Hugh Bonneville as Gloucester, Philip Glenister as Talbot, Adrian Dunbar as Plantagenet, Stanley Townsend as Warwick. (Photo: Robert Viglasky)
The heavens themselves, the planets and this earth Observe degree, priority and place … Office and custom, in all line of order … Take but degree away, untune that string, And, hark, what discord follows!
So begins the newest round in Hollow Crown series, encompassing William Shakespeare‘s Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III (last season presented Richard II, Henry V, and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2). But don’t go looking for a prologue in any of these plays that will include the words I’ve just cited. The lines are, in fact, a truncated version of Ulysses’s speech in Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene 3, as the Greek leaders discuss the morale of their army.
One tough cookie.
The late great French theorist René Girard cites Ulysses’s address in his Theater of Envy as “a meditation on the violent breakdown of human society in general, the undoing of the cultural order” – yet he didn’t find much to suit his purposes in the history plays. For me, however, these plays resound with his “mimetic crisis,” as kings fall and usurpers grab power, all in quest the “hollow crown” as a mimetic objet du désir – the “hollow crown” is a recurrent image in these BBC performances; at one point, it is tossed into a swamp, at other points, it’s an object of mesmerized fascination. Shakespeare was keenly aware of the “the canker vice,” “that monster envy” that causes ambition, selfishness, and conflict. The Bard’s “sacred kings,” victims readied for sacrifice, underscore the messages of Violence and the Sacred.
Yet the French theorist who was 100% non-Anglo could be forgiven for his relative (but only relative) disinterest in the “Hollow Crown” plays, which were principally designed to buttress the Tudor regime’s claims to the English throne. When the boy Earl of Richmond is briefly and reverently introduced in Henry VI, all Shakespeare’s audience knew why: he would become the grandfather-usurper of the Great Queen, Elizabeth I, and the future Henry VII needed all the prettifying he could get.
Hurry hurry and hurry and watch the new season – the link is here. The first of the plays will no longer be available after Jan. 3, and the others expire in the weeks following. It’s a great opportunity. Henry VI isn’t often performed, for good reason – it’s three parts, and doesn’t really wrap up until Richard III. Moreover, the weak and vasillating Henry VI is an unsatisfying focal point for so much dramatic emphasis. (I find the same for Richard II, who at least is given some grand and memorable speeches). The performance of Tom Sturridge doesn’t persuade me otherwise – but Sophie Okonedo‘s ambitious and vengeful Margaret of Anjou is great compensation (she was the wife in Hotel Rwanda). So are a range of other top-notch performances –Ben Miles as the wily and ambiguous Somerset (fans of The Crown will remember him as Princess Margaret‘s boyfriend, Peter Townsend), and Hugh Bonneville‘s Gloucester come to mind. (A small note: as far back as we can go in history, we seem to find haircombs. Could none of these characters, especially King Henry, have found one?)
I’ll finish with Richard III sometime this weekend. Meanwhile, here’s a video highlight (Sophie O. takes the term “bitch-slap” to a whole new level):
Florentina Mocanu came to the U.S. to study with him. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
Avant-garde theater director Carl Weber began his theatrical career in a POW camp. He became Bertolt Brecht‘s protégé and brought Germany’s experimental theater to America. The Stanford drama professor, emeritus, died in Los Altos on Christmas night. He was 91.
“At the first opportunity” – he recalled, and then put up both hands in the universally accepted sign of surrender – “I was a prisoner of England in Belgium.” He was sent to Colchester, Essex, as a POW.
Within weeks of his capture, he was performing Friedrich Schiller‘s The Robbers as one of a handful of performers at the Christmastime play in a mess tent, with tables for a stage. The group had a captive audience – literally.
But the event was a turning point: After Weber returned to a Germany that was “cold and miserable and in ruins” in February 1946, he finished his studies in chemistry at the University of Heidelberg and went to Berlin in September 1949 to pursue a career as an actor, director and dramaturg.
During Heidelburg theater days, 1949. (Courtesy Florentina Mocanu)
Many of the “alumni” of Camp 186 in Colchester went on to have remarkable careers: German stage and TV actor Günther Stoll; Werner Düttmann, city architect for Berlin in the 1960s; and actor Klaus Kinski, collaborator with writer-film director Werner Herzog.
Carl began his formal career as an actor at the Heidelberg City Theater while still studying at Heidelberg University. In 1949, he was one of the founders of the Heidelberg Zimmertheater and directed the company’s opening production. In Berlin, he joined the company of Theater der Freundschaft in 1950.
His life changed course when he saw Brecht’s Mother Courage, a production that launched Brecht’s famous Berliner Ensemble:
“It is still to me the most impressive theater I have seen in my life. It was a totally different kind of theater. Simply stunning. The way of acting was different, the staging was very different.”
Weber knew right away: “I have to work with this man.”
Brecht is remembered in the United States mostly as the dramatist who brought left-wing politics to the stage. He was much more than that, however: He tore down the “fourth wall” barrier between the stage and audience. It wasn’t enough to sit in the theater and be entertained: Brecht wanted you to question society’s values and your own.
Brecht’s values exploded other conventions, too, by emphasizing the visual – “telling the story by the way the visual production unfolded,” said Weber.
“When I work with students here, my first, foremost focus is to teach how to create visual narrative – by the way you move people and objects in space; by the configuration of what you see.
“In Brecht’s staging and directing, psychology was not particularly important. Brecht quite rightly thinks the audience has no idea what the actor is thinking,” said Weber. “Actors don’t think only with their heads, but with their bodies. The sooner they move, the more they can internalize the text with what they’re doing with their bodies.”
Weber said that Brecht’s oft-repeated phrase to actors was “Don’t tell me, show me.”
He was invited, in 1952, to join the Berliner Ensemble as an actor, dramaturg, and assistant director to Brecht, with whom he worked on the productions of Katzgraben, Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Galileo.
Weber’s 1952 “audition” for Brecht was a series of essays: Weber was asked to sit in on a few rehearsals and write not a critique or review – but rather what he actually saw onstage. Not surprising, given Brecht’s desire for absolute visual clarity – what was happening in a play should be evident even to a deaf person watching the scenes unfold.
Weber was headed for controversy, for Brecht was a double-edged sword in the politically charged atmosphere of the Cold War years.
When the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Mother Courage premiered at Théâtre des Nations in Paris in 1954 (it received the festival’s prize), the Communist Party in East Germany denounced it as “decadent.” Greater problems lay ahead.
In 1961, as Weber was preparing a Lübeck production of Brecht’s Trumpets and Drums, the German border was closed without warning, and construction of the Berlin Wall began. Weber never returned to his East German home.
Much of Weber’s time – especially in recent years – has been devoted to the work of one East German writer trapped behind the Wall. At present, Weber is working on a forthcoming volume of Heiner Müller’s Shakespeare adaptations, “Macbeth” and “Anatomy Titus – Fall of Rome.”
At Berliner Ensemble with Brecht, 1955. (Courtesy Florentina Mocanu)
After Brecht’s death in 1956, Weber became one of the directors of the company. He co-wrote and directed, with Peter Palitzsch, The Day of the Great Scholar Wu. He staged a revival of Brecht’s production of Mother Courage, and he was one of the directors of Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. He also directed productions at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater and for German television.
Between 1962 and 1966, he directed at theaters in West Germany, Scandinavia, and the United States, among them the San Francisco’s Actors Workshop, Norway’s National Theatre in Oslo, and Berlin’s Schaubühne. From 1964 to 1966, he was principal resident director of Wuppertaler Bühnen, the home of Pina Bausch’s “Tanztheater.”
Weber moved to New York in 1966 when he was appointed Master-Teacher of Directing and Acting at the newly-founded NYU School of the Arts. He directed many productions in New York and theaters across America. He came to Stanford in 1984, where he headed Ph.D. Directing Studies.
His former Stanford student, Romanian actor and director Florentina Mocanu, was with him hours before his death to deliver holiday cheer and gifts (some all the way from Germany), and said he seemed well. “He was sharp and curious, wanted to know all about everyone. He made us laugh with his favorite Bette Davis quote: ‘getting old is not for sissies.'”
She looked at photos with him, and asked him as they looked at a photograph with Brecht (at right), “Carl, correct me if I am wrong – looking at this photo, I think that Bertolt Brecht trusted your sensibility and the fact that you had a way of seeing the world that he could not even imagine, a kind of respect and reverence for your talent and expertise that was beyond your young years. You came back from the war, as a surviver soldier and a POW theatre maker.” Weber replied, “Yes, that’s right.”
“For me, Professor Carl Weber is a humanist, a disciplined intellectual, a mentor who encourages originality in storytelling – on the page, the stage or on the screen,” said Florentina, who came to Stanford from Romania to study with him. “Carl wants precise answers to this seemingly simple yet challenging question: ‘What do you see?'”
One of his students, Tony Kushner, author of the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning Angels in America, said, “Carl was a spectacular teacher. I feel like a great deal about what I learned about writing plays came from working with Carl as a directing student.”
“Carl is a spectacularly erudite man, vastly well-read and enormously fluent in art and in music and cinema and history,” Kushner said. “Having somebody who was a serious intellectual and thinker and politically engaged gave me permission, in a certain sense, to take theater very seriously. It mattered. It was a serious way of thinking about the world and the meaning of existence.”
At Stanford, French scholar, author, and playwright Prof. Jean-Marie Apostolidès remembered Carl as a devoted and gifted teacher, dedicated to his students work both in scholarship and performance. He also changed his French colleague’s understanding of Brecht: “I had a biased view of Brecht : I saw him as a twentieth-century artistic giant, yes, but also as a rigid and dogmatic Marxist. Charlie [a nickname for Carl Weber] told me that Brecht was absolutely the opposite. He described him as pragmatic, accepting ideas from others, using anything he could find to create a better show.”
Directing at Stanford. (Photo: Jamie Lyons)
He also praised him as a generous artist and collaborator, as well as a close friend. The two often met in France either, in Paris or at La Miausserie, Weber’s country home.
He recalled their 1988 collaboration on Eugène Labiche‘s nineteenth-century play, The Affair of Rue de Lourcine, with Carl as director and Jean-Marie as dramaturge. “I thought I would play only a minor role in this production but Carl wanted me not only to revise his translation he had done, but above all to provide a general vision of the play that he would translate and concreticize on stage, which I did in a long text that I sent him in February 1989. This text became a sort of contract between the two of us. Only when I was working with Jean Gascon in Canada (on the production of Œdipus Rex in 1982) have I found such confidence, such generosity offered to the dramaturge by the director of the show. Gascon and Weber (who knew one another) were indeed two great professionals, never scared of possible rivalry with their dramaturge.”
He also described him also as a loyal and devoted friend: “To give you an example: he had known Bernard Sobel since the Berliner Ensemble period, around 1957. Sobel is considered a major director in France and someone close to the aesthetics of Brecht. Fifty years later, we went to his theatre in Gennevilliers, Carl and myself, to see one of the last shows produced by Sobel. After the show, we went to congratulate the actors and the director. We spent the evening with them. For me, it was a very moving moment to see these two old guys (Carl and Bernard) kissing one another, talking together (in german, a language that Sobel spoke fluently) and digging from their memory so many souvenirs belonging to their youth.”
In his last years, Carl divided his time between America, France, Germany, Austria, and even Greece. His daughter Sabine and his companion, film and television writer Inge Heym often accompanied him in America.
Carl is survived by his daughter actor, educator Sabine Gewinner-Feucht in Austria, his son Dr. Stefan Heym, and three grandchildren in Berlin. His wife, the German theater and film actress Marianne Rossi, died while they were vacationing in France a decade ago.
Charles Dickensmay not have made a fortune on the publication of A Christmas Carol, but he did leave the world a little richer. We can’t help but believe that he made himself a little richer, too.
Aside from boosting people’s awareness of the plight of the poor in Victorian England, though, Dickens also had a more immediate need: cash. He’d spent too much on his 1842 American tour, Golden writes, and he needed to support his large family. “Thinking creatively, he wrote himself out of his dilemma,” she reports.
The already well-known writer’s solution worked, to a degree. He sold out the first print run in a week, all 6,000 copies of it. By the end of the next year, writesBrandon Ambrosino for Vox, the book had sold more than 15,000 copies. But due to the book’s lavish bindings and the relatively low price he chose to sell it for, writesMichael Varese for The Guardian, much of that money didn’t make it back to the author, who was hoping to make at least £1000 from the book. “What a wonderful thing it is that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment!” he wrote.
Read the whole thing (with lots of links) over at TheSmithsonian here.
Christmas was in the air and all was well
With him, but for a few confusing flaws
In divers of God’s images. Because
A friend of his would neither buy nor sell,
Was he to answer for the axe that fell?
He pondered; and the reason for it was,
Partly, a slowly freezing Santa Claus
Upon the corner, with his beard and bell.
Acknowledging an improvident surprise,
He magnified a fancy that he wished
The friend whom he had wrecked were here again.
Not sure of that, he found a compromise;
And from the fulness of his heart he fished
A dime for Jesus who had died for men.
We have poet Ernest Hilbert to thank for drawing our attention to this seasonal poem, “A Christmas Sonnet (For One in Doubt)” by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935), one of America’s greatest poets. Today is his birthday.
“Edwin Arlington Robinson is poetry. I can think of no other living writer who has so consistently dedicated his life to his work,” according to Amy Lowell. In 1928, Robinson published Sonnets, 1889-1927. This is the last sonnet he ever wrote (see Patrick Kurp‘s Anecdotal Evidencehere for a lovely mini-essay on it):
While you that in your sorrow disavow
Service and hope, see love and brotherhood
Far off as ever, it will do no good
For you to wear his thorns upon your brow
For doubt of him. And should you question how
To serve him best, he might say, if he could,
“Whether or not the cross was made of wood
Whereon you nailed me, is no matter now.”
Though other saviors have in older lore
A Legend, and for older gods have died—
Though death may wear the crown it always wore
And ignorance be still the sword of pride—
Something is here that was not here before,
And strangely has not yet been crucified.
We’ve written about editor extraordinaire Daniel Medin of the American University of Paris, who is an editor for Music & Literature, The Cahiers Series, and The White Review. We’ve also mentioned Edwin Frank, editorial director of New York Review Books (and, incidentally, a Stanford alum), from time to time, since Stanford’s Another Look book clubso often features NYRB’s books.
So we’re pleased the two of them got together for an interview last fall at Shakespeare & Company in Paris.
Daniel Medin: Could you tell us about the origins of NYRB Classics?
Edwin Frank: NYRB came into existence crab-wise, almost accidentally. I was in my mid-30s and had never had anything to do with publishing when I got a freelance job with a business associate of the New York Review called The Readers’ Catalog, a sort of a giant Sears Catalog of books. The idea was to sell the 40,000 best books in print. Independent stores were closing across the United States, so you could get The Readers’ Catalog and order the books you couldn’t find. And I got this job that basically consisted of reading through sections and saying “this shouldn’t be here” or “why isn’t this here?” The most prominent example that has stuck in my mind is that [Alberto] Moravia was pretty much completely out of print everywhere, this would have been around ’96. And lots of other things were out of print that I just thought by definition would be in print. I didn’t know why they weren’t in print, and since I didn’t work in publishing it took me a while to figure out that they weren’t in print because they wouldn’t sell. So I made a list and at some point made a proposal to the publisher of the New York Review, Rea Hederman, that effectively said, “maybe we should have a publishing project.” It took a few years to come together, but in 1999 we did come out with about 14 books, in a different design than we have now, a sort of disastrous design, but we survived that. And the books did better than anybody would have expected; I think we sort of went into it on tiptoes, but the response was more excited than I think anyone anticipated.
DM: I wonder about the vision of the project. You mentioned that the initial idea was to do reprints, so maybe you can talk about how it has developed since 1999.
He got into the venture “crab-wise.”
EF: The fact is, I really, really didn’t want to call the series “classics.” Who knows what a classic is? It’s difficult to explain to people in the States, and also to foreign publishers, where “classics” has a much more defined meaning. So it was difficult for a while to get people to understand that we weren’t doing new editions of Thucydides. But it’s just as well, or else we would have been arguing about the name of the series to this day. Anyway, from the beginning our goal was always to mix things up. Great literature is literature that remains news, and there’s a way to publish things that can cast a new light on things we take for granted in our own time. The metaphors I tend to think of are somewhere between the vinyl bin, where you can flip through and there’s a whole range of music and so on, or the repertory film theater that can move from Japan to B movies and so on. So that was always the idea, but at the beginning it was very much about reprints, and that was true for two or three years. Partly because the series was doing well there was a moment where it seemed right to begin acquiring books and doing new translations of books.
Daniel with Hungarian author László Krasnahorkai
DM: I’m curious as to how you’ve curated the lists from languages you cannot read. Hungarian literature, for instance. I happen to specialize in writing from that region—and your Hungarian list is remarkable. Anybody in this audience can go online and look at NYRB’s offerings, and if you pick a title and mention it to an author or cultivated reader from Hungary, they will acknowledge its importance. And Hungarian’s only one example among many in your catalog. What’s been the approach?
EF: Well, it varies. The Hungarian case is an interesting one because the language is so isolated that basically the Hungarian state commissioned a program of translating Hungarian literature into English. And the translators they employed were actually quite brilliant. (The Soviets also had that kind of program, but the translations were a lot iffier.) … one of my favorite books in the whole series is [Gyula] Krúdy’s Sunflower—a totally bizarre book, I’d never read anything like it. I mean it’s a book that . . . I used to compare it to a strange cross between Bruno Schulz and PG Wodehouse, with gypsy music kind of thrown in, funny and sexy and just odd. Like nothing I’d ever read. It’s not often you read a book that’s like nothing else you ever read. I sometime think if I read a book like that I should publish it, but sometimes that’s a mistake. Anyway, so for the most part [the Hungarian translations] haven’t been commissioned, and to get back to the larger question, you are dependent to an extent to the translators or the literary criticism.
Read the whole thing here. Or check out the video and podcast of the event at the bookstore’s website here.
It’s Jane Austen‘s birthday, and time to revisit a National Endowment for the Humanities article by Meredith Hindley, celebrating the life of the author of Pride and Prejudiceand Emma. I’ve only known the broadest outlines of Austen’s life – it always seemed rather dull to me – so the piece in the NEH magazine Humanities was rather a pleasant surprise – and unpleasant, too, when one considers the wandering and dependent life even rather well-heeled spinsters endured.
Austen completed her formal education at age ten. She compared herself to someone “who like me knows only her mother tongue, and has read little in that … I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.” However, the article notes, Austen’s father kept “a sizable library—one bookcase reportedly covered sixty-four square feet of wall—which his children were encouraged to explore.” Sounds impressive, until you note that an 8 x 8 bookcase isn’t all that much. I have lots more than that.
Here’s a language note: “In Emma, she writes scathingly of schools that ‘professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality upon new principles and new systems—and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity.’” I always thought the use of “screw,” in that sense, had its origins in a more vulgar usage, but hey, what do I know?
An excerpt on her literary roots:
The Austen household revolved around language. Henry once described his father as “a profound scholar, professing a most exquisite taste in every species of literature.” Mother Cassandra wrote humorous verses, while the brothers dabbled in essays and playwriting. We know that Jane read Samuel Richardson from cover to cover, plowed through Hume’s History, and marked up Goldsmith’s History of England and Dodsley’s Collection of Poems. She also read popular works, such as Fanny Burney’s Camilla. And, despite her protestations, Austen probably spoke passable French and knew enough Italian to translate opera, as she has Anne Elliot do in Persuasion.
But the thrust of the piece is, of course, on Pride and Prejudice, which, as the article notes, is considered the U.K.’s second best-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice, after J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, according to a 2003 BBC poll.
While marriage might be the central force of Pride and Prejudice—after all, the novel opens with the now-legendary line “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”—the novel has endured because of the other universals Austen captured: money woes, troublesome sisters, unwanted suitors, embarrassing mothers, meddlesome neighbors, snap judgments, the trauma of public humiliation, the agony of not knowing if your love is returned, and the desire for a happy-ever-after ending.
“Also read again and for the third time at least Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice,” wrote Sir Walter Scott in March 1826. Scott was known for sweeping historical romances, but he also valued Austen’s limited canvas. “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early.”
Polish writer Gustaw Herling is too little known in the West, although Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz (a longtime Berkeley resident) called him “one of the most important witnesses of the twentieth century, a heroic man and truly worthy writer.”
It was a generous appraisal. Although Herling always recognized Milosz as a great poet, the younger writer took issue with Captive Mind, Milosz’s landmark analysis of what happens to the creative mind under totalitarianism, through four case studies. “Our friendly relations were not affected by his negative opinion of my book, The Captive Mind, though I was never able to grasp his argument,” Milosz wrote. “He seemed to reproach me for ascribing ideological motives to intellectuals who had collaborated with communism. According to him they acted mostly out of fear or a desire for a career.
“Herling had valid reasons to judge severely the intellectuals of the twentieth century. Those in the West closed their ears to his report on Soviet Gulags. In Italy, where he lived for many years, the intellectual establishment, which was controlled by Communists, changed him into a nonperson only to discover him suddenly after the fall of the Soviet empire. My Captive Mind had hardly fared better with leftist readers than his World Apart.
He experienced some of the worst the last century had to offer, beginning with World War II in Poland. He established Poland’s first anti-Nazi resistance cell, fled east to join the Free Polish Army, was arrested by the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) in Soviet-occupied Poland, and was imprisoned in a labor camp on the White Sea. After his release in 1942, he was wounded in the Battle of Monte Cassino. He co-founded the influential literary journal Kultura in Maisons Laffitte with Jerzy Giedroyc (well, we told that story here). His books include A World Apart: The Journal of a Gulag Survivor, Volcano and Miracle, The Island, and others.
A few excerpts from Kelly Zinkowski’s excellent Paris Review Q&A from 2000 – first, on Captive Mind:, a book that was very influential for Humble Moi, describing not only life under Communism, but anywhere the mind is “bent”:
Herling: The behavior of the intellectuals before the war, during the war and after the war with respect to fascism, communism, and other forms of totalitarianism of various descriptions was not very respectable. So they were happy to have Milosz’s book, to have their behavior absolved, if not validated. Because to have something like Ketman or the New Faith is certainly preferable to listening to me telling them that they had betrayed themselves for career and family. Not that the Poles were alone in this. The behavior of writers and intellectuals in Italy during the Fascist reign was the same thing. They should be ashamed of what they wrote, especially because they weren’t writing out of any genuine conviction of fascism’s merits. They were merely trying to advance their respective careers. To some extent it was the same with German writers under the Nazis. Thomas Mann wasn’t sure about what choice to make.
Interviewer: Unlike Robert Musil, who in his exile liked to say that he was merely following his readers.
Herling: Yes. Mann was in a way negotiating with the Nazis. He wanted to know if the Nazis would publish his books, if they would guarantee the safety of his great library in Munich, and so on. We have to be extremely conscious of this problem. I remember the great Italian writer, my friend Ignazio Silone; his intransigence against Italian Fascism was very badly looked upon by his colleagues. They called him a fanatic, which is a terrible word—
Interviewer: Implying that he’d lost his reason.
Herling: And so on. I don’t mean to reopen this discussion with Milosz. He’s a great writer. I recognize his greatness, in his poetry especially, his beautiful novel The Issa Valley, and in other things. I was very pleased by, and contributed to his getting—because they’re not so easy to get!—the Nobel Prize. But I remain adamant where our dispute is concerned.
Interviewer: Could you talk a bit more about your position vis-à-vis those who compromised, either with communism or fascism?
Herling: Let us divide these intellectuals, as far as Poland is concerned, into two categories, the first being single-minded Communist careerists who didn’t want to allow any anti-Communist voices. I remember a very well-known writer who visited me during the time of Poland’s Communist regime. I told him, You’re writing trash, absolute trash. He reached into his jacket pocket, took out a photograph of his wife and family and said, This is my answer. So just stop with all your anti-Communist moralizing.
Interviewer: A difficult point to argue, under the circumstances.
Herling: But we are marked by what we do. This is the first category. The second category is much more dignified, that of writers and intellectuals in totalitarian regimes, like fascism or Nazism, good writers with Nazi sympathies . . . If you could interrogate Heidegger, for example, you would get all of his explanations for why he did what he did, why he accepted the position of university rector, why he wrote all that trash. There was always a reason—he wasn’t stupid. So the second category is this: those who tried to invent good and intelligent reasons. When Milosz says they are using the technique of —claiming to believe everything they were supposed to believe, just to live, to work—it was a kind of lie.
Interviewer: Albeit a historically sanctioned lie—a flamboyantly erudite example of Emerson’s maxim that once a particular point of view is taken, all of history can be made to prove it.
On Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
Herling: Take the three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Although it goes under his name, he is not the only one who wrote it. It was compiled from the memoirs of some two hundred Gulag veterans to whom he had written and asked to recount their experiences. So it’s not really his book; it’s a kind of encyclopedia of the camps. It is true, it is good, it is interesting, it made a profound impression in the West. In my opinion it utterly transformed the position of the French intelligentsia vis-à-vis the Soviet Union; it eradicated communism as a viable position among the intellectual classes there. But it is not Solzhenitsyn’s book in the same way that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is. I didn’t plan to write the story of my two years in Kargopol near the White Sea. But, as I’ve said, it was there that I was awakened as a writer, so I approached my subject as a writer, not as a rapporteur. In some respects it is a book of fiction, but not as conventionally understood.
Herling: During my two years in the concentration camp, I saw an accumulation of evil that left a very deep trace. Even after I was released and reacquired some sense of normality, I never stopped thinking about the evil I had seen. Then, observing the world, reading the papers, listening to stories, it became absolutely apparent that evil exists and is spreading every day. This became my obsession, and it is a constant theme in my stories. My idea of evil differs from the one shared by the church, Plotinus, and Thomas Aquinas, which maintains that evil is merely the absence of goodness. This is the official theory, and I don’t believe it. I think evil is utterly autonomous. What I see every day, in this terrible procession of events, disgusts me and confirms me in my belief; I am almost desperate. And the germ of this notion was formed in the camps. I saw a lot of things there, some of which I wrote about, some of which I didn’t. For a man of my age then, it was a terrible experience to see how the world really is. And this is the reason I decided to abandon my plans for a university career and to become a writer.
Zhadan: “Don’t listen to the propaganda. There are no fascists, no extremists. None of that is true. Come over to our side.”
Over a 24-hour period this weekend, combined Russian-separatist forces attacked Ukrainian army positions in eastern Ukraine 42 times, according to the press service of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) Headquarters. (Link here; map below.) These weren’t random incidents, but intense fighting, particularly in the Donbas region. “In the Mariupol sector, the enemy used banned 120mm and 82mm mortars to shell the town of Krasnohorivka, and the villages of Shyrokyne and Talakivka,” according to the report.
While that’s not as exciting as the latest gaffe from our president-elect, it should arouse a little more press interest than it does.
Here’s the news in more literary form. We’ve written about writer Serhiy Zhadan, the unofficial bard of eastern Ukraine, before. (See “They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Then he told them to…” here, and then a year later here.) In the current New Yorker,Marci Shore writes about Ukraine, and the author whose most recent novel Voroshilovgrad won the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in Switzerland.
Marci reprises the conflict:
On November 21, 2013, Yanukovych, under pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin, unexpectedly declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union. For many Ukrainians this felt like the end of their future. Hundreds of people, students in particular, gathered on the Maidan, the large square in the center of Kiev, to protest. Around 4 a.m. on November 30th, Yanukovych sent his riot police to beat up the students. He was counting, it seems, on the parents’ pulling their children off the streets. Instead the parents joined their children there. The next day more than half a million people came to the Maidan, insisting, “They cannot be permitted to beat our children.”
He took a beating.
“The government has blood on its conscience and has to answer for it,” Zhadan said a few days later, in an interview with the young Polish journalist Paweł Pieniążek. All that winter the stakes, and the violence, increased. …
After the Maidan’s victory in the Ukrainian capital, the population in eastern Ukraine remained divided. Russian “tourists” began arriving from across the border to take part in “anti-Maidan” demonstrations. On February 26th, Zhadan posted on YouTube, in both Russian and Ukrainian, a six-minute appeal to the residents of Kharkiv. “Don’t listen to the propaganda,” he said. “There are no fascists, no extremists. None of that is true. Come over to our side.” Three days later, on March 1st, Zhadan was led away from a demonstration in Kharkiv bloodied, his head bashed in. The poet was cavalier. “I’m a grownup—it’s hard to stun me with a blow to the head,” he said in an interview later that month.
Please read her article here, if for no other reason, it dispels the fiction that Ukrainians somehow really in their heart of hearts want to be Russians – a convenient notion that allowed us to turn our backs on Crimea and, increasingly, on eastern Ukraine.
Marci on Zhadan’s novel and its protagonist Herman:
In Voroshilovgrad, Zhadan describes a kind of war zone at the Ukrainian-Russian border near Rostov: men wearing camouflage and balaclavas and carrying Kalashnikovs, occasionally taking a hostage or two. He describes omnipresent violence at a time when there is no war—a backdrop of brutality, accepted as a given. “You know, before the war, all of these things naturally appeared entirely different: the border with Russia, the army fatigues, the daily readiness for fighting,” Zhadan told me in a letter. “There was no catastrophism in all of that.” (I wrote to Zhadan in Polish about a novel he had written in Ukrainian and I had read in English. He answered me in Russian. The whole situation was very Ukrainian.)
The balaclavas and Kalashnikovs and the culture of gangsters are connected to bottomless corruption. The word, or rather one of the words, for corruption in Russian is prodazhnost’(in Ukrainian, prodazhnist’); it means “saleability” and refers to the understanding that everything and everyone can be bought. A peculiar relationship between prodazhnost’, “saleability,” and chestnost’, “honesty,” belongs to the essence of the Donbas. Where there is no trust in the system, trust in one’s friends is essential. Where there is no law, personal solidarity is paramount. And so what is important is not for whom one votes but how one treats one’s friends. Chestnost’is related both etymologically and conceptually to chest’, “honor.” What is so striking about Herman’s experiences amid the savagery of the Donbas is the absence of duplicity. Voroshilovgrad is an unsentimental novel about human relationships in conditions of brutality in which there is not a single act of betrayal.
Herman is willing to risk everything for his missing brother, for [characters in the novel] Injured and Kocha, for Olga, for spectres of times past, even when this appears to make no sense. While attempting to escape from the biplane guys, Herman finds himself on a private train, where the train’s “authority” gives him some advice: “You’ve got this crazy idea in your head that the most important thing is to stay here, not give an inch—you’re clinging to your emptiness. There’s not a fuckin’ thing here! Not a single fuckin’ thing.” Yet Zhadan wants us to understand that there is something to stay for. In his prose there is no nostalgia, but there is genuine affection, rough and profound. Even in this brutish habitus, there is trust, loyalty, and love. The graduate student I spoke with, Monastyrskyi, prefers the Donbas to Lviv, where he lives now, precisely for the chest’ and chestnost’ that supercede a more conventional bourgeois morality. For all its violence, Monastyrskyi insists, “the Donbas is full of joy and mercy—and empathy.” And he loves Zhadan for portraying these people who don’t have a lot of words more authentically than anyone else, for showing us that “these people are beautiful, beautiful in their ugliness.”