Archive for 2020

Can chess making a gripping film? Watch Walter Tevis’s “Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix this Friday, October 23

Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
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Silence and staring, winners and losers – and it’s definitely been a man’s world. (Phil Bray/Netflix)

Last year, Stanford’s “Another Look” – a public events series that focuses on forgotten, out-of-the-way, overlooked books – sponsored an event on Walter Tevis’ Queen’s GambitThe idea came from Another Look’s founding director, the eminent American author Tobias Wolff, always a keen watcher of American fiction. It turned out to be one of our most popular selections ever. Thanks to the cooperation of Tevis’s daughter, Julia Tevis McGory, we published a number of photographs on the Another Look website, and even a mini-memoir from son Will Tevis about playing chess with his father here.  The January 29, 2019, panel featured Tobias Wolff, Robert Pogue Harrison, and Inga Pierson.

Author Walter Tevis played chess, too.

It’s an overlooked book no more. It will be a seven-part mini-series on Netflix beginning on Friday, October 23. Did Another Look make a difference? We hope so. Our crusade for books that haven’t received the attention we think they merit has moved the needle on several books. We hope we’ve done the same this time, though there’s a story that goes way back before last year’s Stanford event. In the early 1990s, screenwriter Allan Scott acquired the rights to the novel and wrote a script. More recently writer and director Scott Frank took an interest.

So far the reviews are glowing. (Google it.) The film stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the chess-mad heroine (she was the star of this year’s acclaimed Emma, too). Garry Kasparov, one of the best chess-players ever, was a consultant for the film. 

More from the story by The New York Times:

The novel is brief. Dialogue is spare and the action beyond the gameboard minimal. … “If you did it as a movie, it becomes a sports movie: ‘Is she going to beat the Russian guy?’” Frank said. “And that’s not what the book is about. For me, it’s about the pain and cost of being so gifted.”

For Beth, abandoned first by her birth parents and then by her adoptive family, the stakes tower. Only while playing does she feel a sense of purpose and belonging. In a later episode, Beth overhears some Russian champs discussing her. “She’s like us,” a grandmaster says. “Losing is not an option for her.” (This was dialogue Kasparov suggested.)

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It’s also exceedingly faithful to its source material, a slender 1983 novel written by Walter Tevis, an author with a knack for books that Hollywood wanted: The Hustler, The Color of Money, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tevis, a respectable club player, could delight even non-players with chess’s rhythms and language: the Sicilian Defense the Semi-Slav Variation, the Falkbeer Counter Gambit, the Ruy Lopez. The book borrows its name from an opening move in play since the 15th century.

***

A glamorous and wrenching view of chess, set in the 1950s and ’60s, it centers on the fictional character Beth Harmon (first Isla Johnston, then Anya Taylor-Joy), a child prodigy who discovers the game in a Kentucky orphanage. Despite punishing addictions to alcohol and tranquilizers, Beth, clad in Gabriele Binder’s elegant period costumes, plays and trains obsessively, rising through the rankings until she faces the world’s best. Which makes her something like the thinking woman’s Rocky.

Join me in tuning in this Friday. Until then, there’s a podcast of the Stanford discussion of the book here.

Postscript on 10/21 (hat tip David Schwartz): The review is in from the Wall Street Journal today, it’s here, and not even behind the usual paywall. An excerpt:

It took this viewer about seven consecutive hours to watch all seven episodes of “The Queen’s Gambit,” and while this may constitute all the review some readers need to get on board, others might also like to know what the miniseries is about. In a word, chess—though that’s a bit like saying “Hamlet” is about Danish royal succession, or “The Wizard of Oz” is about meteorology. … “The Queen’s Gambit” is novelistic in the best sense, using chess as a kind of metaphoric Swiss army knife to open up a tale of obsession, addiction, adoption and the solitude of genius. That genius is Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch”), an orphan, tranquilizer enthusiast and budding alcoholic. Eventually, she becomes a reluctant propaganda tool in the Cold War. From birth, it seems, she’s been a chess savant.

For all the series’ successes, especially as fictional biography and a portrait of an era (the ’50s and ’60s), what may haunt the viewer is the image of Ms. Taylor-Joy’s face, furtively doe-eyed, peering upward, moving shadowy pieces across the imaginary chessboard of her bedroom ceiling as she plots the next day’s attack, or locking eyes with a grandmaster before reducing his game to rubble. Despite the cerebral nature of the sport and its less-than-breathtaking pace, “The Queen’s Gambit”—a title that refers to one of the oldest openings in the history of the game—is a thriller. It absorbs the viewer into the rarefied realm of world-class competition and acquaints the nonplayer with enough of the mechanics to make the outcomes accessible and meaningful. The very idea of a chess epic might suggest to some the old saw about academic politics—that they’re so vicious because the stakes are so low. Can chess mean so much? To Beth Harmon—and therefore to her audience—chess is everything. And for reasons that make her both heroic and heartbreaking.

You think you have a messy desk? You have competition! Here are some famously messy ones.

Saturday, October 17th, 2020
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Robert Silvers of New York Review of Books fame. Is he a master or a prisoner of this space? Love to spend an afternoon there.

It’s one week before I go on Zoom for Stanford’s 17th annual Company of Authors event at 1 p.m. next Saturday, October 24. My mission: to tell you about my newest book Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy. (Get your free tickets for a reservation here.) Then you will see my messy, messy workspace behind me. The ziggurats of books and papers. The archive that has yet to find a home except in plastic bins spread out across the floor. The huge oak roll-top desk overflowing with rough drafts and pencils and a small clay owl. (A sneak preview at right.)

Home sweet home.

If you wonder why the Book Haven has been so quiet of late, it’s not because we’ve been tidying up. With multiple book deadlines of varying severity rolling over us, we’ve been working 24/7. But we thought we’d take a moment to complain about our bad habits.

I take comfort knowing that I am not alone. At least not in the era of the Google Search. I typed in “famous messy desks” and here’s a few that I found.

My favorite is above, the late, legendary Robert Silvers, one of the founding editors of the New York Review of Books. Though it’s not exactly messy – they are orderly piles, after all – just crowded. I wouldn’t mind spending an afternoon there. in

Immediately below, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget is sprawled in this truly messy space. Clearly, he’s not in California. A good 3.9 earthquake would bury him. But what a way to go!

Chilean poet, essayist, and short story writer Roberto Bolaño looks sad, but at ease, among his piles of unanswered correspondence and his old-style computer.

Genius theoretical physicist Alfred Einstein has vacated the premises entirely. In a very literal way. The photo was taken on the day he died in 1955. So He never had to clean it up. Looks homey, though.

Below that, Steve Jobs prowls around what looks like a home office. There are vials with eyedroppers on the shelves.

And finally, always, Mark Twain at ease in 1901. Mess be damned. Who would tell him otherwise?

Feel free to send me the own evidences of your disorganization. I might even publish them as a postscript. It will make me feel better somehow. Because I won’t get around to moving my piles of stuff anytime soon.

 

Consolation in hard times: Boethius knew all about it.

Saturday, October 10th, 2020
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Boethius in better days, as imagined almost a millennium after his execution.

You think you have it bad, huh? All you are dealing with is a worldwide plague that won’t let up, financial catastrophes one after another, and cabin fever from enforced confinement.

Try living at the nasty tail-end of the Roman Empire, when the barbarians were taking over, and then being thrown into prison by the Ostrogoth Emperor Theodoric for doing nothing at all, really. Then imagine having more of nothing to do, except write, while awaiting a grisly execution. Welcome to the world of Boethius (c. 476-524 A.D.), author of the The Consolation of Philosophy, a bestseller throughout Europe for almost a millennium. According to John Marenbon writing in  “Why Read Boethius Today?” over at Aeon: “Although Aristotle’s texts shaped the university curriculum, and Augustine’s thought was ubiquitous, in the period from 800 until about 1600 no other philosophical text could compete with the Consolation in its appeal – not just to the intellectual elite but to a much wider audience too.” How did it disappear from our public conversation, unlike Plato’s dialogues or René Descartes’s Meditations?

Some background from the Aeon article:

Boethius belonged to a rich, prestigious Roman family, and he lived most of his life enjoying the privileges of his class, participating in the ceremonies of the Senate, writing works and commentaries on mathematics, music and logic with the help of his education in Greek culture, and, though not a priest, taking part in theological controversies. But his birth had coincided with the beginning of Ostrogothic rule in Italy. Theodoric, the Gothic king, wanted good relations with the native Roman aristocrats, but they remained a threat to him. In the early 520s, he invited Boethius to become Master of Offices, his most important official. Boethius accepted, but his determination to root out corruption soon made him enemies, and Theodoric was willing to believe that Boethius was plotting against him. Found guilty of treason and other charges, Boethius was imprisoned, awaiting execution. This was when he wrote the Consolation, with his own circumstances as a condemned prisoner providing the setting.

Kind of a writer’s retreat, without the swag bags.

The work is a dialogue between Boethius the Prisoner and a personification of Philosophy, in the shape of a beautiful woman who appears to him in his cell. The discussion is in prose, but it is interspersed with poems that summarise, comment on, take forward or provide another perspective to, the main line of the argument.

At the beginning, Boethius the Prisoner can do nothing but lament his sudden fall from prosperity and explain at length to Philosophy the injustice of the charges against him. Philosophy is not at all sympathetic. She tells him that, if he remembered her teachings, he wouldn’t be complaining, as he does, that God has no concern for humans, and that the good suffer and the wicked prosper. She sets out to answer both charges.

Another excerpt:

On a straightforward reading of the Consolation, Philosophy’s argument is taken as authoritative, accepted by both Boethius the Prisoner and by the author. If so, the Consolation, like Plato’s dialogues on Socrates’s execution, is a bold assertion of the power of unaided human reason even in the face of death. But – and the same objection might be made to Plato’s Phaedo – the central philosophical arguments are likely to seem too weak, especially to modern readers, to support such a claim. There is, however, reason to think that this straightforward reading doesn’t do the Consolation justice.

Ancient readers were very conscious of a work’s genre. It guided their expectations of how its author intended it to be understood. By writing the Consolation in alternating prose and verse, Boethius signalled that the work is a Menippean satire. As Joel Relihan showed in Ancient Menippean Satire (1993), this genre of satire ridicules figures of authority. Readers of the Consolation might therefore expect Philosophy’s teachings not to be treated with complete respect. From this starting point, Relihan develops in The Prisoner’s Philosophy (2007) a reading that is diametrically opposed to the straightforward one. Philosophy, he argues, is shown as failing to provide the Prisoner with consolation, and this failure was Boethius’s way of revealing the weakness of any sort of human reasoning. The implicit message is that Christian faith alone provides the type of consolation that Boethius the Prisoner was wrongly seeking from Philosophy.

Such a reading treats all the Consolation’s philosophical argumentation as if it were mere rhetoric, devised by Boethius the author just in order to show its inadequacy, with its main message delivered by indirect means. This is hard to accept. Would Boethius, who had devoted his life to philosophy, really have treated arguments in this way? Why, in particular, elaborate the intricate argument at the end of the work about divine prescience and contingency, certainly his finest and most original piece of reasoning, if his purpose were just to show the inadequacy of philosophy and not its power to console?

Read the whole thing here.

Poet Ilya Kaminsky: “In American society, asking metaphysical questions is not polite.”

Saturday, October 3rd, 2020
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Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, an ancient Crimean city on the Black Sea. As a 4-year-old child, a doctor misdiagnosed his mumps as a flu, and as a result, he lost most of his hearing. He has written that, for him, Odessa is “a silent city, where the language is invisibly linked to my father’s lips moving as I watch his mouth repeat stories again and again. He turns away. The story stops.”

The family emigrated to Rochester, New York, and after his father’s death in 1994, Kaminsky began to write poems in English. He explained in an interview with the Adirondack Review, “I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it—no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.”

He is the author of last year’s acclaimed Deaf Republic, a poetry collection framed as a two-act play, which takes place in the fictional village of Vasenka. 

An excerpt from Joe Dunthorne’s interview with him in the elegant White Review:

I come from the part of East Europe of which people usually say ‘Oh wow, everyone loves poetry in Russia, in Ukraine, so much that people come to football stadiums to hear poetry.’

That is bullshit.

Every great poet is a very private person who happens to write beautifully enough, powerfully enough, spell-bindingly enough that they can speak privately to many people at the same time. That to my mind is the definition of an original poet. Not play for the sake of mere play. And not a public pronouncement either, but a very private speech that the form teaches you how to partake in – and that becomes the reader’s own private speech.

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It’s curious to me that in Western Europe, intellectuals, liberals, are so afraid of large metaphysical questions. I mean, maybe it’s because I was born in 1977: by the time my family left, it was already independent Ukraine. So all of my childhood and pretty much most of my adolescence was a time of the USSR falling apart. Everyone lost their salaries, pensions, etc. All the people’s assets became metaphysical because everything else that they knew was not there any more.

And many were happy. And many were not happy.

It’s not about a political position. It’s about a metaphysical position.

People were arguing until 4 a.m. about the purpose of life, about poetry, about what poets express these unanswerable questions. Who is better, Akhmatova or Tsvetaeva, who speaks best to our time, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, those kind of questions. People really argued: who gives words to shape my unknown?

Reading in San Diego (Photo: Patty Mooney)

And then there was the shock of coming to the US and seeing deeply intelligent humans completely unengaged with all of that. It was weird. It is not polite to ask metaphysical questions in the USA. Few do it with strangers.

So, a friend, the wonderful novelist Katherine Towler and I just thought, okay, why not start interviewing people because it gave us a mask. If you’re doing an interview, you can ask whatever you want and it’s not impolite.

I still marvel about this: for some reason in American society, asking metaphysical questions is not polite. I don’t know why but that is the case.

So the interview project was interesting because some poets who shall not be named gave wonderful interviews but later decided not to be in the book for the same reason. That, too, is a reflection of a Western Society. I keep marvelling at that.

***

Any trace of thoughtfulness is completely wiped out and people who have the thoughts are refusing to engage.

In that way, I do believe that our intellectuals are in some ways responsible for what is happening right now in 2020: for not engaging with so many of our fellow countrymen. The end result is that the depth is taken away from the discourse. The discourse of ‘why am I on this planet’ is going to happen whether or not the intellectuals choose to participate in it. But depth of conversation might suffer should they choose not to participate. One sees that in the USA on a daily basis.

***

I think poets, when they write, they participate in that process physically. Some read the poems to themselves, yes. Many do. It’s got to be a physical activity. Language by definition is a production of a body: it’s a physical activity.

When I write I definitely speak to myself: I’m interested in the kind of intensity that language allows us to have, a kind of chant, incantation. There is a whole wonderful, beautiful world of performance, spoken word poetics. And it is something I respect very much but it’s not exactly what I’m after. What I am interested in is poets who, in reading aloud, continue the writing process.

So when I’m reading I often change words, but I can’t change too many words. So I change line breaks instead. Rarely is the line break the same as it is in the book. I change the accents a lot, I change emphasis a lot. So it gives me this room where I can still be a poet as opposed to a person who reads his poem, because otherwise I just get bored. I start watching a fly. But to read as if the poem is still being written, to use the mouth as a way to invent new line breaks, that is something that makes the public reading still interesting for me.

Read the whole thing here.

A.E. Stallings on Aeschylus’s “The Persians” in the TLS: “The ghost scene alone must have seemed a dangerous necromancy.”

Sunday, September 27th, 2020
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Alicia Stallings’s fashion statement at the Greek theater in Epidaurus. (Photo: John Psaropoulus)

We wrote about Athens-based poet A.E. Stallings’s off-the-cuff remarks when she attended the National Theatre of Greece’s production of Aeschylus‘s The Persians in the ancient Greek theater of Epidaurus on July 25.

The play is Aeschylus’s The Persians, circa 472 B.C., about the Persian-Greek war. The playwright himself had participated in the crucial battle it describes, so he knew what he was talking about. It is not only the oldest surviving Greek play, but Aeschylus’s most powerful antiwar statement, praising the freedom of the individual and the wisdom of democratic norms.

Now she’s written at length about the experience in the current Times Literary Supplementand, for the time being, it seems to be out from behind they paywall, here

You can start with our excerpt below, where the poet describes what the production meant to Greeks:

Taking a snooze in the sun (Photo: John Psaropoulus)

Aeschylus had fought in the battle: some of the messenger speech is arguably an eyewitness account. When I think about what that first production must have been like – Aeschylus conjuring up on stage not only Xerxes, the man who had recently razed the city, but the ghost of his father, Darius, in front of an audience for whom this was a raw and recent memory (many would have been veterans), and just below the Persian-destroyed temple on the Acropolis, I get goose-bumps. The ghost scene alone must have seemed a dangerous necromancy. …

We recognized acquaintances from Athens sitting at the café, despite their masks. “Of course the play could not be more topical”, one asserted, indicating recent provocations of the Turkish president, Erdoğan, in the Eastern Mediterranean. On the night we were at the play, in late July, the Greek military was on high alert. The presence of the prime minister and his entourage (one lady in a sequined “evening” mask) added to the nationalist energy in the air.

The tragedy plays differently to Greek and non-Greek audiences. Reviews of the live-streamed production in the Guardian (subtitled “a triumph of empathy for a time of Covid-19”) and the New York Times praised the production for its timely lessons on hubris and its message of empathy. But for the overwhelmingly Greek audience present, thrilled to be out of doors at a production at all after a long lockdown, and potentially on the brink of war, the play was rousingly patriotic. The image of Greece as a scrappy little country punching above its weight, taking no orders from kings and exerting its naval prowess to push back against a larger threatening power, was as appealing as ever.

When Queen Atossa (widow of King Darius and mother of Xerxes) interrogated the chorus about the battle and the nature of the victorious Greeks, the exchange felt like a kind of catechism of Athenian democracy. “What Monarch do they have; who leads the army?”, she demanded to know of the Greeks. When the Chorus responded, “No one, they are not slaves; no one gives them orders”, the crowd erupted in applause, as perhaps the first audience did.

Later, in the messenger speech, he describes how, as the Greeks bore down, they burst into the chant: “Go, sons of the Greeks, and liberate the fatherland!” This was another moment the audience was waiting to applaud enthusiastically. The play, produced in a modern Greek translation by Theodoros Stephanopoulos, translates this line by alluding to poet Rhigas’s “War Song”, popular from the time of the Greek war of independence, a poem which Byron translates as “Sons of the Greeks, Arise!” The war song is sometimes called the Greek Marseillaise, and if it sounds strikingly close (both can be sung to the same tune), that may be because the Marseillaise is also consciously imitating the Greek of Aeschylus. Sitting there, I imagined Aeschylus being pleased that his anthem to liberty was still sung lustily millennia after his death.

Read more here.

Canadian novelist Robertson Davies: “Sin is the creation of meaning or intent where none was planned.”

Thursday, September 24th, 2020
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I recently came across The Paris Review 1989 interview with the Canadian novelist and man of letters Robertson Davies. The interview took place in front of an audience at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York City three years earlier. No surprise it was a sold-out appearance – Davies, who died in 1995, was always a popular reader, lecturer, and interview subject. As the interviewer Elisabeth Sifton noted, “The robust presence of this ‘wizard of the North’ … came as no surprise: a filled-out broad chested figure, clad in slightly old-fashioned clothes (that evening he wore his signature leather waistcoat, all the better looking for age, beneath a well-cut jacket), with an easy erect carriage, a deep, skillfully modulated voice, fine straight nose, luxuriant white beard and hair.” 

A couple excerpts: 

You once wrote, “All the critics in this town are the bastard children of Scotch parents.”

Yes, critics have this nanny quality, but they vary enormously. Some are friendly and kindly, and are interested in your work and take it seriously, but the ones who get under my skin are the academic critics whose whole training is to detect faults. They call them “flaws.” I call them “flawyers,” which they do not like. I one time nailed one of these people and said, “Tell me of a novel that you know that is free from flaw. Now how about War and Peace?” “Oh, infinitely flawed.” “What about Remembrance of Things Past, Proust’s great novel?” “Oh, a mass of flaws.” I think it would be splendid if we could get a committee of these wonderful people to write a flawless novel, but they won’t do it and I question whether it would reach publication. The opposite. Sin is the creation of meaning or intent where none was planned. A Ph.D. candidate wrote of World of Wonders that its hero was christened Paul, and that his life story exactly paralleled that of Saint Paul! I said mildly that this had not occurred to me. He replied, with an indulgent smile, that many things appear to the critical reader of a book which have eluded the attention of the author, and that this gave the book “resonance” – for me, the resonance of a dull thud. It is extremely disagreeable to be treated as a sort of idiot savant who must be explained to himself and to his readers.

***

Many of your readers and reviewers are dazzled by how much you know about everything, by how much they can learn about so many things in your novels – some of it quite arcane and special, some of it information that perhaps we should all know but don’t. Mary McCarthy once argued eloquently that the novel is among other things a conveyor of a huge amount of social and cultural, as well as psychological and philosophical, information and truth. You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina, as she said. Do you like the idea of instructing your readers on all that lore about gypsies or cellos or art forgery or Houdini, to name a few subjects quite randomly.

Well, you see, the actual fact is that I don’t. I saw a few things, I provide a few details, but if I may be permitted to say so, I work on the Shakespearean plan. Everybody says, ‘Oh, Shakespeare must have been a sailor. Do you notice how in the beginning of The Tempest people cry, ‘Man the bowsprit,’ or ‘Split the binnacle,’ or whatever it is. He must have been a sailor.” Others say, “No, no, he must have been a lawyer. Remember in The Merchant of Venice he has a scene in a law court that is quite like a law court.” “No, no, no, Shakespeare must have been a soldier because he has a place where Henry V cries, ‘Follow your spirits and upon this charge,/Cry God, for Harry, England and Saint George.” It’s all hooey. Shakespeare had a few telling details which he injected into his plays that made them seem realistic, and I have the same in my novels. I don’t know a very great deal about anything. Indeed, the areas of my ignorance are fantastic in their scope. But you know, I have one remembrance which has a bearing on this. When I wrote Fifth Business, there were some scenes in it which took place in the First World War, the experiences of a Canadian soldier. I say virtually nothing about the war except that there was a great deal of mud, that there were a lot of horses who might panic, and that most of the time it was infinitely boring. That is all. But you know, one man said to me, “Where were you during the war?” and I said, “Well, frankly, after I got here I was in the cradle.” But he had fought in France and he said that it was just like that. He asked, “How did you know it was like that?” If you have the kind of imagination a novelist needs, you have a notion of why it was like that. You do not need to write endlessly about what kind of sidearms somebody takes when he goes on a night raid and that kind of thing. That creates boredom.

Read the whole thing here.

On Stalingrad: Vassily Grossman’s “astonishingly, disturbingly different” account of World War 2

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020
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Peter Hitchens has a fascinating discussion of Vassily Grossman‘s Stalingrad over at First Things here. An excerpt:

Now comes the rather ­curious publication of a wholly new English edition of ­Grossman’s Stalingrad, a book that, unlike Life and Fate, was officially published in the U.S.S.R., but in several different formats. One of the most fascinating things about it—and this is not meant to denigrate the book itself—is the explanation at the end of the text of how it changed from edition to edition, reflecting the several different eras of repression, thaw, and renewed freeze in the Kremlin. As a novel, it is a great mess. It has even less structure than Life and Fate. It often seems to be a collection of distantly related short stories, dodging about from character to character in a way that often left me in need of an index. It is also quite obviously an incomplete version of the events of Life and Fate, viewed from another direction.

Nonetheless, the book is very much worth reading. Grossman was a brave and—where possible—honest reporter of a terrible war about which we in the English-speaking countries know far too little. Take these words of his about Stalingrad that (­without attribution to him, because he was a Jew and his talent could not be admitted) are incised on the furious, ugly memorial to that terrible battle. They say of the soldiers of the Red Army:

An iron wind lashed their faces but still they marched forward. And once more a feeling of superstitious terror gripped their foe. “They are attacking us again. Can they be mortal?” Yes, we were mortal indeed and few of us survived. But we all carried out our patriotic duty before Holy Mother Russia.

If you have any feeling for this sort of thing, you cannot fail to be moved by these words. And they are a good sample of Grossman’s emotive description of war. We have our version of the vast 1939–45 conflict that convulsed Europe and later the world. The Russians have theirs, and it is astonishingly, disturbingly different. American readers might need to imagine a huge and victorious German Army pouring eastward from California, thrusting the snouts of its tanks right up to the western bank of the Mississippi—and then being broken at the last possible moment by a berserk American stand at Minneapolis, at enormous cost. British readers have no such possibility. For if the Germans had got ashore in our small island, that would have been that, whatever we might like to boast.

In fact, if the Germans had won at Stalingrad, Britain would almost certainly have had to make terms with Hitler, a prospect so dismal most of us cannot even contemplate it. No wonder the British reader holds his breath and hopes for a Soviet triumph as he reads Grossman’s account of the Stalingrad battle. We cannot begin to conceive of having had the people and riches of a great part of our homeland under a bigoted and merciless foreign conqueror, while we still fought on in the land that was left to us, retreating and retreating and retreating until we had to stand or die. This was the case for the Russians.

Grossman said of his work as a war correspondent that he spoke “on behalf of those that lie in the earth,” and there is no doubt that he performs that duty.

Read the rest here.

“Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas”: Walter Benjamin’s 13 writing tips

Saturday, September 19th, 2020
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“The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses” is part of his 1928 treatise One-Way Street, one of only two books published in his lifetime. This 13 tips were posted on Twitter recently and I thought I’d share them. It reminded one tweeter of a sign that read: “The worst words you ever write are far better than the best words you never write.” Another remembered an old, established writer I heard on NPR back in the 1980s: “Write through your mediocrity. Keep writing… right on through it.”

But these are far more enigmatic. If some of them sound flakey, don’t dismiss them offhand. Sit with them awhile. As Morgan Meis wrote: “They are often elusive texts that can take years of reading, over and over again, before the mists begin to clear. What, for instance, is Benjamin really talking about in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility?” Is it a theory of art and historical change? Is it a political manifesto about the revolutionary potential of film? Is it a long lament about the loss of that magical quality “aura?” The more you read the essay (in its various versions), the harder it is to decide just what Benjamin is saying. But it is impossible to dismiss the essay altogether. The ideas contained within it have a way of staying put in your mind, festering there. That was Benjamin’s special talent, to elude and to linger.

“This makes for a writer who has baffled interpreters for a couple of generations since his suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Some are convinced that Benjamin was primarily a Marxist. Some think of him as a cultural critic. Others detect the sensibilities of a religious mystic. Many see an aesthete, the last of the great European flâneurs. Not all of these interpretations are mutually exclusive. But some of them are, which makes Benjamin among that elite group of major intellectual figures about whom almost no one completely agrees. An accomplishment in itself.”

R.I.P. poet Anne Stevenson (1933-2020): on writing poems with “something like a pulse”

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020
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A woman with “a whim of iron.” Photograph © Carrie Hitchcock

When I saw my friend Anne Stevenson‘s poem “How Poems Arrive” in The Guardian some days go, I had planned to ask her permission to republish it on the Book Haven. I was delayed, and as it turns out, delayed too long. Anne died yesterday, at 87. The poem I had intended to republish as a celebration of her, is now “In Memoriam.”  The British American poet died Monday morning, presumably at her home in Wales. The only obituary to date is in The Telegraph, behind a paywall. [Update: Anne’s publisher tells me she died in her Durham home after a brief illness.]

I spent a week at the 17th century home in rural Wales, where she lived with her husband, Peter Lucas. I wrote about it here. She was an alumna, as I am, of the University of Michigan. But we met in Durham, where I visited her beautiful flat near the Norman-era citadel and cathedral on the River Wear. Later, I published a long Q&A with her over at the Cortland Review

An excerpt:

CH: In your rather crusty on-line response to Poetry Society of America’s “What’s American About American Poetry?”—a questionnaire sent to 300 American poets—you said there was “Too much talk, too much hype, too much putative democracy, too much ignorance, too much self-indulgence, too much encouragement, too much follow-the-leader conformism, too much self-consciousness, too much seek-to-establish-your-identity, too much theory of language, too much academic anxiety, too many writing programmes, too many king-and-queen-making critics, too many competitions (mediocrity assiduously crowning mediocrity); enfin, too many poets.”

Would you care to elaborate?

AS: Too often when I read new poetry, English or American, it all sounds alike. There are few individual voices. And the poems tend to be one- or two-dimensional, ignoring subtleties and nuances. Plop, plop, plop—in the indicative mood, allowing for few shadings or innuendoes. You don’t have to say everything you mean in a poem. In America, especially, there is too much earnestness around and very little word play. Get the words right, and the earnestness will take care of itself.

Nowadays, of course, “creativity” is a fashionable word. I once heard Hugh McDiarmid say outright, “Don’t encourage them; discourage them.” I tend to agree. I sometimes wonder if workshops actually do much good. Everybody’s so afraid of hurting each other’s feelings. Good criticism means you have to hurt people’s feelings. Poetry isn’t just a matter of learning technical tricks. Since most of the poetry people bring into workshops is personal and sloppy, applying “group technique” to it encourages a negative approach. I mean, you learn primarily what not to do: not to overuse adjectives, not to fall back on cliches, not to be sentimental, and so on. Unfortunately, this communal process of cleaning poems up and polishing them for publication results too often in just what you’d expect: processed poetry that lacks individuality and passion, or as Frost put it, “That Wildness whereof it is made.”

And then, the social categorization so ubiquitous today is destructive: women, race, class, age groups. Elizabeth Bishop remarked to me once that if you don’t stay well away from the gray world of ideology and theory, you will never become a poet. Emily Dickinson—not a bad thinker, you’ll agree?—developed her ideas through an acute awareness of what was around her in the world, whether it was a fly or a flower.

Her home near Llanbedr in Wales

CH: Why do you think there are there so many poets today?

AS: Because they are given jobs—academic jobs in creative writing! I admire Dana Gioia in the way I admire Wallace Stevens because I, too, believe that if you’re good at writing poems, that’s something you do for love. As Frost wrote, poetry is both a vocation and an avocation. Dana, I realize, does lots of organizing and journalism to make a living, but he began as a businessman-amateur. You should say somewhere in the course of this interview that, in my view, Dana has done a great deal for poetry in America by single-handedly taking meretricious power-seeking by the scruff of the neck and shaking it, and, boy, did it need shaking! Perhaps now, though, he should think about quitting the battlefield for a while and go back to his plough. That’s one trouble with the American way of success—you get going on one of these high-flying swings and you can’t jump off. It’s amazing to me: I never would have been able to maintain the kind of schedule Dana does. Here I am, exhausted today after a single reading in Grassmere last night.

You’re going to have a hell of a job putting this interview together. But I hope you’re at least making some sense out of my mutterings.

[Stevenson goes to a bookshelf, gets a copy of 1998’s Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop.] You know, I think this book is better—at least it means more to me—than Bitter Fame. As you know, I was impressed and influenced by Elizabeth Bishop far more than I was by Sylvia Plath. Goodness, Bitter Fame was a struggle! After writing it, I became disillusioned with the so-called poetry scene both in England and in the States—so much commercial betting and marketing goes into it, so much taking up with this poets’ group or that.

CH: You have decried “poetry’s decline in the greater, sacred world of what matters.”

AS: In the long run, I suppose one has to say that, these days, poetry isn’t important to most people. Then you see that it actually is important, but to comparatively few. First you have to understand how little—materially—it matters. Like any art, the real stuff comes about through our human confrontation or quarrel with ourselves as Yeats said, but in later life, serious poets have to find and explore that “sacred world of what matters” pretty much for themselves.

Dana and friend (Photo: Starr Black)

Dana Gioia has dedicated poems to others. It’s nice to see that, in The Guardian, Anne dedicated a poem to him. Here’s what she had to say about the process of poem-writing: “So writing a poem is like conducting an argument between your unconscious mind and your conscious self. You have to get unconsciousness and consciousness lined up in some way. I suspect that’s why working to a form, achieving a stanza, and keeping to it—deciding that the first and third and fifth lines will have to rhyme, and that you’re going to insist on so many stresses per line—oddly helps the poem to be born. That is, to free itself from you and your attentions to it and become a piece of art in itself. Heaven only knows where it comes from! I suppose working out a form diminishes the thousands of possibilities you face when you begin. And once you’ve cut down the possibilities, you can’t swim off into the deep and drown. Well, it’s a very, very strange process.” Read my whole interview here. Read the poem below, from her 2020 collection Completing the Circle (republished with permission from Bloodaxe Books):

How Poems Arrive
For Dana Gioia

You say them as your undertongue declares,
Then let them knock about your upper mind
Until the shape of what they mean appears.

Inaccurate emotion – as intense
Like love, they’re strongest when admitted blind,
Judging by feel, feeling with sharpened sense
While yet their need to be is undefine
As action sponsored by adrenaline –
Feeds on itself, and in its own defence

Fancies its role humanitarian.
But poems, butch or feminine, are vain
And draw their satisfactions from within,

Sporting with vowels or showing off a chain
Of silver els and ems to host displays
Of intimacy, or blame, or joy, or pain.

The ways of words are tight and selfish ways,
And each one wants a slot to suit its weight.
Lines needn’t scan like this with every phrase,

But something like a pulse must integrate
The noise a poem makes with its invention.
Otherwise, write prose. Or simply wait

Till it arrives and tells you its intention.

Robert Conquest’s Collected Poems in the TLS – “In all senses, he was: ‘A Man of the World.'”

Sunday, September 13th, 2020
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Conquest at work in his Stanford home (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Poet Lachlan Mackinnon’s review of Robert Conquest‘s Collected Poemsedited by his wife Elizabeth Conquest, is up in the Times Literary Supplement – and for the time being, you can read the whole thing here.  Although a poet long before he became a historian, it is for the latter that he is best known. He is the author of The Great Terror (1968), a groundbreaking exposing the extent Soviet atrocities at a time when they were largely denied in the West. He wrote a dozen books about the Soviet Union. The Stanford poet died at 98 in 2015.

A few excerpts, starting from the beginning:

Robert Conquest edited New Lines (1956), thereby launching, almost accidentally, what became known as the Movement. This did him no good at all. If the Movement poets shared a common persona, it was that of a disgruntled university employee in a provincial city who bristled with lower-middle-class resentment. This was unfair to many of them, but particularly to the half-American Conquest, whose poetry is enviably unconcerned with the issues of class which troubled other Movement writers. Where Philip Larkin deplored poets’ resorting to the “myth-kitty”, a phrase suggestive of unearned or inherited wealth, for Conquest the “myth-kitty” was a fund held in common. Allusion came naturally to him, as when he ended his sonnet “Guided Missiles Experimental Range” (1955) with the missiles’ “target-hunting rigour”:

And by that loveless haste I am reminded
Of Aeschylus’ description of the Furies:
“O barren daughters of the fruitful night”.

***

The most exciting early poem, though, is “In the Marshes” (1947), which won Conquest a Festival of Britain Prize in 1951. It looks at lives in a Bulgarian village during the period from just before the alliance with Germany and the rising of partisans to the communist front government of 1945 and its removal by Stalin, and draws on the poet’s time as a liaison officer with Bulgarian partisans late in the Second World War. In the village we find Ilya, a student preoccupied with his lost love Stoyanka and translating Laforgue. Meanwhile,

In a small but handsome house beyond the village
Lives Professor Mantev, former Minister of Trade
And now in exile.

A girl “dreams of love” while in a hut “By the canal Pirov the lock-keeper / Holds the secret meetings of the party branch”. Professor Mantev is unperturbed by the “accident in the lock” of two days before, which left “Brown blood floating on the scummy water. / This happens occasionally”.

His Texan wife.

In this highly politicized context “Brown” must make us wonder whether the deceased was a Nazi and was murdered. “This happens occasionally”: Conquest catches exactly the slightly know-it-all tone of a young intelligence officer in very unfamiliar territory, anxious to please his superiors.

***

And finally, the poems to his beloved Texan wife, Elizabeth “Liddie” Conquest:

Travel was one of Conquest’s abiding subjects. At the end of his first, 1955, volume we find a kind of round trip in the tonally and formally varied “Sunset under Vitosha”, “Lamartine at Philippopolis”, “Pliska”, “Aegean”, “Messemvria at Noon”, “By Rail through Istria” and “In the Rhodope”. In the ten-page “Coming Across” (1978), the poet and his female companion drive from Florida to California with some diversions, one into Mexico. The zest of the poem is infectious, with “Interstate 10” as its refrain: “Once more we turn southward / Through white Cajun townships / On long, dark, still bayous. / The Bayou Teche leads us / Under intricate live-oaks / And then we are back upon / Interstate 10”. The poem is a vivid picture of places and time as it pretends to freewheel through its bouncy two-stress lines. In “The Idea of Virginia” (2009), Conquest wrote a rich essay-poem about the ideas behind the United States, yet he could almost burlesque his transatlantic sensibility in “Winter Welcome to a West Texan” (2009): “So here you are, lovely: / Arroyos of Kensington / With pekes for coyotes, / Green street-lamp saguaros, / Swirls of fog twisting / Like sidewinders over / The desert macadam”.

Again, read the whole thing here. While you can.