Archive for October, 2019

Remembering Vladimir Bukovsky (1942-2019): a long-ago lunch with a man who loved freedom and roses

Thursday, October 31st, 2019
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Elena Danielson: archivist, correspondent

A guest post from one of our favorite guests: Elena Danielson, former director of the Hoover Library & Archives at Stanford, who has written for us here and here and here. Today she shares her memories of a man who is already missed.

While he probably wouldn’t have remembered us, we remember him. My husband Ron pointed out the obituary in the New York Times: Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky died October 27, 2019 in Cambridge at age 76. I hope at the end he was quietly able to declare victory for surviving as long as he did, considering the foes he had fought and the demons he had battled.

Ron and I had a memorable lunch with him in Cambridge in April 1998. More than memorable. On business for the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford, I was on an archival collecting tour in Europe and visited various families of Russian dissidents in Paris, Fontenay-aux-Roses, London, Oxford, Cambridge. Keeping in touch with historically significant people was part of my job, a dream job: after establishing connections, their documents and papers would generally arrive at the Hoover Archives in due time. On this trip I met with members of the Pasternak family, the Siniavsky family, even a Romanov, Rostislav Romanoff (“you can call me Rosti”). My travel reports are full of all the practical details regarding scope of collection, contracts, shipping issues, etc., yet what comes through when I review my personal notes is the warm and generous reception I received from mostly strangers. It is still overwhelming to me. The Russian dissidents and emigres are a remarkable lot of human beings with amazing stories and a generosity of spirit totally at odds with their experiences. And even in this extraordinary group, Bukovsky stood out for both Ron and me.

With Bukovsky on the Bridge over the River Cam, April 1998

I had met him over a decade earlier when the was at Stanford to study psychology, and also to work with anti-Soviet activists. He had survived over a decade as a Soviet political prisoner in various jails and psychiatric treatment centers until he was sent into exile in a prisoner exchange program in 1976. The Hoover Institution published one of his books in 1987. My supervisor there asked me to drive Bukovsky to a human rights conference in Berkeley. As his chauffeur on this long drive, I remember vividly his wild and engaging conversation. It was clear that this man would challenge abuse of authority where ever he encountered it. It was built into his personality. This mindset enabled him to take on one of the most powerful and ruthless political structures in the world. “You have to do it,” he told me, “despite the fact we knew we would lose.”

A decade later, since I was going to be in London anyway, I wrote Bukovsky a formal letter in 1998 and asked to meet him in Cambridge. His response was coy. He said he’d be in Colorado the whole time of my trip – available on April 24 only. Closer to the time, I faxed back that I could take him to lunch on April 24, and decided to leave a voice mail to that effect on his answering machine, since he could access that while traveling. Bukovsky answered his Cambridge home phone immediately, he was most certainly not in Colorado.

Ron and I showed up exactly on time, noon on April 24, at 145 Gilbert Road in Cambridge. He lived alone in a charming classic English cottage with an entry path lined with lushly blooming tree roses … for all his disruptive behavior this was a man who loved roses. And a man who did not always answer the doorbell. It was the era before cellphones, so Ron and I left the house to walk to a public telephone down the street. Halfway down the block we hear someone yelling, “Hey, you!” We turned and saw a very rumpled Bukovsky leaning out his doorway and inviting us to come back. “I just woke up,” he said, smelling of alcohol. And he offered us each a lovely cup of smoky tea, the very best lapsong suchong. This was a man who would never drink Lipton’s tea.

On his table were heaps of photocopies of once top secret Soviet documents, archival heaven for me. And he knew it. Rumpled as he was, he had prepared assiduously for our meeting. He did his homework.
Ron and I offered to take him out to lunch. A congenial tour guide, he took us for a walk through Cambridge, showing us the sights along the way, smiling gargoyles on churches, Christopher Wren’s library, college courtyards. Then we came to the historic café/bar “The Eagle,” where he showed us the graffiti left by World War II pilots, some of whom never returned. As he ordered us a lunch of savory moules marinière accompanied by generous pourings of red wine, he began to reminisce about his life as a dissident: “We knew we were playing a game; we didn’t know the stakes were so high.” He had enormous respect for Reagan for paying attention to the human rights movement, which he felt many intellectuals tried to ignore.

Bukovsky, Ron Danielson at Cambridge

Since the fall of Soviet communism in 1991, Bukovsky had advocated vigorously for a Nuremberg style trial of communist leaders to finally discredit the Soviet system. He did not see any point in putting old villains in jail, he said he wanted to use the documentary evidence to totally ruin their credibility and to prevent any return of the repressive system. Such an effort at a judicial process began in 1992 with Bukovsky serving as an expert, determined to open up the archives.

Bukovsky was himself a scientist who tried to approach the factual data in a systematic way. He used new technology including a hand held Logitech scanner, that was 4-5 inches wide, with which he would swipe the documents several times across each page and then use a computer program to join the pieces together. It was uncharted territory both in terms of legal access and in terms of technical access. He successfully captured an enormous amount of data including heavily guarded secrets from the Politburo and even copies of KGB documents held in Central Committee files. He said he worked with an official named Poltoranin to declassify the materials he wanted to read. Apparently, they worked and drank together simultaneously. Bukovsky would tell Poltoranin what he needed and Poltoranin would order his staff to bring materials out on that topic, which Bukovsky would then scan on the spot. The Russians were unfamiliar with scanning technology at the time and apparently unaware that the documents were being copied. “I paid for every document with my blood,” he explained in an almost matter-of-fact way. “I paid for every document with my liver.” Already in 1998 he had plans to put the scanned data set on the internet. He said it would be ready to go online by October 1998. Today the documentation he secured in 1992 can be found online here. Now it all looks so obvious, but at the time it was exceedingly experimental and daring.

But the process was not completed. He complained: “Reagan and Thatcher ruined the USSR, but they didn’t finish them off.” He covers all of this in his books, but hearing it from him in person, in the presence of his remarkable personality, made it clear how he managed to maintain the good fight against all odds.

The Hoover Institution has kept up its active archival acquisitions program under the direction of Eric T. Wakin. Eventually about 57 boxes of Vladimir Bukovsky’s papers were secured for the Hoover Archives by Lora Soroka under the guidance of the Russian and Eurasian curator Anatol Shmelev.

Hollywood screenwriter rescues an actress from suicide in the Pacific. Then what happens? Come to Wednesday night’s discussion of Alfred Hayes’s book.

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019
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Also a veteran of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone”

Last call! Tomorrow night we celebrate screenwriter Alfred Hayes‘s My Face for the World to See. The event will take place at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 30, at the Bechtel Conference Center of Encina Hall, 616 Serra Street, on the Stanford campus. As you will remember, Serra Street is now closed. Directions and parking on the are on the Another Look website here.

The narrator, a Hollywood screenwriter, rescues a young actress from suicide in the Pacific. The incident leads to an affair fueled by gin, cigarettes, and ultimately madness.

Hayes (1911-85) was also a screenwriter and television writer, as well as a novelist. The best known of his seven novels is The Girl on the Via Flaminia. He received Oscar nominations for his work on Paisà, directed by Rossellini, and Zinnemann’s Teresa. He adapted Maxwell Anderson/Kurt Weill musical Lost in the Stars for film. His television credits include Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone.

Panelists include: Robert Harrison, author and professor of Italian literature; director of Another Look; Tobias Wolff, author and professor emeritus of English, founding director of Another Look; David Thomson, film critic and regular contributor to The New York Times, The New Republic, The Guardian, and Salon; and novelist Terry Gamble.

The event is free and open to the public. Please encourage your friends to join us! And visit our website for details: anotherlook.stanford.edu.

“The undulating quality of his thought”: Robert Pogue Harrison remembers Michel Serres

Saturday, October 26th, 2019
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“Michel Serres is indeed Stanford’s ego ideal, even if the institution itself is largely unaware of it.” Remembering the academician at the Stanford Humanities Center on Oct. 21.

Michel Serres, a Stanford professor, a member of the Académie Française, and one of France’s leading thinkers, died on June 1 at age 88. Earlier this week, we published French Consul General Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens‘s remarks at the memorial conference for him on Monday, Oct. 21. (Read it here.) Below, Robert Pogue Harrison‘s words on that occasion:

When I joined Stanford’s Department of French & Italian as a young assistant professor in the 1980s, I became close friends with Michel Serres. It was he who encouraged me to break out of the straightjacket of narrow academic specialization and to enlarge my conception of what it means to be a humanist. My first book offered an intensive textual analysis of Dante’s Vita Nuova. It was thanks to Michel that that I subsequently went on to write a history of forests in the western imagination, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to our own day. That book, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, published in 1992, is dedicated to Michel Serres, yet he managed to beat me to the punch. Just before Forests came out, I received a copy of The Natural Contract, which, to my great surprise, Michel had dedicated to me. That dedication, with a quote from Livy (casu quodam in silvis natus), was for me a far bigger deal than the appearance of my book a month or two later.

“Michel had a way of enchanting and entrancing his audience.”

In the late 80s and 90s, Michel’s seminars at Stanford were attended by a number of junior and senior faculty members. He was the only one I can remember who regularly drew other faculty to his classes. We went not only to learn but to experience the unique aesthetic flourish of his teaching. There was an Orphic quality to his seminars. Michel had a way of enchanting and entrancing his audience. His lectures were musical, operatic performances, with preludes, movements, arias, and crescendos. He created this musical effect by the lyricism of his voice; by the cadences of his sentences; by his measured use of assonance and alliteration; by the poetic imagery of his prose; and by what I would call the undulating quality of his thought. There was a distinct rhythm to his seminars that put their beginning, middle, and end in musical, rather than merely logical, relation to one another. A Michel Serres seminar was a highly stylized affair, both in content and rhetorical delivery – and the audience could not help but break into applause when he concluded with the words “je vous remercie.”

With Serres, the classroom became not only an intellectual space of illumination but also the site of revelations. In addition to what I’ve called the Orphic quality of his teaching, it also had a Pentecostal aspect. (I borrow the term from our onetime Stanford colleague Pierre Saint-Amand, who attended many of Michel’s seminars in the early years.) Michel himself speaks of that particular type of communication in his book, Le Parasite. With Michel, one had the impression at times that something was speaking through him, that he was bringing to the surface deep, long-buried sources of knowledge and wisdom. It was very close to what Hannah Arendt, with reference to Heidegger’s teaching in the 1920s, called “passionate thinking.”

“An Orphic quality”: Sharing a glass of wine in 2010

Whether he was teaching literary works or the origins of geometry, you could be sure that Michel would bring together religion and ancient history, anthropology and mathematics, law and literature. He had a wholly new way of reading philosophy, literature, and the tradition in general. Those of us who were drawn to his thought and his seminars developed a taste for complexity. In the heyday of deconstruction, Serres taught us that textualization led to inanition. The surest way to zombify philosophy, literature, or science was to textualize them. He taught by counter-example how to bring into play a heterogeneous plurality of perspectives. Texts were not folded in upon themselves but contained different strata of historical knowledge, of cultural instantiations and practices.

Serres’s model of reading is not easily duplicated. He would bring any number of scientific, religious, and historical deliberations to bear on his reading of authors like Pascal, Balzac, or La Fontaine like Serres was able to do. Serres provided us with a model of complexity for which the word “interdisciplinarity” does not do justice. One could call it a “new encyclopedianism,” but why not call it by a term that he himself coined in his book Genese – “diversalism.”

The concept of diversalism is not opposed to universalism but represents a very different declension of it than the German metaphysical one – a declension that finds universality in multiplicity rather than unity, contingency rather than necessity, and singularity rather than generality. The confluence of different streams of knowledge, diversalism is the very lifeblood of complexity, that is to say the lifeblood of life itself, not to mention of human culture in general.

Harrison interviewed Serres on “Entitled Opinions” in 2008.

I would like to think that diversalism – as Michel understood it – defines what Stanford University stands for among institutions of higher learning. In that sense Michel Serres is the local unsung hero of Stanford’s greater ambition to bring all fields of knowledge and research into productive conversation with one another. I would go so far as to say that Serres is – without Stanford even knowing it – this institution’s ego ideal. Let me go even further and say that, in his diversalism, Serres was a very representative member of the Department of French & Italian, which by any measure has been the department of diversalism par excellence. Our colleague Elisabeth Boyi, who is here today, reminds us that diversalism also includes what her friend and fellow traveler Eduard Glissant called “diversality,” namely the admixture of languages, cultural legacies, and ethnic origins in an “archipelago” of diversity, where archipelago means interrelated associations that are not organized hierarchically but laterally.

When you think of colleagues like René Girard, Jean-Marie Apostolides, Sepp Gumbrecht, Brigitte Cazelles, Elisabeth Boyi, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, as well as the younger generation of scholars in French & Italian, many of whom are present here today, you start to wonder whether there is another universe or timeline in which Donald Trump did not win the 2016 presidential election and that the Department of French & Italian figures as the fully acknowledged, rather than discrete, crown jewel of Stanford University. I mean Stanford in its commitment to a genuine diversalistic pursuit of knowledge. But as they say, nemo profeta in patria sua.

If Michel Serres is indeed Stanford’s ego ideal, the institution itself is largely unaware of it. Stanford and Serres always had a courteous but altogether perfunctory relationship. Neither was the explicit champion of the other. That is not unusual. Stanford has a history of accommodating but not exalting some of its most creative endeavors and ventures. Maybe it’s better that way. Be that as it may, Serres was always grateful to Stanford for allowing him to visit twice a year for some three decades. He did much of his best thinking here, interacting with colleagues and walking to the Dish daily. He used to say that he had no complaints about Stanford whatsoever. “Je vie comme un moine et je suis payé come une putain.” Wherever he is now, I’m sure he’s looking on Stanford fondly. Those of us he left behind here in California miss him dearly, and it is fair to say there will never be another one like him in our midst.

Stanford’s resident Socrates takes a break on his daily walk to “the Dish.”  (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford remembers Michel Serres: French consul praises his optimism and “infinite love of peace”

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
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Michel Serres was able to explain astronomy with history, music with mathematics, literature with technology,” said Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, French consul general in San Francisco. The occasion was Monday’s wise and memorable day of talks, retrospectives, recollections, (short) film clips of the late great French thinker Michel Serres, who died June 1. He was a  Member of the Académie Française,  a Great Officer of the Legion of Honor, a Graduate of the École Normale Supérieure, and a Stanford professor.

Audrey Calefas-Strebelle led a seminar remembering the French thinker, before the major evening event featuring a talks by Serres’s daughter, Hélène Weis; his publisher Sophie Bacquart; Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford Professors Robert Pogue Harrison, Dan Edelstein, and Cécile Alduy, among others. The long afternoon ended with Mouton Cadet , tea sandwiches, chocolate dipped strawberries, and piles of tiny little cakes.

“He was a son of the French Enlightenment, a strong voice of humanist ideas, the illustration of the French meritocracy, and the embodiment of the core values of our Republic.”

From his Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens’s talk:

Serres’s daughter Hélène Weis, and publisher Sophie Bacquart, with the French consul-general

Michel Serres was a French character, and like the best French characters, such as Cyrano de Bergerac and d’Artagnan, he was from Gascony. Born in a rural village to a modest family, he grew up during World War II and the dawn of the nuclear age with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He witnessed and theorized the fall of scientific positivism, as well as blind faith in scientific progress. Many of his concepts trace back to his childhood, his attachment to the land, to spaces, and his infinite love of peace. This period of time marked him profoundly, and he liked to say, “my body was made of war, so my soul was made of peace.”

Like d’Artagnan, Michel Serres needed to see the world and explore the horizon. He remained a ‘real Gascon,’ meeting with the most influential intellectuals, still honoring his roots and devotedly maintaining his terroir accent, one that gave a poetic tone widely reflected in both his French and English works.

Through his travels, he carried his insatiable curiosity. Despite being faced with a world shaken by anxiety and turmoil, he always kept the calm, optimistic, and clear look of a child through his deep green eyes.

Today, amid fast transformations, interpreted by many as a crisis, this 88-year-old scholar saw an exciting and unprecedented ground for creation and social progress. We live through the fourth industrial revolution, which marks the beginning of a new era, a period of technology and digital innovation and the development of a new historical model.

Serres at Stanford: still larger than life

In Petite Poucette, the main character “Thumbelina” is named in reference to her ability to use her thumbs to send messages with her hands. To Stanford students, who are today’s Thumbelinas, Michel Serres said: “The future looks good, and I would like to be eighteen, Thumbelina’s youthful age, since everything is to be made, everything is left to invent.”

This was the message of a man from an older generation that knew the bygone era of the industrial wars, totalitarianism, and the constant nuclear threat, to a younger era faced with new challenges, such as climate change. It is a message from the past to the future, going over the heads of barking crowds feeling nostalgic for the times before the computers – the crowds yelling “it was better before,” the crowds criticizing the youth of the world, mocking their tears and their fights. To them, Michel Serres would say, “You long for the past. I was there in the past. I can tell you, it wasn’t any better.”

The Thubelinas should not be afraid to be young and to be different. For Michel Serres, true creation comes from difference, from the clumsy, the unalike, the left-handed, the weirds, the mocked, the seemingly ill-adapted. They are the true creators, inventors, and artists. They are the ones who will redefine the boundaries of a reality that does not fit them. And they are, now, the majority.

With the Stanford News Service, I was honored to do the only interview of him, ever, in English. It’s below:

What was Harold Bloom working on at life’s end? This.

Sunday, October 20th, 2019
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His dreams were still in Yiddish.

What was Harold Bloom writing at 89? According to his friend, the writer, translator, and publisher Lucas Zwirner, Bloom had started a new book  called Immortality, Resurrection, Redemption: A Study in Speculation,  exploring the afterlife in the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Islamic traditions. Zwirner discusses it in The Paris Review here.

“Being with Harold always felt historic, momentous,” he writes. “The world around him was thick with thoughts and feelings, dense. The people we encounter in writing pierce us, their inner lives give us more life. For those of us who were lucky enough to study with him, Harold let that life out. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t finish his book.”

America’s legendary lit critic never finished the book, of course. He died last Monday. In his last email to his friend on September 18, Bloom discussed the book, and took on Silicon Valley, too:

In the early autumn of 2019, the denial of death by Silicon Valley technocrats has been an organized phenomenon for about fifteen years. There are varied cults that keep burgeoning of which the most notorious is Terasem, founded on a science fiction novel I could not finish. Satellite dishes have been set up to record the mindsets of the new faithful and beam them out into the great beyond, in the pious hope that amiable aliens will receive them and descend with fresh panaceas to sooth the fear of dying.

Does the world grow better or worse, or does it just get older? There is nothing new under the sun. Cultivating deep inwardness depends upon the reading of the world’s masterpieces of literary works and religious scriptures. Not that Silicon Valley would be at all interested, but I would prescribe that all of them learn to read Shakespeare as he needs to be read. Self and soul would then return and take the place of fashionable evasions of the contingencies that have always shaped human lives.

Read the rest here. (And hat tip to Frank Wilson.)

A childhood chum.

And over at the Times of Israel, Bloom discusses how he still dreams in his first language, Yiddish. He was the child of Jewish Orthodox immigrants from Ukraine and Belarus: “As a very small child, three, four years old, I was sent to Sholem Aleichem schools… they were all over the Bronx. So, pretty good early education that was strictly in Yiddish… But to this day my English is very curious because I learned it only through the eye and not through the ear. I didn’t, in fact, hear English spoken until I was about 5 and a half. I was a preternaturally early reader and at 5 or 6, I was already reading Shakespeare and trying to read Milton and so on. But English is, of course, a very peculiar language, as Bernard Shaw complains, the orthography and the pronunciation have nothing in common. So to this day, I speak my own curious, inflected English. It doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. So as far as I’m concerned, I still dream in Yiddish.”

Read it here.

“An elegant homage”: weekend praise from Amherst for “Evolution of Desire” – and a few other books, too

Saturday, October 19th, 2019
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It’s been a full year-and-a-half since Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard was published. And I’m chuffed it’s still getting reviews and attention.

The latest is from the weekend “Friday Reads” section of The Commona tony journal put out by Amherst College. According to its website: “The Common is an award-winning print and digital literary journal published biannually, in the fall and spring. Issues of The Common include short stories, essays, poems, and images that embody a strong sense of place.”

I’m honored that Evolution of Desire is the lead item. The review (they’re all designed to be brief) is by Susan Troccolo, a non-fiction contributor to the journal.

It begins:

“Cynthia L. Haven’s book, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is a compelling study of her mentor’s life’s work and an elegant homage to a man whose extraordinary intellectual force and drive for understanding necessarily probed Psychology, Philosophy, Theology, and Anthropology.”

It ends: “Evolution of Desire is a memorably written biography of a distinguished thinker for our time.”

You can read what’s in the middle here.

But there are four other books to consider. Here’s Loves You: Poems by Sarah Gambito, recommended by poetry contributor Chloe Martinez:

“’Invite at least 15 people. It’s okay if your apartment is small.’ These are some of the instructions Sarah Gambito gives the reader at the start of Loves You, a collection of poems that are also recipes, that are also love songs, that are also prayers, and that are often centos, “patchwork poems” made up entirely of quotations. It’s okay to include all this, Gambito tells us, it’s okay to use everything around you in poems …”

A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, in which fiction contributor Katherine Vaz discusses a novel that was short-listed for the Man Booker and won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2017:

“Based on the true story of a woman who stayed closed-off in her apartment in Luanda during the struggle for independence, it’s an uncanny mix of true-magic and suspense and the onslaught of history. The plot is clear and strong. The language, the story itself—breathtaking. The confines of Ludo’s apartment end up containing the universe, in the way that the lines of a sonnet contain, due to the restriction of form, an explosion of richness.”

Read the full text for all four here. I’ll give you a hint on the last two:  The Farm by Joanne Ramos and recommended by Danielle Batalion Ola (nonfiction contributor); and Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors and recommended by Katherine Hill (fiction contributor).

A fan of the Beach Boys? Here’s a poem and video for you: “Every lovesick summer has its song.”

Thursday, October 17th, 2019
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In his year as state poet laureate, Dana Gioia was determined to speak, read, and hold a literary event in every one of California’s 58 counties. And so he did. But that meant a lot of lonely hours on the road for Santa Rosa-based California guy.

Dana chilling in L.A. with Doctor Gatsby (Photo: Starr Black)

Perhaps that’s what brought this poem to mind for one of his newest in the Blank Verse Films series. It’s one of his poems that was driven by sound, which is appropriate for the subject.

“I imagine it already needs footnotes for the young, but I like to think that the experience is nearly universal in our era of entertainment,” he told me. There’s a personal link not mentioned in the poem: he shares a hometown with the Beach Boys outside L.A. – Hawthorne, California, before a freeway ran through it.

Cruising with the Beach Boys

So strange to hear that song again tonight
Travelling on business in a rented car
Miles from anywhere I’ve been before.
And now a tune I haven’t heard for years
Probably not since it last left the charts
Back in L.A. in 1969.
I can’t believe I know the words by heart
And can’t think of a girl to blame them on.

Every lovesick summer has its song,
And this one I pretended to despise,
But if I was alone when it came on,
I turned it up full-blast to sing along –
A primal scream in croaky baritone,
The notes all flat, the lyrics mostly slurred.
No wonder I spent so much time alone
Making the rounds in Dad’s old Thunderbird.

Some nights I drove down to the beach to park
And walk along the railings of the pier.
The water down below was cold and dark,
The waves monotonous against the shore.
The darkness and the mist, the midnight sea,
The flickering lights reflected from the city –
A perfect setting for a boy like me,
The Cecil B. DeMille of my self-pity.

I thought by now I’d left those nights behind,
Lost like the girls that I could never get,
Gone with the years, junked with the old T-Bird.
But one old song, a stretch of empty road,
Can open up a door and let them fall
Tumbling like boxes from a dusty shelf,
Tightening my throat for no reason at all
Bringing on tears shed only for myself.

R.I.P. Harold Bloom (1930-2019): “He saw reading as a great human enterprise, an engagement of the passions, a heroic endeavor.”

Monday, October 14th, 2019
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One of the nation’s preeminent literary critics, Harold Bloomdied today at 89 (we’ve written about him here). One of his students, Ann Kjellberg, publisher of Book Post, remembers her time as a Yale undergraduate in the 1980s, when Harold Bloom taught a famous course with John Hollander called “Originality.”

“During office hours with me, Bloom once buried his head in his hands in despair that he was momentarily unable to remember the opening lines of Yeats’s ‘Per Amica Silentia Lunae.’ He blamed the fact that he had been briefly haunted by the death of his mother.”

Here are the lines, for others who do not know them by heart:

On the grey sand beside the shallow stream,
Under your old wind-beaten tower, where still
A lamp burns on above the open book
That Michael Robartes left, you walk in the moon,
And, though you have passed the best of life, still trace,
Enthralled by the unconquerable delusion,
Magical shapes.

She continued: “It meant so much to me, in those days when some sort of ‘science’ was supposed to direct the reading of literature, that he saw reading as a great human enterprise, an engagement of the passions, a heroic endeavor.”

On Facebook, the writer Marat Grinberg posted an email he received from Bloom a dozen years ago:

From arts journalist and author Thomas Gladysz: “Back in high school I had a couple of jobs, and with my spending money I bought a copy of The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, with commentary by Harold Bloom. It cost $7.95, a not inconsiderable sum for a softcover book back in the 1970s. I treasured it, and held onto it all these years. In the early 2000s, I managed to get this famous academic to drop by the bookstore where I worked to sign copies of his new books. I admit I was a little intimidated by this prolific and bestselling literary critic and “monster” of reading. (“Yes, I do read 400 to 500 pages a day,” he replied when I asked him about his renowned ability.) I slipped my copy of Blake’s poems into the pile for him to sign. It made him pause – and I told him it was my personal copy. He smiled just a bit. Yesterday, Bloom died. His body of work lives on.”

From poet, playwright, translator Nina Kossman: “Years ago he wrote me a letter about my translations of Tsvetaeva (my second book of translations). The letter is short but memorable. I scanned it, and so here it is.”

A few Tweets below. We’ll be adding to the stack:

A Nobel for Olga Tokarczuk – Poland’s leading novelist!

Thursday, October 10th, 2019
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Congratulations to Olga Tokarczuk! She is the 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize – 2018, because the Nobel Committee was enveloped in scandal last year, and so is issuing two awards at once (the 2019 one went to playwright Peter Handke, a more controversial choice). We’ve written about Tokarczuk before, here and here and here. We didn’t predict this big win, however. The dreadlocked vegetarian is a mere 57 years old – relatively young for Nobel winners. However, she has been a leading light in the Polish firmament for years. According to The Guardian, “it has found not only a fine winner but a culturally important one.” The Nobel Committee cited “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” And congratulations, too, for her translators into English (vital for Nobel contenders) –American Jennifer Croft, and Britain’s Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Congratulations, too, to her phenomenal publisher (we’ve written about him here), Jacques Testard of Fitzcarraldo.

The photo above was taken during a reading at the home of Izabela Barry, in New York City (Yonkers, to be more precise). Izabela has been a mover and shaker in the world of Polish lit for years (she’s holding a glass of wine in the photo above), and her living room the setting for readings, discussions, and receptions. (We were honored to have Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard featured one evening a couple years ago – a French event, not Polish, admittedly, but we were further privileged to have the incandescent Polish scholar Irena Grudzińska Gross as interlocutor.)

The New York Times reports:

Ms. Tokarczuk is best known for her 2014 historical novel Księgi Jakubowe or The Book of Jacob, centered in the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires and focused on the life of Jacob Frank, an 18th century Polish leader of a Jewish splinter group that converted to Islam and then Catholicism. “She has in this work showed the supreme capacity of the novel to represent a case almost beyond human understanding,” Nobel officials wrote in their citation.

In 2018, she got renewed prominence after winning the Man Booker International Prize for translated fiction for “Flights,” an experimental novel based on stories of travel.

From the Guardian:

“Sometimes I wonder how my life would have worked out if my books had been translated into English sooner,” mused the 57-year-old author earlier this year, “because English is the language that’s spoken worldwide, and when a book appears in English it is made universal, it becomes a global publication.” This might not be a desirable state of affairs but for writers from many parts of the world it is a fact of life. Her Booker win, as Antonia Lloyd-Jones – one of her two English language translators – remarked, was not just a triumph for her but for the whole of Polish literature.

By then, her canny independent publisher, Fitzcarraldo, had already followed up with Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Whereas Flights was one of the glittering historical and geographical collages that Tokarczuk calls her “constellation novels”, Drive Your Plow is very different: a William Blake-infused eco-thriller which significantly extended her reputation, not least because it is much easier to read.

Postscript from NYRB Classics, via Twitter: In the photo above, one careful observer noticed another notable Polish translator, Sean Gasper Bye.  The “photobomb, if the eyes do not deceive,” would describe the man sitting on the floor, facing the camera, half-lit. Wrote the NYRB Classics: “I love his expression. Happy and rapt.”

Tokarcyk and Croft at the Man Booker awards, 2018. (Photo: Janie Airey/Man Booker Prize)

He was so popular in Polish films he got an American film contract. Then…

Monday, October 7th, 2019
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With his dog “Sambo.” The dog was killed during the Warsaw Uprising.

First News, a Polish news site, observed a disturbing anniversary today. It’s haunted me all day, and now I’m going to say a little about it.

It’s the 76th anniversary of the death of one of Poland’s leading actors, comedians, directors, producers, and entrepreneurs during the interwar period. Witty, gallant and seductive, Eugeniusz Bodo  shot to fame following his debut in the 1925 silent film Rivals. But he found his true vocation with the “talkies.” He starred in some of the most popular Polish film of the 1930s, including His Excellency, The Shop AssistantCzy Lucyna to dziewczyna? and Pieśniarz Warszawy. His songs became instant hits.

His fame spread. So much so that, in 1939, Bodo signed a good contract with by an American film company and planned to emigrate.

Before he could leave, however, Poland was invaded by Germany, which invaded Russia two years later. His father, Teodor Junod, had been Swiss, and so his son was traveled abroad on a Swiss passport.

Portraiture by NKVD.

Then, after returning from one of his USSR tours, he submitted his Swiss documents for emigration to the U.S. He was arrested by Stalin’s notorious NKVD (the maiden name of the KGB) on trumped-up charges of espionage. After a series of brutal interrogations in Moscow, he was sent to a forced labor camp.

He starved to death in 1943, at a Soviet gulag camp in Kotlas, Arkhangelsk, and was buried in a mass grave. He was 43. The Soviets blamed the Germans for his death, and didn’t admit to the crime until 1991.

We tend to think stardom and money and a foreign passport offer protection from the horrors of history. They don’t. They couldn’t even save his dog.

Below, when things were looking rosy in 1937. The song, “Umówiłem się z nią na dziewiątą” – “I made an appointment with her at 9” – in the film “Piętro wyżej.”