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“No place in the world for me”: Brodsky’s birthday fêted with an unpublished interview and more

Sunday, May 24th, 2015
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Josef_Brodsky

The poet in Ann Arbor, a year after emigration.

Today would have been Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 75th birthday. This weekend, there’s a celebratory conference in Saint Petersburg. Some of the presents arrived early – for example, Elisabeth Markstein‘s interview with the poet in The BafflerMarkstein died in 2013, and although the interview was published in Russian in Colta shortly  afterwards, this is its first appearance in English.

In her book, Moscow Is Much More Beautiful than Paris: Life Between Two Worlds (and thanks to Kurt Leutgeb for bringing the book to my attention), the award-winning translator and author describes how news of the emigration began with a phone call while she was getting her hair done: ”I sat, my head with curlers sticking out all over, under the dryer hood with dear Mrs. Luise. ‘Telephone for you!’ I crept out from under the hood. ‘Hi, Markstein?’ The voice spoke Russian. ‘It’s Joseph Brodsky here.’ He has had to emigrate, he says. Could we pick him up from the airport today right away? It was the 4th of June, 1972. ‘Of course. We will be there.’” Markstein recalls their first meeting at the home of scholar Efim Etkind:

marksteinI had met Joseph Brodsky a few years before at the Etkinds’ place in Leningrad. I was there with our daughter Mirli; she must have been three years old. I had put her to sleep on a couch in the living room. (No one would expect that a Soviet university professor had a guest room!) So: Brodsky came in, beaming with happiness because on this day his son was born. We all congratulated him. Mirli could not think of sleep after this and flirted with Joseph. He, in a good-natured way, flirted back.

The trip to the airport was unnecessary. Brodsky’s publisher [Carl Proffer] came from the States to meet him. We didn’t connect with Joseph until that evening. He was confused, despairing, full of longing for his homeland. He had left his country, because even after his trial and the resulting banishment, the KGB was after him tirelessly. While still in Leningrad, before the flight, he had written a letter to Brezhnev, then the Soviet arbiter over the fate of men. Many people criticized Brodsky for this, accusing him of being craven and servile. But me, I was so moved by the letter, which had been published in a newspaper—a proud and at the same time helpless pleading. A significant poet begged for mercy from an completely senile Kremlin lord. For that reason, I’d like to quote a few sentences from it: “It is bitter for me, to leave Russia. I was born and grew up here, I lived here and am indebted to this country for everything that is in my heart. All the bad things that have happened to me, my country generously compensated me with good things, and I never felt myself to be disadvantaged. Not even now. I ask you to give me the chance to continue my existence on the Russian soil and in Russian literature.” To be published in Russia—Brodsky’s only wish. A pure fantasy. The few things of his that had appeared in print would be removed from the Soviet libraries, like the books and translations of all other involuntary emigrants.

The late Carl Proffer, who founded the Russian publishing house Ardis with his wife Ellendea Proffer, shared his own memories in her indispensable Brodsky Among Usrecently published in Russia, where it skyrocketed to #2 on the bestseller list (we wrote about its debut here): “It was Sunday, June 4, and the flight arrived more or less on time at 5:35. As the bus approached from the plane I saw Joseph in the window, and he saw me. He gave a V-for-victory finger flash. Downstairs at the window there was a ten-minute delay when one of his two bags was lost, the first of a series of mechanical details that would slow everything down for days. As Joseph emerged and we embraced, I discovered that a Viennese with strong ties to Russia, Elisabeth Markstein, and her husband were also there to meet him. He and I took a cab together; his repeated reactions were one of nervousness, saying, ‘strange, no feelings, nothing,’ a bit like Gogol‘s madman. The number of signs made his head spin, he said; he was puzzled by the vast variety of cars of different makes. He said there was so much to see that he couldn’t see (he repeated this for several days).” brodskyamongusBrodsky and Proffer had dinner with Heinz and Elisabeth Markstein that evening, and they discussed the Brezhnev letter. Carl Proffer’s memories: “Markstein said he should publish the letter, but Joseph said ‘No, it was a matter between Brezhnev and me.’ Markstein asked, ‘And if you publish it, then it’s not to Brezhnev?’ And Joseph said, yes, precisely. The Marksteins were very kind, and they offered the services of their young daughters to show us both around Vienna. But for the most part we were on our own, and since for the first time we were spending a great deal of time together alone, we talked a lot, especially at night.” (The Brezhnev letter, or one version of it, is included in the new Stanford collection – I wrote about that here.) Ellendea continues the story: “The shock of arrival converted to anger in Joseph: as the two men walked around Vienna, Joseph began spontaneously condemning entire groups of writers (especially Evtushenko and Voznesensky) and dissidents in general. These were things he had said before, but now it was with a kind of hysterical intensity and much more profanity.” In the Baffler interview, he attacks some of his closest friends and colleagues left behind in Petersburg. This then, was the context for his remarks. Several readers have commented on his surprising hostility – it may be one reason why the interview remained unpublished. But this interview is fascinating for many other reasons – really, almost all the Russian poets interviews are worth reading and rereading (that’s why I recommend my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations – it’s terrific, and not because of me). From the Markstein interview:

EM: Do you consider yourself a Soviet poet?

JB: I object rather strongly to all definitions except Russian, because I write in Russian. Still, Soviet would be correct. Whatever its accomplishments and crimes, it exists, and in it I existed for thirty-two years. And it did not destroy me.

EM: I’m glad you brought this up. There are émigrés, and Soviet citizens too, who try to deny its existence, pretend it’s not there. But how can you? The Soviet Union is a historical and cultural fact.

JB: A cultural fact. Exactly. So many Soviet artists drew their inspiration not from divine intervention but from the idea of resistance. That is something to consider, with gratitude even. True, I unexpectedly found myself in the position where one can feel grateful. While you actually live there . . . I’m not sure what it is, what is wrong with my nervous constitution, but when I lived there, I couldn’t quite raise myself to anger or to hatred. Anger, yes, but never hatred. I always remembered, you see, that the regime and its manifestations were individual, ordinary people. I couldn’t give it a single face. For a resistance fighter, for a questing dissident, such emotion is death. Therefore, I’m not a fighter. An observer, perhaps.

brodsky7The Viennese Markstein spent her childhood in Switzerland, Moscow, and Prague. She was expelled from the Communist Party and barred from the Soviet Union in 1968 (according to German Wikipedia) when she was discovered smuggling letters of Alexander Solzhenitsyn out of Russia. She was appalled by the Soviet invasion and apparently said so. She continued that line of thought with the poet:

EM: In Czechoslovakia in 1968, in some cities during the first seven days of Soviet occupation, or maybe it was just one city, there was a slogan, “Remember that you are people of culture.”

JB: This is precisely what ruined their cause.

EM: How so? I believe they had won more ground than was expected.

JB: I really don’t think so. They behaved like schoolchildren. They decided that the principles they were defending, that somehow they had discovered a new way of defending those principles. But in fact, if you really want to enforce them, if you don’t want them to remain just empty words, bubbles in the air, then the only way to do it is by shedding blood. Otherwise, all you will get is a better or worse form of slavery. Once you start talking freedom, how you deserve it, how you want it, how it’s been denied you, how you refuse to remain a slave, you’ve got to take up arms. There is no other way to fight a slave-master. True, they did disgrace the Soviet Union, but pragmatically speaking . . .

EM: I used to think that death is preferable to life on one’s knees. But now I’m not so sure. I’m beginning to think that any life is better than death.

JB: True. But still, the question is, what should we remain alive for? Man is not a rock, he can’t exist just for his own sake. There’s always the “what for.” I understand that here, in the West, I won’t find the answer. Because when I look around, I don’t understand what people live for. My impression is that they live for the sake of shopping. That human life exists for the sake of shopping. The only solution is to stay on the margins, to not get too involved—in shopping, I mean. If I had grown up here, I don’t know what I would have become. This is a very disorienting feeling. I just don’t understand what it’s all for. It must be a very Russian, very totalitarian idea that something so good must come only as a reward, not as a given.

Read the rest here. In her memoir, Markstein notes: “Brodsky continued his flight to London. I never expected letters from him. At the end of 1972, we received a postcard from Venice with greetings for us and the girls for Christmas and the New Year. ‘Imagine: All washed up on these shores. Because there is no place in the world for me.’ I translate intentionally literally, because only then is the pain audible. Still, Venice soon became Brodsky’s favorite city – and where he, it so happened, wanted to be buried, on the Island San Michele. Years later Brodsky was again in Vienna, but didn’t call on us. What does that mean? It confirms for me once more that poets definitely must be egocentric.”

Brodsky&ProffersSan Francisco_1972 copy

The Proffers with Brodsky in San Francisco, 1972 (Photo courtesy Casa Dana)

Dana Gioia on little-known poet Dunstan Thompson: “ambitious, original, mercurial, uneven”

Friday, May 22nd, 2015
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Dunstan Thompson photoPoet Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has performed many good deeds for literature; here’s one that has generally gone unnoticed: he has promoted the work of many little-known poets and writers, both living and dead, who have received fame, acclaim, and wider circulation soon afterwards. In many cases, I think his imprimatur has been decisive. He was one of the early champions for Kay Ryan, the Marin community college teacher who went on to win a Pulitzer and just about every other major poetry award, as well as being named U.S. poet laureate. We can add Kim Addonizio, Weldon Kees, and even Robinson Jeffers to the list.

That observation alone would make it worthwhile to pay attention to his article in the current Hudson Review, “Two Poets Named Dunstan Thompson.” Thompson’s not entirely forgotten … at least not anymore. D.A. Powell and Kevin Prufer compiled a tribute volume, Dustan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master in 2010. Later this year, Thompson’s Selected Poems, edited by Gregory Wolfe, will bring his work (we hope) to a wider audience.

The Connecticut-born Thompson (1918-1975) was educated at Harvard and enlisted in the U.S. Army in World War II. Borges translated some of his work after Thompson’s Poems (Simon & Schuster) was published in 1943. His second poetry collection, Lament for the Sleepwalker, appeared in 1946. A 1954 novel, The Dove with the Bough of Olive was not well received. A travel book The Phoenix in the Desert was published in London in 1951. He had published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, but his next three manuscripts remained unpublished. What happened in the final decades is most interesting.

Dana’s essay is highly recommended; it’s one of his finest. And you get two poets for the price of one. Here’s why:

Two contradictory views of Thompson and his poetry have emerged, which seem to reflect an irreconcilable dichotomy inherent in both his life and work. Each faction has made exclu­sive claim to his legacy. For one group, Thompson stands as a pioneering poet of gay experience and sensibility. He was one of the first poets—and certainly the best of the World War II era—to write openly about homosexual experience. Although his language remained slightly coded—even straight sex could not be depicted literally at that time without censorship or prosecution—there was little ambiguity about the hidden world of casual sexual encounters he describes so powerfully in his neo-Romantic and rhapsodic poems. An heir to Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, Thompson stood, to quote Jim Elledge, as “a kindred soul” to contemporary gay poets.

To the second group, Thompson ranks as one of the important English-language Catholic poets of the twentieth century. A neo-classical writer of cosmopolitan sensibility, he cultivated an austere and formal style to explore themes of history, culture, and religion. In ways that seem more European than American, the mature Thompson also used the long perspectives of Christian and Classical history to understand the modern world after the devastations, dislocations, and atrocities of a troubled century.

There is no question that Thompson’s poetry falls into two parts—the early work published during the 1940s and the later work gathered posthumously in 1984.

The “vast and insistent threnody” of the first era “transcends its own sentimentality mostly bit its sheer feverish persistence. All of the wrong notes seem small in comparison to its large, symphonic sweep.” The highly musical poems (“The boy that brought me beauty brought me death”) reflect a poet who “reveled in the hypnotic quality of formal rhythms. His mode is essentially rhapsodic – an attempt to cast an emotional spell over the listener.” The second period occurred after he had settled in the obscure Norfolk village of Cley, initially for financial reasons, but then he and his partner, the journalist Philip Trower, stayed and stayed, far away from the mainstream literary world. “If Thompson’s early verse is flamboyantly neb-romantic, the later work is calmly neoclassical. … His style cooled becoming more austere and controlled. The tone shifted from vatic to conversational.” He adopted free verse as another tool in his repertoire, and wrote dramatic monologues, narratives, hymns, satires, epigrams, epistles, devotions, discursive meditations. “The older Thompson obsessively ponders the past as window into the human condition.”

Dana concludes: “Dustan Thompson is not a major poet, but he is also not a minor writer in the conventional sense of doing a few things exquisitely well. He is ambitious, original, mercurial, and uneven in equal measures. His central themes – love, sex, desire, faith, war, and history – are not minor subjects.” Read about both poets – Dunstan Thompson I and Dustan Thompson II – over at The Hudson Review, here.

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Refuge: Cley on the River Glaven (Photo: John Beniston)

 

Remember the Lusitania! Five-day Stanford exhibition commemorates the centenary of a shipwreck.

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015
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lusitania_postcard_final“In 1982, Gregg Bemis made the cheapest and most expensive financial transaction of his career: For one dollar he acquired full ownership of the RMS Lusitania, the British transatlantic passenger liner struck by a German torpedo in 1915. Given the legal battles he’s fought and millions of dollars he’s spent since then to verify his ownership and access the wreck that lies 300 feet below the waves in the North Atlantic, Bemis concedes the venture was ‘a personality failure on my part. I like to stick to things, I like to see them through to the end.’ No end is in sight, though, because what started as a business interest has become a personal mission. Bemis wants to finally settle a long running controversy: Why did the ship sink so fast, and was there a cover-up?”

Poster Collection, UK 524, Hoover Institution Archives.So begins Joshua Alvarez‘s article in the current Stanford Magazineabout Bemis, a Stanford alum. The article is a preview for a five-day exhibition at the Hoover Tower Rotunda.

Quick! Hurry! The exhibition begins Wednesday, May 20, and ends Sunday, May 24. It showcases artifacts recovered from the wreck of the Lusitania on loan from Bemis and Oceaneering International (such as the porthole pictured above), together with photographs, posters, documents, newspapers, medals, maps, and other artifacts permanently housed at the Hoover Institution Library & Archives. The event commemorates the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania.

Below, two photos of then 76-year-old Bemis as he makes his own dive to the wreck in 2004. He was a lot older than the Lusitania itself, which was launched in 1907 and destroyed in 1915. Bert Patenaude wrote an introduction to the Hoover exhibition; we wrote about Bert and his own book in “Forgotten Tale of How America Saved a Starving Russia,” here – this is what he had to say about the Lusitania:

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Poster Collection, UK 198, Hoover Institution Archives.“On the afternoon of May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine about a dozen miles off the southern coast of Ireland. The ship rapidly began listing heavily to starboard and sank by the bow in only eighteen minutes. Nearly 1,200 of the 1,959 men, women, and children on board perished that afternoon, 128 of them Americans.

“When the Lusitania sailed from New York on May 1, 1915, the ship faced dangers that the British government and Cunard, the ship’s owner, fully understood. Three months earlier, the Imperial German government had declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone and gave notice that Allied ships entering the area would be sunk on sight. The day of the Lusitania’s departure, the German embassy in Washington published an advertisement in US newspapers warning passengers of the risks involved in a transatlantic voyage aboard a British passenger ship.

“Today, one hundred years after the disaster, people learning about the fate of the Lusitania and the furious reaction it triggered will likely be surprised that the United States somehow managed to maintain its neutrality and stay out of the European conflict for another two years. In retrospect, however, it seems the incident ignited a long coiling fuse that would lead, in April 1917, to America’s entry into the First World War.”

Read more about the exhibition here. Or read Alvarez’s article here. But most of all hurry and go see the exhibition before the weekend is over.

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Above and below, Bemis dives 300 feet to the wreck. (Photos courtesy Gregg Bemis)

Bemis - after diving to Lusitania

Translator, poet Matthew Ward and his “immense intellectual hunger.”

Friday, May 15th, 2015
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Gary Ward

A fierce poem from a feverish bed. (Photo courtesy the Ward family)

In his brief life, Matthew Ward translated works by Colette, Jean Giraudoux, and Roland Barthes into English – but his favorite project was Albert Camus’s The Stranger. His celebrated “American” translation of the classic earned him a PEN award in 1989, as well as critical acclaim.

In a sense, the translation was born at Stanford, where Ward learned French and fell in love with France during his stay in Tours as part of Stanford’s Overseas Studies program in 1971 (he earned his B.A. From Stanford in 1973). Clearly, Ward’s translation of The Stranger is a perfect choice for the “Another Look” book club discussion at 7:30 p.m., Monday, June 1, at the Stanford Humanities Center – and not only for aesthetic reasons. It represents a sort of homecoming.

If Ward’s Stanford roots are not widely recognized, part of the reason may be that he was known in those days as “Gary,” an energetic, gregarious presence who was very, very smart. “He had an immense intellectual hunger,” recalled Stanford English Prof. John Bender, who was the faculty advisor in Tours the year Ward attended, and recalled the poet and translator’s “eagerness and sparkle.”

“He wanted to know everything, whatever he could know.” Most of all, recalled Bender, “he was passionately interested in French.”

During the six-month sojourn in Tours, Ward also forged an important friendship with Monika Greenleaf, now an associate professor of Slavic literature at Stanford, but then a “scholarship kid” as he was. “I have an intense memory of his face and body when he became enthused about something:  his big brown eyes would glow, then a huge mocking grin and demonic chuckle, and a flurry of gestures. It was always a manifesto about literary style, freedom, religion, young men’s conquests of their world, and above all, Joyce” – and, she quickly added, Kerouac, Hemingway, Ginzburg, Camus, and Proust, too.

“He and I bonded above all in our mutual and rivalrous pursuit of le mot juste,” she said. “Being Irish, he had the scintillating verbal gift that comes with the territory.”

Irish was only half the story. He grew up as one of nine children in a Spanish-speaking, working-class family in Denver. ”I internalized Romance languages listening to my mother,” he told The New York Times. ”Our family goes back to 1598 in old New Mexico, with a governor as an ancestor. And I really do have a mother named Carmen.”

Greenleaf remembers the Stanford students taking a night train to Spain during the running of the bulls at Pamplona, “standing the whole way talking – about Hemingway, of course – and drinking.”

“We were so hung over the next morning that we climbed trees to watch the spectacle and ended up falling asleep among the branches.” Ward and a friend, however, “took off down the street in front of the bulls.” The kids had little money, and lived on potato omelettes, wine, and cioccolate calliente. Traveling to the Basque city of San Sebastián, “we got off the train and ran straight into the ocean waves to wash off.  That town and its churches perched on the edge of the ocean seemed like a paradise to us.”

When the sun went down, Ward would entertain them with his stories and his poems: “He always had a diary with him and filled it with extravagant Joycean sketches, which he would read to us at night.  We all liked to catch glimpses of ourselves in the textures he created.  He was constantly practicing to become a writer,” she said.

At the party to celebrate the end of their stay in Tours, Ann Bender recalls swing-dancing with Ward. He was the only student who knew the dance steps of the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. “He was very much a people person,” she said, despite the usual writer’s life of solitude and thought.

Back in Palo Alto, Ward rented a cottage behind the home of English Prof. William Chace, who remembers him fondly as a great conversationalist and immensely smart. Ward received an acknowledgement in Chace’s The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. “I think he helped me just talking about the topics,” he recalled. “What did Gary contribute? Friendship and good humor.”

After Stanford, Ward went for advanced degrees in Anglo-Irish literature at University College in Dublin and at Columbia University; Chace left Stanford to become president of Wesleyan and later Emory University. “He wrote us to say he had become involved in the atelier of Richard Howard, translator of great things,” recalled Chace, and that he had taken a pen name, too. Ward told his mother he was dropping “Gary” for his confirmation name,“Matthew.” It had more of an authorial ring to it, he told her.

Hardscrabble life of a translator

The breakthrough moment came when Judith Jones, the legendary editor at Knopf who had worked with John Updike, Anne Tyler, John Hersey, Elizabeth Bowen, and William Maxwell, felt that a new translation of Camus was needed, one that was closer to the spirit of the author than the 1946 translation by the highly respected translator Stuart Gilbert, which was faulted for its British flavor. (One example: “You’ve knocked around the world a bit, and I daresay you can help me.”)

”I jumped at the chance and worked with Judith on it for nearly three years,” said Ward. “It gave me an opportunity to push my one grain of sand up the beach of culture.”

stranger

“I jumped at the chance.”

The dramatically new translation was praised by The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and others. Ward told The New York Times, “what I’ve done is closer to the author’s intent, and that’s what counts.”

“Camus admitted using an ‘American method,’ particularly in the first half of the book,” Ward said. “He mentioned Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner and James M. Cain as influences. My feeling is that The Stranger is more like Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice than Camus cared to admit.”

By that time, Ward was living in a fourth floor walk-up in Manhattan. Bender recalls his visit to Stanford, where they talked about translation and the hardscrabble life of a translator. “He had lived a life without a lot of material rewards in it, and yet he did extraordinary translations,” said Bender. “All this acclaim, but it paid almost nothing.”

Greenleaf, by then at Stanford, also remembered a reunion about the same time in the 1980s. “We talked our heads off, as of old, and toward the end he read me excerpts of a narrative poem in progress, called, I believe, ‘The North.’ It was thrilling to recognize his mature talent.  He sent me a paper copy, but I lost it during one of my moves, and I don’t know if it was published.

“He let me know when his translation of The Stranger won its prize, and we were sure that this was the beginning of his writerly renown. I found out about his infection with AIDS through a fierce poem he sent me from his feverish, sore-ridden body and still incandescent mind, not at all resigned.  I cried hot tears reading it.”

Ward died on June 23, 1990, at the age of 39. A memorial evening to celebrate his life was organized in Greenwich Village. Chace and his wife drove to the event from their Connecticut home, with plans to return afterwards. As the clock was moving closer to midnight, Chace asked the playwright and gay rights activist Larry Kramer when the formal remarks would begin. Kramer looked back at him with surprise. “What do you mean? I go to these every night,” he replied. As the AIDS crisis swept through the city, formal memorials had been abandoned – the strain would have been unbearable, he explained. No one had the energy anymore.

Twenty-five years’ distance makes any strain bearable, but it doesn’t fill the missing chair or put the subtracted voice back into the conversation. Ward left his traces in many of the pitch-perfect intuitions that informed his translation of The Stranger, fulfilling his wish that his work “would bring a new generation to the great Camus novel.”

 

More honored than read? Albert Camus’s The Stranger reconsidered

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
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FRANCE. Paris. French writer Albert CAMUS. 1944.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic 1944 photo in Paris. (Courtesy Magnum/Cartier-Bresson)

 

I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine,” wrote Albert Camus, describing his impoverished childhood in French Algeria. “Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well in the world and in history, the sun taught me that history is not everything.”

Albert Camus’ The Stranger is drenched in the North African sun, but heat and light take an ominous turn. The Nobel Prize-winning author’s tale of a senseless murder on the hot Mediterranean beach has been a staple of high-school classes for decades, ever since it was published by the up-and-coming writer in 1942. But does it carry a new meaning for our time?

Acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff has chosen The Stranger for the Another Look book club event at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 1 at the Stanford Humanities Center.  With Tobias Wolff’s retirement at the end of this academic year, the spring event on Camus’ The Stranger will be the last in the popular three-year series.

Gary Ward

Translator Matthew Ward (Courtesy Ward family)

Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look, will moderate the final event. He will be joined by cultural and intellectual historian Caroline Winterer, director of the Stanford Humanities Center; and Stanford lecturer Marie-Pierre Ulloa, a scholar of French intellectual life in 20th-century Algeria who has received France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of the nation’s highest cultural honors. The event is free and open to the public.

According to Wolff, “The Stranger is not an overlooked book. But I believe that among adult readers it is more honored than read. We usually encounter it in our student days, and I doubt that many of us read it again later on.

“Yet it’s very much worth our renewed attention in this moment for the questions it raises about our attempts to find meaning in our lives, about the often violent encounters of different cultures, about the way we create consoling, even heroic, narratives to explain and absolve ourselves while remaining willfully blind to the personal and social forces that actually drive us, about the question of free will – do we have it? –  and about the problematic nature of institutional justice and punishment, indeed of all human judgment.

The event will spotlight the translation of Matthew Ward, who learned French at Stanford. He died of AIDS in 1990, two years after his translation was published, and a year after it received a PEN award. In a New York Times article, Ward said he used an “American method” to translate Camus.

“He mentioned Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner and James M. Cain as influences,” said Ward, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Stanford in 1973. “My feeling is that The Stranger is more like Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice than Camus cared to admit.”

According to the New York Review of Books, Ward’s highly respected version rendered the idiom of the novel more contemporary and more American, and an examination of his choices reveals considerable thoughtfulness and intuition.”

Camus was born in 1913. His father died less than a year later in the Battle of the Marne. His illiterate mother moved with her two sons into a cramped family apartment without electricity or running water. Camus wrote that poverty “was never a misfortune for me: it was always counterbalanced by the richness of light. And, because it was free from bitterness, I found mainly reasons for love and compassion in it. Even my rebellions at the time were illuminated by this light. They were essentially – and I think I can say it without misrepresentation – rebellions in favor of others. It is not certain that my heart was inclined to this kind of love.”

strangerWith the publication of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in the same year, Camus became a public figure and an existential legend, though he eschewed the link with Jean-Paul Sartre‘s philosophy. Within a few years, he would also become a hero of the Résistance in occupied France. During the war years, he formed an important friendship with Sartre, and also a rivalry with the man who called him “the street urchin from Algiers.” Their break, over Camus’ refusal to justify or excuse the atrocities of Stalin as they became known, would be as famous as their camaraderie.

The 1957 Nobel Committee hailed Camus “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” Camus was killed in a car accident in 1960 – some claimed it was a Soviet secret police job, although proof has been elusive.

He left behind a range of novels, plays, essays and short stories, but perhaps none as enduring and popular as The Stranger, with its anti-hero Meursault, who is condemned, not so much for murder, as for “not weeping at his mother’s funeral,” according to the author. Camus, an avowed atheist, said enigmatically, “Meursault is the only Christ that we deserve.”

The books will be available at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, Stanford Bookstore on campus and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.

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The Another Look book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have received the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website anotherlook.stanford.edu is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.

Are literature and evil inseparable?

Monday, May 11th, 2015
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250px-GeorgesBatailleAre literature and evil inseparable? “Yes!” says Georges Bataille. Otherwise it would be boring. The French theorist discusses his book, La littérature et le Mal, in the only television interview that exists with him, filmed in 1958. His interlocutor is Pierre Dumayet. I find his concept of evil a little naïve, but see what you think. (With a hat tip to Morgan Meis and 3quarksdaily for this one.)

Geoffrey Hill bids farewell to Oxford: “The craft of poetry is not a spillage but an in-gathering.”

Friday, May 8th, 2015
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Asked if he liked a particularly severe photograph of himself, he replied: "It terrifies me."

Characteristically vital, vexing, and invigorating.

Over at Forms of Loving: Readings in Poetry, poetry critic Maria Johnston noted maestro Geoffrey Hill‘s final lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry (it’s a four-year appointment), which the social media suggested was “a characteristically vital, vexing and invigorating critical event,” she wrote.

You can judge for yourself: a link to the May 5 talk is here, and a link to his previous lectures is  here.

Johnston celebrated the event with some of his “greatest hit” remarks from his inaugural lecture, “How Ill White Hairs Become a Fool and Jester,” delivered on 30 November 2010. We’ll share some of them, too:

“Do poets approach language as the neutral instrument for confessional themes – on occasion, themes of perjury – or do they, in the very act of writing, manifestly reveal language itself, particularly language twisted into poetic shapes, as a substance of imagination radically perjured?”

“I am a traumatised old man, and my opinions on the matter of poetry in English, particularly contemporary poetry, are decidedly peculiar. I do not have any great desire to encourage the presence of contemporary writing in the university because I believe that contemporary poetry already receives far more encouragement than is good for it.

Blackmur wrote in 1935, and I regard it as one of the great modern, or Modernist, formulations of what poetry is: ‘The art of poetry,’ he says, ‘is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse by the animating presence of a fresh idiom. Language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter in hand, but adds to the stock of available reality.’ My God, if only I could have written that!

brokenhierarchies“If I were to offer anything to the conventional young poet (apart from the proverbial revolver and a bottle of brandy) I would say: Don’t try to be sincere, don’t try to express your inmost feelings, but do try to be inventive.”

“The craft of poetry is not a spillage but an in-gathering; relevance and accessibility strike me as words of very slight value. I have written elsewhere that accessibility is a perfectly good word if the matter under discussion concerns supermarket aisles, library stacks or public lavatories, but has no proper place in discussion of poetry or poetics. Poetry of the new millennium is as it is because of what English poetry has been during preceding centuries and a degree of humility when faced with that fact would not come amiss from our latest celebrities.”

“What is needed from a contemporary critical mind that has both depth and reach of a capacity that few have at any given time but which Ricks has demonstrated super-abundantly, is an analysis of how the skim of contemporary culture relates to, is inextricably part of, the gigantic scam of our times: the bankers’ scam, the Blair-Brown scam, the coalition scam, the big society scam, the education scam, the national happiness scam.”

Stay tuned for Johnston’s review of Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952 – 2012, to appear in Poetry Ireland Review later this month.

Philip Fried and the mendacity of words

Monday, May 4th, 2015
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poetryreview2Over the weekend, my occasional correspondent Philip Fried, editor of the Manhattan Review (we’ve written about him here and here and here), dropped me a note. He’s rightly chuffed with the new review that’s just come out for his Interrogating Water (Salmon, 2014), which just appeared in The Poetry Review, journal of the British Poetry Society. In her review, poet Carol Rumens considered Phil’s book alongside Martha Kapos‘s The Likeness (Enitharmon).

I liked the final paragraph the best:

Fried’s poems demonstrate that whatever is made of language is open to contamination, morality included. As the soldiers in ‘Moral Helmets’ are advised, “coming soon is a Moral Positioning System/(MPS) to align your firefight decisions/With four or five of the major world religions”. But, through their heightened awareness of the mendacity of words, the poems find authenticity, and document a vision of morality almost as a superior form of politics. The nuances of Wilfred Owen‘s ‘Draft Preface’ comes to mind. “Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.”

Hannah Arendt: thinking vs. evil

Friday, May 1st, 2015
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arendt3In her last, unfinished book, The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt returned to the subject of her earlier Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil. She concluded that the besetting sin of Eichmann “was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness.”

In the Time Higher Education Supplement, Jon Nixon discusses Arendt, the role of universities, “worldly thinking,” and amor mundi:

The Eichmann case raised a crucial question for Arendt: “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?” Arendt’s question arose in large part from her experience of totalitarianism, but also from her experience of political oppression under 1950s McCarthyism in the US and more generally from the ideological battle lines that defined the Cold War. She also viewed with increasing concern the unthinking consumerism and the assumption of ever increasing affluence that fuelled the American Dream prior to the stock market crash of 1973 and the oil crisis that followed later that year. Neither Hitler’s Nazism nor Stalin’s communism had, it would seem, exhausted the full potential of totalitarianism. So, the question remained urgent and pressing even within the heartlands of the democratic superpower of which she was now a citizen.

The Life of the Mind provides a tentatively affirmative response to that question: in so far as the activity of thinking requires us “to stop and think”, it may condition us against evil-doing. But this last work also raises – by implication at least – a more difficult question: could the activity of thinking not only condition us against evil-doing but predispose us towards right action? Here Arendt’s response is less clear, partly because it hinges on her suspicion of “pure thought” and partly because the final and crucial section of The Life of the Mind remained unwritten. What is clear is her insistence that without thinking that reaches out in dialogue to others there can be no informed judgement, no moral agency and no possibility of collective action – no “care for the world”.

Education was, for Arendt, an expression of that care – “the point at which”, as she wrote in her 1954 essay on “The Crisis in Education”, “we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it”. Education provides us with a protected space within which to think against the grain of received opinion: a space to question and challenge, to imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives, to reflect upon ourselves in relation to others and, in so doing, to understand what it means to “assume responsibility”. She had observed at first hand how such opinion can solidify into ideology. For her, thinking was diametrically opposed to ideology: ideology demands assent, is founded on certainty, and determines our behaviours within fixed horizons of expectation; thinking, on the other hand, requires dissent, dwells in uncertainty and expands our horizons by acknowledging our agency. It is the task of education – and therefore of the university – to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible.

Read the whole thing here. It’s worth thinking about as we redefine education and the humanities in collective and consumeristic ways. It’s also worth pondering as we head inexorably into an election season already riddled with clichés, banality, repetition, and derivative thinking.

His English: Ann Kjellberg on Brodsky’s self-translations

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015
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kjellberg

She ought to know.

A week or so ago, we posted on Ellendea Proffer Teasley‘s terrific new memoir Brodsky Among Us (it’s here) which is a bestseller in Russia. One person, however, took exception to our criticism of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s translation of his own works from Russian into English. Her opinion is worth a read. Ann Kjellberg is the late poet’s literary executor and the editor of Brodsky’s Collected Poems in English. She is also the editor of the magazine Little Star. Here is what she had to say:

Poetry, having so little purchase in our reading life, deserves not to be approached on the defensive, but a few recent books that consider the work of Joseph Brodsky from a world perspective have once again raised the question of how effectively he has rendered himself for us in English, and it seemed like a good moment to look a little more deeply into the matter. Brodsky was born in 1940, in Leningrad, and came to the United States as an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union in 1972. By his death in 1996 he had translated many of his own poems into English, a language in which he had by then taught and written for nearly half his life. Coming from the hand of their author, these works fall somewhere between wholly subsidiary translation and original creation. Whether their language is poetically autonomous or too distortingly shaped by its Russian consanguinities has been debated since Brodsky first spoke up in the literary culture of his adoptive land.

To understand the terrain, a few words about Russian prosody are in order. The Russian language allows up to three unstressed syllables in a single word, in contrast to English, which normally follows an unstressed syllable with a stress. This fact allows Russian tremendous metrical versatility. Whereas English poetry is overwhelmingly iambic, Russian poetry spreads equally among many metrical forms, using many other combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables besides the iamb. Furthermore, as Russian is a highly inflected language, word order is permeable, and rhymes are very plentiful, allowing for a proliferation of complex musical schemes in its very young poetic tradition. Formal expression is very, very rich in Russian poetry and an integral part of the poetic experience. This flexibility has also allowed for a very full tradition of formal translation from other languages. Part of the reason Boris Pasternak’s translations of Shakespeare were said to rival the original is that Pasternak had such a plenitude of means at his disposal. The fact that many great literary practitioners (including Brodsky) were driven into translation as a safe literary occupation during Soviet times further enriched the translated canon in Russian, influencing Brodsky’s own perception of the possibilities of formal literary translation.

brodsky-collectedBrodsky, who received very little institutionalized education and came of age entirely outside the Soviet poetic establishment, was recognized early by his peers as a prodigy of poetic forms. It was his ear that singled him out among the swarm of young aspirants that formed around his mentor Anna Akhmatova, not his wit or his philosophical acumen. Many now regard him as the greatest innovator of Russian prosody since its forms were stabilized in the nineteenth century. He is particularly known for his expansion of the dol’nik, a looser form that cross-breeds accentual-syllabic verse with its wilder accentual cousin. For Brodsky, the musical dimension of a poem was inextricably wound into its semantic heart: the forms had coloration and value, as keys do for composers and tints for painters. He often spoke of the greyness or monotony of certain feet (the amphibrach, for instance) as an antidote to poetic grandstanding: such plays of self-effacement against assertion are very important in his work. Rhyming and metrical problem-solving are also essential to the wit of his poems, which again inflects poetic authority with impishness and deeply colors the poems’ tone. He used the pacing of poetic forms contrapuntally against the plotting and logic of his poems. The forms themselves—their shading, their pathos, their modulation of energy, their inherent proportionality—were absolutely inseparable for him from the poems and from his practice as a poet.

Furthermore, as he wrote powerfully in an essays on the translation of Osip Mandelstam (“Child of Civilization,” Less Than One), for a poet of Brodsky’s generation formal values carried a larger than musical meaning: they were a living link to the values of civilization for which poets toiled secretly in hidden rooms and basements, a whispered voice echoing from the past, an embedded conversation with their peers in books and abroad whose commitment to purely aesthetic values were ridiculed by the reigning Soviet orthodoxy. To perfect the musicality of one’s verse was to scorn the Soviet command that art hew to utilitarian ends; if a poem could be said to have a literal, exportable “meaning,” then that was precisely its least valued dimension.

Such was the import that the poetic forms carried for Brodsky and his fellow émigrés, like stowaways in their literary luggage.

By contrast, when Brodsky arrived in America in 1972, formal poetry was at a low ebb. Traditional forms were equated with loathed authority generally, the influence of the beats was pervasive and converging with continentally inflected, surrealist tendencies that would feed into the work of John Ashbery and the language poets, and the powerful generation that included Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath was moving toward a more personal, idiosyncratic line. Brodsky quickly took up the cause of form in poetry, both championing the practitioners he most admired and struggling, in his own verse, to render what he had already learned of its possibilities. Richard Wilbur wrote the new arrival a plaintive letter thanking him for his defense of Wilbur’s work and alluding to how demoralizing it was to write formal verse in such times. Brodsky’s heraldic defense of formal verse was at the time conflated with his predictably anti-Communist political views and seen as representing a general, disreputable conservatism.

This trend has reversed somewhat, or at least fragmented. We now have a more eclectic musical environment for poetry, for reasons perhaps similar to those reviving figurative painting and tonal musical composition and realist fiction. Yet Brodsky’s own influence is surely visible here. Brodsky, like W.H. Auden, harkened back to Thomas Hardy as a formative presence, and most contemporary poets would recognize a broad stream in our poetry extending from Hardy and Auden through Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Brodsky, and Les Murray, to Paul Muldoon and Glyn Maxwell and Gjertrud Schnackenberg, for example. Many poets who do not write squarely in the formal tradition are more likely to visit it than they were in 1972.

akhmatova

His mentor.

Yet the legacy of that period of formal quiescence remains very much with us. Few American readers can read verse musically with any sophistication. The notion is still widespread that there is a binary division between “formal” and “free” verse—whereas much of the best of what is read as free verse is in fact deeply colored by forms (often shadows of iambic pentameter or echoes of the syllabic lines of Moore and Bishop), and there is a big difference, for example, between verse that follows a colloquial or spoken line and verse that treats language as a found object. Similarly, “formal” poetry is not just conservative poetry that adheres to old structures, but is an evolving medium that grows and develops and constantly makes new means available to the artist. The rhymes and meters of Muldoon alone should be sufficient to make the case that form can be modern.

Brodsky’s effort to enliven and expand the formal repertoire in English, which met with considerable resistance at the time, can surely now be judged a success. Yet critics continue to argue that the specific musicality of Brodsky’s English verse is too infected by “foreignness.” I think this suggestion deserves more scrutiny.

The English language is perhaps the most permeable on earth, and has been subject to external influences almost since its origins. Our own sacrosanct forms are borrowed from the French and Italian. Many of our greatest poets have struggled to infuse English poetry with the music of classical antiquity, for example. There is no reason why this process should stop now, or why our poetry might not continue to be renewed and refreshed through foreign engagements. The notion that to accuse a poet’s intonations of foreignness is sufficient to dismiss them seems unfounded, and unnecessarily to limit the potential resources available for the growth of our verse.

Let us return to the example of Brodsky. A master of an artistic medium comes to us from another language. He embraces our culture and our verse. He dedicates much of his short life to struggling mightily to rewrite his own work so that it can be read and understood by his compatriots. (This in contrast with Nabokov, an oft-mentioned comparison. Nabokov not only grew up speaking English in his aristocratic Saint Petersburg household; he abandoned composition in Russian to become an English-language writer. Brodsky remained primarily a Russian poet, crossing over into English and crossing back and embracing a bilingual literary career.) Should we reject this effort on the grounds of unfamiliarity alone? Or should we perhaps consider that Brodsky brings us important news that might enrich our tradition, which is currently suffering from an undeniable diminution of means? Should we consider whether the challenges that Brodsky’s English verse offer us may themselves be an indication of how our language and our receptivity have contracted? Might it be worth searching for the inner cadences and harmonies in what at first seems startling to us? Or asking ourselves how an apparent violation of convention might create a more muscular or versatile poetic medium?

Brodsky1988

A firm position on verse. (Photo: By Anefo / Croes, R.C.)

Here I speak mostly of Brodsky’s formal invention, because the case against his English verse is often tied to the case against formal translation generally. But readers should remember that Brodsky is a difficult poet in any language. Working with him on translations I frequently had occasion to see how he transformed a line that had been proffered by a translator not only with deeper music but deeper thinking—for him the two were intimately entailed. In a recent review in Tablet, Adam Kirsch remarks that some “unpoetic” literal translations of some of Brodsky’s work that appear as examples in a recent book sound “poetic” to him. But we cannot think that the “poetic” is a single category, a switch that can be turned on or off. There is a danger that we will accept translations that appeal to our notion of the “poetic,” or that satisfy our expectations of poetry, without questioning whether they even approach the author’s intellectual grist. Thus, like Alice, we go down a narrower and narrower literary hall.

In this vein, it’s worth considering the frequent case against Brodsky that his English is “unidiomatic.” We should reflect on the prejudices embedded in this judgment. When did being “idiomatic” become a decisive attribute for poetry? Our own language has a particular history of returning to its colloquial roots. From Chaucer, to Shakespeare, to Wordsworth, to Auden, our great poets have recalled us to the spoken line. But other traditions have developed differently. Many poetries have a high or courtly style and a colloquial style that poets draw into strategic conflict. Brodsky himself was often accused by Soviet critics of mixing high and low. Other poets have innovated by disrupting or vexing expectation, creating a new or idiosyncratic rhetoric. By keeping the spoken and the colloquial so central to our tradition, we may have deafened ourselves to the beauty and value of innovations like these.

Indeed, Brodsky used to complain that the criticisms leveled against him for his work in English were precisely the same as those leveled against him by his Russian detractors. One difference may be that challenging orthodoxies goes down more easily in literary circles when the orthodoxies are Soviet.

Ease of digestion is at a premium in our speed-reading culture. We seem more often than not to look for reasons not to address ourselves to challenging work. However, given that contemporary Americans are raised with so little education of the poetic ear, and that the number of students of Russian (and other languages) diminishes by the hour, we might hesitate before calling for the reprocessing of work by an acknowledged genius to suit our local tastes. Brodsky’s poems in English come to us double-refracted, as it were, through his own aesthetic character. They are spun once, in the original, and then spun again, just for us. We get his difficult message double-distilled. We inhabit his precise self-placement in one civilization, lifted up and dropped into a completely different one. It is a tall order. We can find reasons to avoid it. The routines of translation give us a chance to recast the problem into a Brodsky who goes down more easily. But that may not be the Brodsky we need.

(For a comprehensive study of Brodsky’s English and Russian prosody see Zakhar Ishov, Post-Horse of Civilisation [2008].)

 

Postscript on 5/15: Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s Work in Progress blog republished this post. Read it (again) here!