when sober, the wine had worked wickedly on him. When I advanced the name of Marx, he had a sarcastic smile, then said dismissively: “For me, he’s not even a philosopher.”

When Quine had asked Umberto to read us his own personal list, I discovered the logical basis for my ignorance: with the exception of Henri Poincaré, I did not know any of the thinkers he considered essential for the future of thought.

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The great logician

In short, our attempt to improve the world failed miserably. Yet were we not, all four of us, great enlightened ones? This failure did not prevent us from finishing off the evening in good spirits and, with the help of the grappa, we were all perfectly happy and pleased with ourselves when leaving the Della Terza home.

Today when I think back to that memorable evening, I regret not having taken note of names we had chosen. I particularly regret that we, the sage ones, could not come to agreement. If we had, might today’s world be in better shape?

Werner Herzog @Stanford: The Movie!

Friday, February 19th, 2016
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Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog makes a point. (Photo: L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

Those of you who follow the Book Haven know that we’ve been somewhat preoccupied with legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, who visited Stanford on February 2 to discuss J.A. BakerThe PeregrineThe discussion ranged far beyond the book, to embrace Virgil’s Georgics, the 16th century Florentine Codex (originally in Nahuatl), the Edda, his films and his views on reading and filmmaking – well, he’s a force of nature. It’s all now available on youtube, in a full-length version (here) and a quick, two-minute highlights version (here). Or see below for both: short version on top, the full hour-and-a-half below (it’s worth the time, really).

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine with Robert Pogue Harrison, a Stanford professor of Italian literature, at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

A sublime pairing. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The event was part of the ongoing Another Look book club series of events – Another Look’s director, Robert Pogue Harrison, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and host for the popular Entitled Opinions radio talk show, was the interlocutor for the discussion (we’ve written about him here and here and here, among many other places). In fact, the encounter was born in a friendship – but not with Werner, at least not initially. Robert met and interviewed Lena Herzog for the April 17, 2013 interview with Entitled Opinions about her photography (download Robert’s interviews, including that one, here).

The Another Look event was covered by columnist Caille Millner in “When Werner Herzog Came to Stanford” in the San Francisco Chronicle (here). An excerpt:

Herzog, 73, is legendary for many reasons: his passion, his punishing film sets, his contempt for personal comforts, his aversion to the contemporary gadgets that rule our lives (he grew up in a remote Bavarian village without running water or flush toilets) and, above all, for his absolute independence from Hollywood filmmaking

I was curious about how this remarkable man would fit into Silicon Valley for an evening. What’s an on-demand app to someone who didn’t make his first phone call until he was 17 years old?

It tells you something about Herzog that the reason he drove up to Stanford from Los Angeles was to talk about a little-known, long-out-of-print book about a man and a falcon: “The Peregrine,” by British author J.A. Baker (it’s been lovingly reissued by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint).

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

A genial superstar. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

She writes with style and brio, but I don’t agree with her when she dismissed the textual difficulties behind The Peregrine (as did Herzog). The issues of accuracy aren’t occasional and trivial, but pervasive and woven into the book, whose author insists on its authority as a work of direct observation. A small team of us, including an expert falconer, spent a good deal of time chewing over the magnificent text and its discrepancies – some of the issues are summarized briefly here. I even retrieved some of the letters of renowned falconer Dick Treleaven to Baker, which are now at the University of Essex (covered here), as we attempted to square Baker’s observations with reality. Robert, who wrestled even more deeply with these issues than the rest of us, had some very insightful things to say on the subject, but the onstage conversation veered off in another direction. The Peregrine is undeniably a masterpiece, but it raises questions about artistic truth, “real” truth, and what, exactly, Baker was doing. Robert’s remarks about Jimi Hendrix in the full-length video gives a hint of where his thoughts were taking him as he pondered this mysterious book. I’m convinced that these issues make the book more, not less, interesting, and raise fascinating questions about the process of creation.

One of my strongest memories of the evening, however, occurred after the conversation was over. I was the assigned person to whisk the genial superstar away to the back door and the car that was waiting for him there. He would have none of it. He wanted to shake hands and greet everyone who had come to see him. He was smiling and laughing as the crowd swarmed him. Impossible to pull him away. Who would want to?

Is Vladislav Khodasevich the most underappreciated Russian poet of the last century? Maybe.

Monday, February 15th, 2016
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Intense guy. (Khodasevich, that is, but also true for Miłosz and Herbert).

Until this week, I knew the Russian poet Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939) only through the squabbles of two poets, Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert. Some of the differences between the two Poles are documented here, but perhaps their most famous rift is associated with Herbert’s poem by the title “Khodasevich,” targeting Miłosz, not the Russian. I looked for some information on this conflict online, and found, to my surprise, an illuminating interview with Miłosz biographer in Kraków, Andrzej Franaszek. The interview, “I Will Oppress You with My Strange Love,” was conducted by Humble Moi, and I had forgotten I had done it years ago (it’s here).

A relevant excerpt:

HAVEN: Let’s discuss “Khodasevich,” from Herbert’s penultimate 1992 collection, six years before his death. It’s ostensibly about Russian émigré poet Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939), but actually attacks Miłosz, right down to his interest in Swedenborg and his devotion to Oscar Miłosz, his cosmopolitan kinsman and fellow-writer in Paris. It ends: “from behind the clouds his rhyming frog-croaks.” Can you explain a little Herbert’s apparent animosity, and how it scandalized Poland in the 1990s?

FRANASZEK: Well, what I can say is that personally for me—and surely for many other readers—it was a kind of shock. When I read “Khodasevich” for the first time, I couldn’t believe that it was Herbert’s poem. Not only because of all accusations which could be found in it, but mostly because of a huge dose of hostility and scorn, because of its language, tone, the poetics of a lampoon—it’s extremely different from Herbert’s normal poetical idiom. But what is really interesting, after writing “Khodasevich,” Herbert sent to Miłosz, his painfully mocked friend, a postcard with a leg of an elephant suspended upon a defenseless chicken and with a three-word note: “Don’t tread upon”…

HAVEN: Strange. I would have thought Miłosz was the one who had been underfoot. What on earth did he mean by that?

FRANASZEK: Well, what can I say? Maybe Herbert felt himself to be the weaker party in this relationship.

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Alex Cigale, drawn by Dastan Abaskanov.

So what does that tell us about Khodasevich? Bupkis. But that’s probably how most people get introduced to this Russian poet, who emigrated to Berlin in the 1920s and is arguably the most underappreciated Russian poet of the last century – if they get introduced at all, that is. Upon his death, Vladimir Nabokov called him “the greatest Russian poet the 20th century has yet produced.”

More help is readily at hand with the recent issue of Kenyon Review, where a friend, Alexander Cigale, has published a new translation of his enigmatic poem, “The Ape.” (You can listen to Alex reading it, in English and Russian, here.) “The Ape” is the best known of Vladislav Khodasevich’s sequence of blank verse poems (1918-1919) in response to the horrors of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Read it here. (You can also read Peter Daniels’ translation of Khodasevich’s “Look for Me” in The Guardian here.) I find the poem enigmatic – but Alex was surprised at that characterization: “It always seemed, if anything, painfully earnest to me.” Perhaps both are true.

From Alex’s own preface to the sequence:

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Current issue

While much remains to be said to attempt to explain what makes Khodasevich both stand out and not fit in with the main body of Russian poetry, it is his synthesis of the classic and the modern, the intense personalism of his lyrical ego, the directness of his voice and address often verging on simplicity, that marks his primary individuality as a poet. The naked vulnerability of such words raises the bar by exposing the relative perfection and imperfection of every word, achieving a kind of cameo-like high contrast that makes these poems nearly unique in the Russian canon.

Noam Chomsky thinks the U.S. is “one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world.” René Girard replies.

Friday, February 12th, 2016
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Curmudgeonly? (Photo: Duncan Rawlinson/Creative Commons)

The Académie Française memorial service for René Girard in Saint-Germain-des-Prés will take place this weekend. The Book Haven has written much about the French theorist, who died on November 4 (see here). I will not be in Paris, alas, except in spirit. So René was much in my mind when I read the latest headline from Noam Chomsky. According to The Wirethe controversial public intellectual thinks America is “one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world.” Really? He’s including Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia in the competition? I wondered.

In fairness, his comment is much is much more nuanced than that … well, not much more. According to the article: “There are not too many countries in the world where two-thirds of the population awaits The Second Coming, Chomsky said, adding that half of them think it is going to be in their lifetimes. ‘And maybe a third of the population believes the world was created 10,000 years ago, exactly the way it is now. Things like that are pretty weird, but that is true in the United States and has been for a long time.’” Guess I haven’t been hanging out in the right circles. How quick we are, however, to distance ourselves from those people. That should be a tip-off.

I returned to what René had to say on the subject in a short (about 100 page), very readable Q&A book, When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguertranslated by Trevor Cribben-Merrill and published by Michigan State University Press in 2014. An excerpt:

MT: What do you think of the “creationists” who take the Bible literally?

RG: They’re wrong, of course, but I don’t want to speak ill of them because today they are the scapegoats of American culture. The media distorts everything they say and treats them like the lowest of the low.

MT: But if they’re wrong, why not? You speak of scapegoats, but, as far as I know, nobody’s putting the creationists to death, are they?

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I’m with René. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

RG: They’re ostracized from society. It’s said that Americans can’t resist peer pressure, and it’s generally true. Just look at academia, that vast herd of sheep-like individualists: they think they’re persecuted, but they’re not. The creationists are. They’re resisting peer pressure. I take my hat off to them.

MT: But what if they’re absolutely wrong? For someone who places such emphasis on the truth, whatever the cost, I suddenly find you very indulgent.

RG: And what do you do with freedom of religion? In America, as elsewhere, fundamentalism results from the breakdown of an age-old compromise between religion and anti-religious humanism. And it’s anti-religious humanism that is responsible for the breakdown. It espouses doctrines that start with abortion, that continue with genetic manipulation, and that tomorrow will undoubtedly lead to hyperefficient forms of euthanasia. In at most a few decades we’ll have transformed man into a repugnant little pleasure-machine, forever liberated from pain and even from death, which is to say from everything that, paradoxically, encourages us to pursue any sort of noble human aim, and not only religious transcendence.

treguerMT: So there’s nothing worse than trying to avert real dangers by means of false beliefs?

RG: Mankind has never done anything else.

MT: That’s no reason to continue.

RG: The fundamentalists often defend ideas that I deplore, but a remnant of spiritual health makes them foresee the horror of the warm and fuzzy concentration camp that our benevolent bureaucracies are preparing for us, and their revolt looks more respectable to me than our somnolence. In an era where everyone boasts of being a marginal dissident even as they display a stupefying mimetic docility, the fundamentalists are authentic dissidents. I recently refused to participate in a supposedly scientific study that treats them like guinea pigs, without the researchers ever asking themselves about the role of their own academic ideology in a phenomenon that they think they’re studying objectively, with complete and utter detachment.

What can I say? He will be missed. No one like him. And I wish I were in Paris this weekend.

The “future of the past” – and a small victory in Hannibal, Missouri

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016
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fisherfishkinTwo months ago, I wrote about Shelley Fisher Fishkin‘s newest book, Writing America, and her presentation at the Stanford University Libraries. Read about it here. She gave a great talk, and she revisits many of the same themes in “The Future of the Past,” in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. The Twain scholar makes a passionate argument for literature as a doorway to the past, and the necessity of understanding the past in the first place (not to be assumed as a “given,” nowadays).

An excerpt:

In hindsight, history often looks inevitable. But it rarely is. It is shaped by the choices individuals make as events are unfolding, by their distinctive perspectives and understandings of their world. Literature can help us enter into those moments when choices must be made and can help us grasp the consequences of those choices. Coming to terms with a past shaped by human actors, in all their messy complexity, can influence how our own words and actions shape the future.

And she returns to the subject of her talk in December, centering on Hannibal, Missouri, and her beloved Mark Twain:

huck_finn“An assignment I was given in high school prompted me to re-examine the past myself, and it changed my life: Write a paper on how  used irony to attack racism in Huckleberry Finn. That paper ignited a lifelong engagement with issues of race and racism in America’s past as well as with the work of Mark Twain.

“It led me, in Lighting Out for the Territory, to excoriate the powers-that-be in Hannibal, Mo., a town that runs on Twain tourism, for its failure to acknowledge the role of slavery and racism in its past and in Twain’s work, and for its erasure of African-American life in Hannibal during the century and a half after emancipation. Hannibal may have been keen about historic preservation, but the history it chose to preserve involved little white boys playing marbles, not little black boys sold from their mothers.

huckjim“Faye Dant, a fifth-generation Hannibal resident whose ancestors had been enslaved there, said that book, and my earlier book Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices, had inspired her to work to recover and preserve for future generations the history that the town had ignored. Her efforts culminated, in September 2013, with the grand opening of Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center. The black-history museum is now the first building visitors encounter when they turn off the highway en route to the Mark Twain Historic District.”

 

Read the whole thing here.

Wallace Stegner, Czesław Miłosz, and what they had to say to each other

Sunday, February 7th, 2016
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Stegner got used to the barbs.

I discovered this offbeat and little-known treasure on Youtube – a rare treat for fans of American Pulitzer prizewinning author Wallace Stegner and Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. The interview was filmed sometime in the 1980s, and has less than 1,450 views to date.

It is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable “friendly” interviews I’ve ever watched, with only occasional flashes of smiles and laughter. The unedited raw footage comes to us via Stephen Fisher Productions – with the cameramen periodically stopping the filming, interjecting questions, and restarting with calls of “Rolling!” Stegner gamely keeps trying to draw Miłosz out, as they stand on a breezy hilltop in Berkeley’s Tilden Park. They both look like they’d rather be indoors.

A happenstance Californian.

A reluctant Californian

The topic at hand: the effect of landscape on a writer’s spirit. “I lived through rebellion against California landscape,” Miłosz admits in his heavy Polish accent. It’s a rebellion, he said, that lasted twenty years. (I write about Miłosz as a California poet here.) Stegner agrees that California “offends a lot of people by being so dry and barren and prickly. Everything in it has barbs.” Naturally, the subject of poet Robinson Jeffers comes up on a couple occasions.

Miłosz said he missed the “cosiness” of the Lithuanian valley where he grew up – when he wasn’t traipsing about the vast expanses of Russia with his family during pre-revolutionary years (his father was an engineer of the empire). Miłosz does say that he was intrigued by the number of species he found in California  – species of pines and birds and everything else. Plenty of jays in Europe, he said, but not so many as here. “I was intrigued by the essence of being a jay,” he said. Well we know what happened with that, with his poem “Magpiety.”

Watch it for yourself:

Leo Tolstoy: The Movie

Friday, February 5th, 2016
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tolstoyWe are still recovering from the Werner Herzog‘s visit to Stanford, and will have more to say on this later. My mode of recovery will be to go to the home of friends and watch End of the Tour again, a film that was greatly overlooked in this year’s round of film awards, despite Jason Segels top-notch performance.

What can I offer my readers? How about this short film clip of Leo Tolstoy, taken during his last days, before his death in 1910? At the age of 82, he made the unusual decision to leave his wife. Not content with traveling 26 hours to his sister Marya’s house in Sharmardino, where he had planned to retire to a small hut for his remaining days, he pushed on to the Caucasus, where he died at a train station at Astapovo.

Elif Batuman wrote about this curious demise over at Harper’s here. The topic came about during her Stanford years:

Once, when I was a graduate student, a paper of mine was accepted at the conference. At the time, my department awarded two kinds of travel grants: $1,000 for presenting a paper at an international conference or $2,500 for international field research. My needs clearly fell into the first category, but with an extra $1,500 on the line, I decided to have a go at writing a field-research proposal. Surely there was some mystery that could only be solved at Tolstoy’s house?

I rode my bicycle through blinding summer sunshine to the library and spent several hours shut up in my refrigerated, fluorescent-lit carrel, with a copy of Henri Troyat’s 700-page biography Tolstoy. I read with particular interest the final chapters, “Last Will and Testament” and “Flight.” Then I checked out a treatise on poisonous plants and skimmed through it outside at the coffee stand. Finally, I went back inside and plugged in my laptop.

“Tolstoy died in November 1910 at the provincial train station of Astapovo, under what can only be described as strange circumstances,” I typed. “But the strangeness of these circumstances was immediately assimilated into the broader context of Tolstoy’s life and work. After all, had anyone really expected the author of The Death of Ivan Ilyich to drop dead quietly, in some dark corner? And so a death was taken for granted that in fact merited closer examination.”

Read the rest here.

Film clip from the 1969 BBC series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark,