Archive for April, 2018

“Notoriously tricky territory”: Elizabeth Conquest on the literary legacy of Robert Conquest, a long marriage, and lots of letters

Sunday, April 22nd, 2018


A marriage that was a “long conversation” … and plenty of papers, too. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

We’ve written about historian and poet Robert Conquest before – most notably for the Times Literary Supplement here, but also here and here and here, among other places. About his widow Elizabeth Conquest – a.k.a. “Liddie” Conquest – we’ve said comparatively little. That’s about to change. She will be one of the panelists at the Another Look book club on Monday, April 30, discussing Philip Larkin‘s early novel A Girl in WinterBut you might also turn to the pages of the Tunku Varadarajan‘s article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, titled:  “The widow of historian and poet Robert Conquest talks about his legacy – which includes three books still forthcoming”.

Liddie Conquest in London.

Robert Conquest was the first historian to chronicle Stalin’s murderous havoc. His book “The Great Terror,” published in 1968, was among the 20th century’s most influential works of investigative history. Yet Conquest was also a seriously accomplished poet and a prolific letter-writer. His correspondence includes letters to Amis and Larkin (880 pages to the latter alone), as well as to the novelist Anthony Powell and poets including D.J. Enright, Thom Gunn, Vernon Scannell, Wendy Cope and others …

Banker boxes full of papers cover practically every flat surface in the Conquest household. Sideboards, tables, floors and shelves—all heave with typed and scribbled sheaves. Not only is Mrs. Conquest readying “The Great Terror” for its 50th anniversary edition this fall, she’s editing his complete poems—more than 400, some never published—for publication next spring. She’s also editing his memoirs—he died with one chapter unwritten—as well as a fat volume of his correspondence.

“There are thousands of pages of letters that he wrote,” Mrs. Conquest says. “Bob warmed up before a day’s work by writing letters. He would sit at his typewriter and he’d fire off.” Toward the end of his life, he would dictate email messages to Mrs. Conquest, who sent them from their shared account. “He was never really fond of trying to figure out the computer.”

The lot of a literary widow, Mrs. Conquest says, “is not a happy one, for she must master the management of her husband’s literary estate.” But she doesn’t sound grumpy when explaining that she has a veto over the use of his writings, including the power to say yea or nay to any requests to reprint them. This is all “notoriously tricky territory,” Mrs. Conquest concedes, and such widows have “long been caricatured in writerly circles as pantomime villains”—the younger wife who “single-mindedly devotes her remaining decades after her celebrated husband’s death to championing his artistic legacy and slaying those who dare to question it.”

One of the many comments the combox: “Mrs. Conquest seems to be an absolutely wonderful woman.” We couldn’t agree more. Read the whole thing here.

More papers: Conquest at work. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The owl of Minerva flies at dusk…

Saturday, April 21st, 2018

.The writer’s desk has acquired a sort of mystique in the popular imagination, although it generally attaches to writers more famous and celebrated than my humble self. Nevertheless, I snapped a photo of a corner of my work space the other day, and the reason was the watchful gaze of this small, solitary owl.

My mother’s totem was the owl. So she collected them, everywhere she could find them, from all parts of the world. And somehow I inherited the menagerie when she died thirty years ago. I have no room for them in my current digs, and so they are packed away in a box in the garage.

Nevertheless, during a major household upheaval, I rescued one of them from long hibernation. A tiny one, less than two inches high, from Denmark. And now it sits in a cubbyhole in my huge oak roll-top desk, watching me, guarding me, perhaps judging me, as I work well into the wee hours. My brain buzzes faster closer to midnight. So it’s a fitting totem for me, too, night owl that I am.

Ah well, as Hegel observed, the owl of Minerva flies at dusk. And somehow landed here…

Postscript on 4/22: But I also confess a particular partiality for the Hegelian owl at left, stooping slightly to read the small print on the spine of a neighboring book. This fellow normally sits on a bookshelf next to Gorbanevskaya and Cavafy. He rests atop a block of white marble, and was sculpted and cast in bronze by my father, as an owlish gift to my mother. One of our long family legacy of owls…

“Evolution of Desire” launch party is literally unforgettable, thanks to Leah Garchik of the “San Francisco Chronicle”

Friday, April 20th, 2018

The tweeting consul et moi.

I wrote about the launch party for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, hosted by arguably the most hospitable couple at Stanford, Marilyn and Irvin Yalom, a while ago here. It cast a spell over all of us, I think. A few guests have drifted up to me since and said dreamily: “Wasn’t that a looovely party?”

Of course, I would assert that any party that had buckets of French (real French) champagne was well on the way to being unforgettable. But that would underrate the considerable charm of the gracious Yaloms, as well as their beautiful Palo Alto home.

Both are Stanford authors, but he is also a leading existential psychotherapist; she is one of the founders of feminist studies at Stanford. She also has the privilege of being René Girard‘s first graduate student.

The columnist..

It would also undersell the caliber of the guests, especially the high-octane presence of our French consul general from San Francisco, Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens.

But it was Leah Garchik of the San Francisco Chronicle who made sure the party is literally unforgettable – as long as cyberspace and the Library of Congress endure – by including a brief notice in her popular column. We don’t get top billing, but one notch below a Diane Keaton book-signing ain’t bad.

Read the snippet in yesterday’s paper here. Or in the screenshot below:



Never heard of her? A poet who endured illness, poverty, and the “snotty standards of British reviewing.”

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

Elizabeth Jennings – rediscovered.

Dana Gioia has a superb essay over in First Things, “Clarify me, please, God of the galaxies,” about Elizabeth Jennings, the only woman in the “Movement” poets of the U.K. (We’ve regularly written about a few of the others – Philip Larkin, Robert Conquest, Thom Gunn.) She echoes the Movement credo, with a soupçon of Christian mysticism perhaps, when she writes: “Only one thing must be cast out, and that is the vague. Only true clarity reaches to the heights and the depths of human, and more than human, understanding.”

Never heard of her? “Although mocked by the press and neglected by scholars, Jennings enjoyed a popular readership in the U.K.,” Dana writes. “Her Selected Poems (1979) sold more than 50,000 copies. Her poems became A-level texts for secondary schools. Her steadfast publisher, Michael Schmidt of Carcanet, claims she became his bestselling author—’the most unconditionally loved’ poet of her generation.”

She lived her life almost entirely in Oxfordshire, where she experienced mental breakdown and subsequent hospitalization, under-employment and unemployment, and shabby poverty, but nevertheless earned many awards and much recognition. When she received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E) at Buckingham Palace in 1992, the press criticized her for looking like a “bag lady.” She died in 2001, at 75.

“Jennings was not a great poet. Greatness had no appeal to her. She admired epic visionaries, such as Dante, Milton, and Eliot, who offered sublime visions of civilization and belief. She recognized, however, that her muse was lyric. Jennings’s ‘great’ subject was how the individual—fragile, isolated, but alert—worked her way through life’s difficulties and wonders. Her sensibility was romantic, but her style was neoclassical. The characteristic Jennings poem presents the ache and exhilaration of romantic yearning expressed in exquisitely controlled rhyme and meter. She acknowledges her own confused romantic longings—emotional, artistic, and religious—but subjects them to lucid analysis. Her goal is not to resolve the contradictions but clarify them.”

Dana says there are two ways to introduce the public to an unfamiliar poet. The first is to describe particular qualities of the work. He opts for Door Number Two:

“The second way to introduce a poet is simpler. Quote the work. Here is the opening of ‘I Feel.’

I feel I could be turned to ice
If this goes on, if this goes on.
I feel I could be buried twice
And still the death not yet be done.

I feel I could be turned to fire
If there can be no end to this.
I know within me such desire
No kiss could satisfy, no kiss.

The poem’s language is direct, musical, and intense. The strict form feels less like an abstract framework than a cauldron barely able to contain its scalding emotions. The poem’s impact is so immediate and tangibly personal that it is easy to miss its quiet but profound engagement with the Catholic literary tradition. The paradoxical combination of ice and fire imagery goes back at least as far as Petrarch. More interesting, however, is the poem’s connections to Christian mysticism. Although “I Feel” initially seems an expression of erotic longing poisoned by despair, close examination reveals it can also be read as a tortured expression of spiritual hunger, the mystic’s excruciating desire for rapturous union with God.

Dana with Doctor Gatsby. (Photo: Star Black)

She was prodigiously productive, and produced great poems at every stage of her life. Yet her Catholic religion set her apart as much as being being a woman did: “Jennings’s literary reputation never surmounted the limits imposed on women of her generation. By the time of her death in 2001, the situation for female writers had become less grim, but her Catholicism isolated her from the feminist vanguard leading the cultural change. In her later years, reviewers often treated her with condescension and hostility. One young critic mocked her as a ‘Christian lady’ and ’emotional anchorite’ inhabiting a world of ‘shapeless woolens, small kindnesses and quiet deaths’ —an odious remark even by the snotty standards of British reviewing. Jennings understood the dilemma and bore it, but not without a touch of bitterness. (Few Catholic poets extend the concept of redemptive suffering to include their own bad reviews.)”

Read the whole thing here.

“A Company of Authors” is back! An exciting afternoon of lively authors, fascinating books, and “Evolution of Desire”!

Monday, April 16th, 2018

See the second name from the top on the poster above? That’s Humble Moi. You can call me “Moi” for short. And I am personally inviting you to come to “A Company of Authors,” Prof. Peter Stansky‘s celebration of recent books by Stanford authors at the Stanford Humanities Center – this Saturday, April 21, from 1 to 5:15 p.m. (I know, I know… the poster above says 5 p.m. Keep reading…)

Patrick Hunt at the Stanford Bookstore.

Like the Another Look book club, it’s Stanford’s gift to the community. It’s free, and all members of the community are welcome. I’ve written about previous years here and here and here and here. Usually, I moderate the panel for poets; a few years ago, I gave a pitch for Another Look instead (my comments here), and seven years ago I presented my book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. This year, I will be attending as an author, discussing my brand-new Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

Here’s the thing: you can drop by to hear the twenty-one authors discuss their event (schedule of speakers below or here) at any time during the afternoon, and leave when you wish. Some people stay the whole afternoon. Some people come late. Some people come at the beginning and leave early. Please don’t do that! Gaze at the schedule below. I am the very last speaker. Please, please stay to the very end! Wait and talk to me afterwards! I want to meet you! I want to sign your books! (Oh, and the Stanford Bookstore attends, too, selling all the books at a discount. We want you to buy lots.)

Moreover, the last panel has a terrific team, presenting some memorable characters: Stanford archaeologist Patrick Hunt presenting his new book, Hannibal. And Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin discussing thirteenth-century Leonardo da Pisa, the subject of his Finding Fibonacci: The Quest to Rediscover the Forgotten Mathematical Genius Who Changed the World .  And I will discuss on a very modern hero, Stanford’s René Girard, the French theorist who wrote about human imitation, envy, violence, and scapegoating.

Peter Stansky, author of many volumes on modern British history, assures me that the final spot to anchor the day is a position of honor. So please come see me crowned in glory. I’ll be waiting for you. And I’ve highlighted and hyperlinked some of the other authors who have been featured in these pages on the schedule below (please note: Steve Zipperstein has had to cancel his attendance).

Marilyn Yalom signing books

Now you will ask why does the poster that was used in publicity list the event as ending  at 5 p.m., yet the schedule below ends at 5:05 p.m., and elsewhere it says 5:15 p.m. That’s because we noticed that the last panel was five minutes short, and that means we’d all be talking awfully, awfully fast. So the panel ends at 5:05. But after that, we expect you’ll all want to head into the lobby, drink more tea and eat more cookies, buy more books, and many of the authors will be chatting and lingering and longing to sign your books till 5:15 or so. In fact, the hubbub and conversation in the lobby after it’s all finished is one of the funnest things of all.

Come when you can. Stay as long as you can. It’s always lively, informative, and thought-provoking.


1:00 pm Welcome (Peter Stansky)

1:05 pm – 1:35 pm The Wide Range of History
Peter Stansky, Chair
Nancy Kollmann, The Russian Empire 1450–1801
Mikael D. Wolfe, Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in Mexico
Thomas S. Mullaney, The Chinese Typewriter: A History

1:40 pm – 2:10 pm Killing and Controlling the Population
Paul Robinson, Chair
Carolyn Chappell Lougee, Facing the Revocation
Philippa Levine, Eugenics

2:15 pm – 2:45 pm Considering Life
Tania Granoff, Chair
Peter N. CarrollAn Elegy for Lovers
Irvin D. YalomBecoming Myself: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir

2:50 pm – 3:20 pm Life and Love
Edith Gelles, Chair
Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci, Contraceptive Diplomacy
Karen Offen, The Woman Question in France, 1400–1870
Marilyn YalomThe Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love

3:25 pm – 3:55 pm The Former British Empire
Kristin Mann, Chair
Jack RakoveA Politician Thinking: The Creative Mind of James Madison
Priya Satia, Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution
Aidan Forth, Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain’s Empire of Camps, 1876–1903

4:00 pm – 4:30 pm The Many Worlds of Stanford
Larry Horton, Chair

4:00 pm – 4:30 pm The Many Worlds of Stanford
Larry Horton, Chair
Tom DeMund, Walking the Farm
Peter Stansky et al., The Stanford Senate of the Academic Council
Robin Kennedy on behalf of Donald Kennedy, A Place in the Sun: A Memoir

4:35 pm – 5:05 pm Rich Lives
Charles Junkerman, Chair
Patrick HuntHannibal
Keith Devlin, Finding Fibonacci
Cynthia Haven, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard

This event is co-sponsored by Stanford Continuing Studies and the Stanford Humanities Center, with special thanks to the Stanford Bookstore.

Marilynne Robinson: “The absolute discovery we make is that we are radically solitary.”

Saturday, April 14th, 2018

“The world we think we know is what we’re losing.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson is considered one of the defining writers of our time, a treasure in contemporary American literature, in both her fiction and her non-fiction. Her novels explore mid-20th century Midwestern life and faith; her essays roam the boundaries between faith and science. She is perhaps best known for her novels Housekeeping (1980) and Gilead (2004). Her newest collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here? was published this year. Her Entitled Opinions conversation is the newest listing over at the Entitled Opinions channel at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

The Entitled Opinions conversation with Robert Harrison explores John Calvin’s vision of an immanent God, Original Sin, and the influence of both ideas on Lincoln’s national vision and also on foundational American writers such as Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, and Poe. Harrison and Robinson discuss grief, loss, history, science, Freudianism, and what it’s like to live in a universe of a hundred billion galaxies.

In his introduction, Harrison praises “her perception of ordinary reality, which is anything but ordinary when perception becomes truly attentive and thoughtful.” Then he cites her own words: “Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. … You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.”

Potent quotes:

“The world we think we know is what we’re losing. My characters experience grief because they love the world.”

“The absolute discovery we make is that we are radically solitary. … This relationship is essential, indestructible, primary.”

“You learn the value of things in losing them.”

“It’s just spectacular: this planet is disappearingly small, by any model of the galaxy and anything beyond it, and yet at the same time, its knowledge, its capacity for knowing, passes through billions and billions of light years of void.”

“It would be trivial to be a large planet in the middle of a small universe. It’s absolutely brilliant to be a small planet in an endless universe.”


Eugene Ostashevsky: “Blessed be the undiscovered person whose language is his.”

Thursday, April 12th, 2018


“An outcast whose language is all his own.” (Photo:Kritzolina/Wikimedia)

You know how it is. The stack of books piles up by the bedside. With the best of intentions, you commit to reading it all. But you’re already reading and writing all day and all night long, and you’ve long since given up any kind of a normal life so that you can do both… and you still can’t catch up…

So it has been with Eugene Ostashevsky’s The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pipublished by one of my favorite houses, New York Review Books. I’ve been meaning to read it for quite some time, but the backlog is formidable. Fortunately, fortunately, we have people like Boris Dralyuk (we’ve written about him here) over at The Los Angeles Review of Books who goes forth to read for us. Here’s what he has to say about Ostashevsky’s glorious treasure: 

From Homer to the relative merits of Ginger and Mary Ann in Gilligan’s Island, nothing is lost on Eugene Ostashevsky, the Russian-American poet and translator who’s hatched The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi. This “poem-novel” is a seriocomic linguistic performance the likes of which we rarely see, in any tongue, but it wasn’t plucked out of thin air. Ostashevsky, whose two preceding collections are titled, tellingly, The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008) and Iterature (UDP, 2005), has been developing his patchwork technique for years, stitching high theory onto deliriously playful, Edward Learian rhymes, in an effort to make each element pull more weight than it would in isolation, but also to loosen things up. Hierarchies be damned; the pursuit of wisdom is a free-for-all, a real “pirate party, so shake your booty”: “Never mind The Groundwork / For the Metaphysics of Morals — / Shimmy with your scimitar and uncorral some quarrels.”

The Pirate has his forebears. Lear is one, as are Lewis Carroll, the Dadaists, Joyce, and the loopier representatives of Oulipo, but few of Ostashevsky’s predecessors have plumbed the philosophical depths of nonsense with the aplomb of Daniil Kharms (1905-1942), Alexander Vvedensky (1904-1941), and the other members of the short-lived Soviet avant-garde group OBERIU (“The Union of Real Art”). It’s not by chance that Ostashevsky has dedicated so much of his creative energy to introducing the work of the “Oberiuts” to a broad Anglophone audience, editing OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism (Northwestern University Press, 2006) and co-editing and co-translating, with Matvei YankelevichAlexander Vvedensky: An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets, 2013). Like The Pirate, the Oberiuts’ writings are perched (AARGH, is there no escaping the psittacine puns?) above a chasm of meaninglessness. Their delightfully comic gestures always point to the failings of language, its propensity to undermine itself, and, hence, to the impossibility of communication. The matter of incommunicability should concern us all, but it’s especially pressing for an émigré poet. And this brings us back to the pirate’s confession:

I suddenly became frightened — I don’t really know of what — that I wouldn’t be able to represent any of this in language
and the experience would vanish from the sensory world but at the same time take root inside me

unformulated; ineffable; and therefore not even truly a thing; certainly not truly mine
yet also no one else’s but mine; mine exclusively, inalienably

and so locking me at once inside and outside itself
although always in solitary confinement…

He concludes: “And yet, it is a beautiful song, broadcast by an outcast whose language is all his own: ‘Blessed be the undiscovered person whose language is his…'”

Read the whole thing here. By the way, the book is currently on sale, here.

“This is the hardest class you will ever take,” the kids were told. And the course filled up within minutes.

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

Auden knew what he was doing.

Kids are lazy little buggers who opt for easy courses, right?


Some time ago I wrote about W.H. Auden‘s syllabus during his time at the University of Michigan in the 1940s, a copy of which had been sitting in my files for decades. I can’t remember how I found it in the archives of the Rackham Graduate School, but occasionally I would run across it again, take it out, and stare at it, as at a marvel.

The reading list for his course, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” included: The Divine Comedy in full, four works by Shakespeare, Pascal’s Pensées, Horace’s odes, Volpone, Racine, Kierkegaard’s Fear and TremblingMoby-DickThe Brothers KaramazovFaust, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka, Rilke, T.S. Eliot. Also, nine operas. (Auden loved opera – and assigned three of Wagner‘s Teutonic masterpieces.) That’s more than 6,000 pages total. For a single course.

At the University of Oklahoma, three brave men – Kyle Harper, a classicist and the university’s provost; the historian Wilfred McClay; and David Anderson, a professor of English – decided to team-teach a year-long course, modifying Auden’s syllabus a little – to include, for example, Milton.

“This is the hardest class you will ever take.”

The result, according to Mark Bauerlein writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

When enrollment opened last semester, the unexpected happened. The course filled up within minutes. Harper had already warned his students, “This is the hardest class you will ever take.” The syllabus was posted online in advance, so that students knew exactly what they were getting into. The course meets a general-education requirement at Oklahoma, but so do many other courses with half the workload. To accommodate the unexpected demand, the class was expanded from 22 to 30 students, the maximum number that the assigned classroom could hold.

I sat in on a class in October. McClay lectured on Inferno. The atmosphere was genial but focused. You can tell after five minutes whether a class has an esprit de corps — no sullen faces, no eyes drifting to windows and cellphones, even the bad jokes get a laugh. McClay slid from Augustine to Bonaventura to Jesus, Jonah, Exodus, and the prodigal son before taking up Paolo and Francesca, and then the suicides, sodomites, murderers, and frauds in Dante’s torture zones.

The historian was game.

After class, about half of the students and I headed over to the dining room at Dunham College, one of Oklahoma’s graceful new residential colleges, for lunch. There, without the professors present, I asked the key question: Why did they sign up for Western-civ boot camp?

One fellow grumbled that he had to do three times as much work as he did in his other classes. The rest nodded. But you could hear in his words the self-respect that comes from doing more work than the norm, from climbing the highest hill while your peers dog it. Another student said that the page-count of the syllabus had flattered her, that it showed the professors respected her enough to demand that she take on a heavy load of historic literature.

The English prof was game, too.

“This is what I came to college for,” another said. One more chimed in, “This class is changing my life.”

They acknowledged, too, the distinctiveness of the works they read, one student calling them a “foundation” for things they study elsewhere. They admired the professors, to be sure, but the real draw was the material. When I asked what they would change about the course, they went straight to the books: add The Iliad and some of the Bible.

Read the whole thing here.

A postscript of 4/14 from John Murphy of the University of Virginia: “On my way out the door of higher ed and toward opportunities, both teaching and otherwise, elsewhere, one of my thoughts – in line with the program described here – is one way to revive the humanities might be to make the whole enterprise an honors curriculum or honors college within larger institutions. That would allow for a recuperation of the rigorous and seriousness that has long been lost within college and university humanities courses and it would also raise the value of a humanities degree as a credential. The implicit message would be “real college for real students” and it would be mark of distinction to have taken the more difficult and selective course of study, even if you went on to purse a “practical” career after that. It would be a sign to “practical” employers that a graduate had really hit the books during college and not taken the easy way out. Young people will work very, very, very hard at things that ultimately don’t matter as much as curricular education – i.e. athletics. So maybe foregrounding the aspect of difficulty might tap some kind of competitive spirit. ‘Auden College: No Pain, No Gain.'”

A book is born! A party launches Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard – and the French consul was there, too!

Sunday, April 8th, 2018

Above, the tweet from the French consul Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens today at my book launch party at the gorgeous home of Marilyn and Irvin Yalom. The event was celebrated with plenty of champagne – the French, not Californian, kind. As Emmanuel noted above, René Girard‘s wife, Martha, and daughter Mary, attended. So did others who have featured on these pages: Ewa Domanska, Marie-Pierre Ulloa, Inge Pierson, Robert Pogue Harrison, Elena Danielson, Aleta Hayes, Elaine Ray, Trevor Cribben-Merrill, and others – that’s three chevaliers in the group altogether, by my count. Pas mal. Jean-Pierre Dupuy was in Paris, but made his presence felt via an email to the gathering, and addressed to René himself, who died in November 2015.

Here are the words of Jean-Pierre:

A voice from Paris…

Mon cher René,

En ce jour où nous te célébrons, je ne peux m’empêcher de penser ceci. Si le Dieu d’amour existe, quelles que soient la ou les religions qu’Il a inspirées, alors tu l’as rejoint, car mieux que tout autre prophète, tu nous as donné une idée de son essence.

Ni le temps ni l’espace que nous connaissons ne peuvent situer ta rencontre avec Dieu. Elle n’est ni dans le passé ni dans l’avenir, car le temps est probablement une illusion liée à notre finitude. Elle n’est ni dans l’infiniment petit ni dans l’infiniment grand, car l’espace est comme Dieu selon Pascal, « une sphère dont le centre est partout et la circonférence nulle part. »

La superstition consisterait à penser que de là où tu es, tu peux nous voir et nous adresser des messages. Ton esprit est en dehors de l’espace et du temps. Il est dans la conscience de chacun d’entre nous, vivants promis à la mort, nous qui t’avons lu, t’avons entendu et t’avons aimé.

Fortunately for many of you, my words were in English, and brief:

“René’s first book in 1961 made his reputation as a literary theorist; his final book took him to the end of the world: terrorism, the tit-for-tat arms race, and nuclear proliferation. And it was all rooted in human imitation and desire – not fashionable when René began his career. Yet within decades research from many fields would put it at the forefront, especially now, with cyberbullying, the mob behavior of our politics, our social media.

Signing books…

His critics sometimes say that his observations are “obvious.” Certainly René agreed. He said, “There’s nothing Mallarméan about the interpretive sequence that dominates my work: it is terribly commonsensical and down-to-earth… It rests on the obvious, and it seeks the obvious. Not everything obvious interests me, to be sure, only those observations that should have been made long ago and yet never were.” Obvious, perhaps, but hard to practice. Anyone who has tried to do so – by refusing to echo one’s enemies, not even in a gesture or sneer – knows how hard that can be.

From the beginning, I felt he needed a bigger audience. So when Bill Johnsen invited me to develop a book proposal for Michigan State University Press, I suggested I weave together the life and the work in a narrative targeted for the educated non-specialist – the New York Times reader, for example.

I have had 280 pages to do precisely that. Now I happily and gratefully yield the floor to others…”


And so I did. Marilyn Yalom delivered the words from Paris, and spoke as René’s first graduate student (she received her doctorate in 1963). Martha Girard spoke warmly about my humble efforts to portray her beloved husband. Trevor read my Kirkus Review (we discussed that here). Bill Johnsen’s words about my book were generous and what any author would have been deliriously happy to hear. Ewa Domanska spoke of reading René in Poland during the Solidarity years, and of meeting him at Stanford. And one person spoke passionately, eloquently, brilliantly. But more of that talk later.

Meanwhile, my first Amazon review is one sentence, five stars. We’d like to keep that proportion. Thank you, reviewer, whoever you are. And some more tweets below:


Lena Herzog on lost languages: “We are floating on an ocean filled with the silence of others.”

Friday, April 6th, 2018

Photographer Lena Herzog at work.

Our post a few days ago about lost languages evoked some interesting responses – one of them from photographer Lena HerzogLena has made an occasional appearance in the Book Haven, and I interviewed her for Music & Literature here. She was a guest panelist at the Another Look book event on Dostoevsky, and her Entitled Opinions interview got record traffic.  

As a result of our conversation, she offered us a guest essay on the origins of “Last Whispers/Oratorio for Vanishing Voices, Collapsing Universes, and a Falling Tree,” which was mentioned on the post several days ago. “I got addicted to these vanishing voices,” she writes:

At the age of six I decided to learn English so that I could understand a puzzle in a Sherlock Holmes story. I had to know how the detective had decoded a death threat to his client’s wife in The Adventure of the Dancing Men. The key to that puzzle was the recognition of the recurring definite article “the”—a mysterious notion to me then since articles do not exist in Russian. I grew up in the Urals, on the western border of Siberia, where very few people spoke foreign languages. I picked up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original in English, along with a dictionary and a grammar text book, and struggled through the entire book line by line. Later, also prompted by the desire to read literature in the original, I studied French and Spanish and, worked as a proof-reader at a printing press in Saint Petersburg, next to the compositors that were busily nestling letters into words, words into sentences, and sentences into novels at a staggering speed, throwing proofs over to me like hot bread. So it made sense to me that when I went to Saint Petersburg University, the door plaque of my faculty read philology φιλολογία—including the original Greek, which means “love of the word.” However, all my plans to become a Russian novelist were upended by a complete linguistic dislocation to American English at age twenty, when I moved to the United States. The sense of personal language loss was concrete and overwhelming, alerting me to a far more universal and dire fate for most languages.

The idea for a project specifically on the mass extinction of languages came to me more than two decades ago. My old failed 2003 Guggenheim application was titled “Vanishing Cultures” and was at first, in part, a photographic project. I’d planned to take large-format portraits of the last speakers of various languages and place them in a room filled with their whispering voices. The concept of sounding vanished voices by broadcasting them as a muffled chorus was already central and clearly articulated in my description of the project back then.

I realized that indigenous communities give up their languages and switch to dominant ones under pressure from the forces of globalization. My next natural iteration of this idea involved shedding the images of the speakers and having only voices in a forest. When a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? This old philosophical trope, the basic epistemological exercise, seemed handy. What is our sense of the unobserved, unheard worlds? I have come to think of this old exercise as one in empathy: Does it matter that trees and universes collapse all around us? Somewhere, between our obliviousness to others and our own oblivion, rest the scales of some brutal justice.

The British Museum installation of “Last Whispers.”

My team and I began amassing a giant library of recordings of extinct and endangered languages on loan from international archives, working closely with many collections, linguists, and anthropologists in the field. Our main collaborator was the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, a project of SOAS University of London that is headed by Mandana Seyfeddinipur. When I went through their archives online, I realized there would be no point in just “stacking” languages back-to-back to form a single piece. Because these recordings were already public, generously so, it would have been possible to perform this kind of compilation just by clicking “next” on their website, and that would have been too obvious a gesture for the work I had in mind.

While working in my studio and darkroom, I created a setup that randomly played thousands of these recordings, one after another. I marked those that felt right for the oratorio I was planning and began narrowing down the library. The extraordinary researcher Theresa Schwartzman, in Los Angeles, and her counterpart in London, Eveling Villa, began reaching out to archives, linguists, and indigenous communities (when this was possible) to obtain rights and permissions for the recordings. Sometimes there was no community to reach. We went beyond the letter of the law, which held that the copyright resided with the linguists and the archives, and tried to reach those who claimed heritage to the language. Sometimes last speakers changed their minds, turning us down mid-composition and mid-film, and we had to redo the work from scratch. Each case had a story, most often a tragic one. We began to publish some of them on our website.

Mandana Seyfeddinipur and Lena Herzog

Every dialogue with a linguist, no matter how banal, brought insight. The professionals who travel and live among these last speakers are the unsung heroes in this story; they are the ones who collect, preserve, and help revitalize endangered languages. In my dealings with them, they were the advocates for the last speakers’ rights. One might think that they would number enough to form an army, but there are barely enough of them for a battalion. Most work alongside volunteers and language enthusiasts. And all of them, at least those that I have met, are on the side of indigenous peoples. To put it in espionage terms, linguists of endangered languages almost always “go native.” They are the ones who hear the trees falling in the forest. Our long list of credits names both the speakers and the linguists—meticulously.

The polyphonic global chorus that I heard had the makings of an astonishing oratorio, and to bring it into a public space beyond the form of the archive, I needed music and imagery that would reveal it in a condensed form. This form had to be invented organically; it had to come from the recordings, from the voices themselves.

Marco Capalbo and Mark Mangini, who work fluidly in both sound design and composition, joined the team, and we began to shape the oratorio from our already-narrowed library. My concept was multilayered and concrete: it included the use of sounds of Russian bells, forest noises, wind, interpreted gravitational waves from outer space registered by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (a.k.a. “the Listening Ear”), and the specific parameters for the source library itself. In my first brainstorming session about the work, I wrote to Marco and Mark:

Lena Herzog’s team Marco Capalbo, Mark Mangini and British Museum curator David Sheldon during the installation

What is the balance of the piece? What holds it together?

The “founding idea” of making the work is based on the recordings of languages that had already vanished or are well on their way to extinction. The parameters within which the selection was made for the source library—I have defined. This is clearly a glue as the overall idea and basic building blocks. … Using cosmic sounds of the universe within the composition expands the arc. Gives us “eternal” time. … I really love the opening with the bell. The end will have to be a giant chorus that builds and builds and then abruptly vanishes—in an exhale.

Shifting from fragmentation to a lyrical cradling of the voices, then back to fragmentation, and ending with a finale of interwoven harmony and dissonance were key to the piece I was constructing with my team.

Listening to the sounds of the voices and the first sketches by Marco and Mark, the photographer Tomas van Houtryve and I mapped a precise choreography of drone footage. Animator Amanda Tasse and I decided to create a new topography for the world that would have no “real” geography. We collected NASA images of hurricanes, cut out their edges, and sewed them together, forming something like a digital quilt to cover the earth. I thought that the edges of these vortices textured the continents and islands well, lighting the globe like a strange marble.

There is lamentation and melancholy in the oratorio. How can it be otherwise? And yet it is not a requiem—it is an invocation of languages that have gone extinct and an incantation of those that are endangered. I myself got addicted to these vanishing voices. I listen to them all the time now. They remind me that despite the deafening noise of our own voices, we are floating on an ocean filled with the silence of others.