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What he said.

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

Father Zossima, in Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov (translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky):


Marci Shore on Ukraine: fighting continues, and so does trust, loyalty, and love.

Sunday, December 4th, 2016
Serhij Żadan

Zhadan: “Don’t listen to the propaganda. There are no fascists, no extremists. None of that is true. Come over to our side.”

Over a 24-hour period this weekend, combined Russian-separatist forces attacked Ukrainian army positions in eastern Ukraine 42 times, according to the press service of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) Headquarters. (Link here; map below.) These weren’t random incidents, but intense fighting, particularly in the Donbas region. “In the Mariupol sector, the enemy used banned 120mm and 82mm mortars to shell the town of Krasnohorivka, and the villages of Shyrokyne and Talakivka,” according to the report.

While that’s not as exciting as the latest gaffe from our president-elect, it should arouse a little more press interest than it did. 



Here’s the news in more literary form. We’ve written about writer Serhiy Zhadan, the unofficial bard of eastern Ukraine, before. (See “They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Then he told them to…” here, and then a year later here.) In the current New Yorker, Marci Shore writes about Ukraine, and the author whose most recent novel Voroshilovgrad won the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in Switzerland.  

Marci reprises the conflict:

On November 21, 2013, Yanukovych, under pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin, unexpectedly declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union. For many Ukrainians this felt like the end of their future. Hundreds of people, students in particular, gathered on the Maidan, the large square in the center of Kiev, to protest. Around 4 a.m. on November 30th, Yanukovych sent his riot police to beat up the students. He was counting, it seems, on the parents’ pulling their children off the streets. Instead the parents joined their children there. The next day more than half a million people came to the Maidan, insisting, “They cannot be permitted to beat our children.”


He took a beating.

“The government has blood on its conscience and has to answer for it,” Zhadan said a few days later, in an interview with the young Polish journalist Paweł Pieniążek. All that winter the stakes, and the violence, increased. …

After the Maidan’s victory in the Ukrainian capital, the population in eastern Ukraine remained divided. Russian “tourists” began arriving from across the border to take part in “anti-Maidan” demonstrations. On February 26th, Zhadan posted on YouTube, in both Russian and Ukrainian, a six-minute appeal to the residents of Kharkiv. “Don’t listen to the propaganda,” he said. “There are no fascists, no extremists. None of that is true. Come over to our side.” Three days later, on March 1st, Zhadan was led away from a demonstration in Kharkiv bloodied, his head bashed in. The poet was cavalier. “I’m a grownup—it’s hard to stun me with a blow to the head,” he said in an interview later that month.

Please read her article here, if for no other reason, it dispels the fiction that Ukrainians somehow really in their heart of hearts want to be Russians – a convenient notion that allowed us to turn our backs on Crimea and, increasingly, on eastern Ukraine.

Marci on Zhadan’s novel and its protagonist Herman:

In Voroshilovgrad, Zhadan describes a kind of war zone at the Ukrainian-Russian border near Rostov: men wearing camouflage and balaclavas and carrying Kalashnikovs, occasionally taking a hostage or two. He describes omnipresent violence at a time when there is no war—a backdrop of brutality, accepted as a given. “You know, before the war, all of these things naturally appeared entirely different: the border with Russia, the army fatigues, the daily readiness for fighting,” Zhadan told me in a letter. “There was no catastrophism in all of that.” (I wrote to Zhadan in Polish about a novel he had written in Ukrainian and I had read in English. He answered me in Russian. The whole situation was very Ukrainian.)

voroshilovgradThe balaclavas and Kalashnikovs and the culture of gangsters are connected to bottomless corruption. The word, or rather one of the words, for corruption in Russian is prodazhnost’ (in Ukrainian, prodazhnist’); it means “saleability” and refers to the understanding that everything and everyone can be bought. A peculiar relationship between prodazhnost’, “saleability,” and chestnost’, “honesty,” belongs to the essence of the Donbas. Where there is no trust in the system, trust in one’s friends is essential. Where there is no law, personal solidarity is paramount. And so what is important is not for whom one votes but how one treats one’s friends. Chestnost’ is related both etymologically and conceptually to chest’, “honor.” What is so striking about Herman’s experiences amid the savagery of the Donbas is the absence of duplicity. Voroshilovgrad is an unsentimental novel about human relationships in conditions of brutality in which there is not a single act of betrayal.

Herman is willing to risk everything for his missing brother, for [characters in the novel] Injured and Kocha, for Olga, for spectres of times past, even when this appears to make no sense. While attempting to escape from the biplane guys, Herman finds himself on a private train, where the train’s “authority” gives him some advice: “You’ve got this crazy idea in your head that the most important thing is to stay here, not give an inch—you’re clinging to your emptiness. There’s not a fuckin’ thing here! Not a single fuckin’ thing.” Yet Zhadan wants us to understand that there is something to stay for. In his prose there is no nostalgia, but there is genuine affection, rough and profound. Even in this brutish habitus, there is trust, loyalty, and love. The graduate student I spoke with, Monastyrskyi, prefers the Donbas to Lviv, where he lives now, precisely for the chest’ and chestnost’ that supercede a more conventional bourgeois morality. For all its violence, Monastyrskyi insists, “the Donbas is full of joy and mercy—and empathy.” And he loves Zhadan for portraying these people who don’t have a lot of words more authentically than anyone else, for showing us that “these people are beautiful, beautiful in their ugliness.”

Take a look around Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz’s home in Kraków: it almost breathes!

Thursday, December 1st, 2016
Czeslaw Milosz- reciepient of Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, his former apartment in Krakow. Desk on which he wrote. Near left is bust of his second wife, Carol Thigpen. Krakow/Poland. 8.13.20016

He wrote his poems here, next to the bust of his wife Carol Thigpen

My visit to beloved Kraków last month was very short – so brief and tightly packed I didn’t have a chance to return to the apartment at No. 6 Bogusławski, where Czesław Miłosz spent the last years of his life. Fortunately, our roving photographer-reporter Zygmunt Malinowski made the journey from New York City, accompanied by our mutual friend, Prof. Aleksander Fiut. Here’s Zygmunt’s report:

Not far from Wawel Castle in Kraków and behind Planty, the park encircling the Old Town, is a street named Bogusławski. It’s a very short street, lined with trees on both sides seemingly closed off by perpendicular streets on either end.

Plaque outside Czeslaw Milosz,s former apartment. In this building in the yr 1994-2004 lived ... CM honorary citizen of Krakow, Laureat of Nobel prize for literature. Community of Krakow. Aug. 14, 2005

Number 6, Bogusławski Street

The three-story gray masonry buildings with tall doors and decorative pediments over high windows give an aura of permanence. Aesthetics rather then economics dictated this nineteenth-century architecture. Among several entrances, one shows the address as Number 6.  The hall inside leads into a sunny courtyard.

In the center of the courtyard there is a round enclosure with plants and lush vines that cover the entire building wall. To the right of the hall, a wide wooden staircase with railing leads to the second floor where Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz, “one of the greatest poets of 20th century, perhaps the greatest,” according to fellow Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, lived and worked from 1996 to 2004, as the plaque on the other side of the arched entrance door notes.

Czeslaw Milosz's, Nobel Lureat in Literaturte, apartment. Bench with poet's shoes and slippers.

His shoes and slippers are still there

I am here with Prof. Aleksander Fiut, a longstanding friend of Miłosz (they met in Paris in 1976) and author of several books about him, to visit and photograph the poet’s former apartment. As one enters through a high door there is a short corridor with a small wooden bench on the side – the poet’s shoes and slippers are still underneath, and his canes lean against the corner. At the end of the corridor a canvas tote bag is hanging on a hat and coat stand with Miłosz’s printed likeness and a quotation from his 1985 poem, “A Confession”: “My Lord, I loved strawberry jam…”

Behind, inclined against the wall is a framed front page news clipping with headlines from The Washington Post: “American Czesław Miłosz wins Nobel Prize for Literature” and The New York Times: “Polish Poet in US gets Nobel in Literature.”

Czeslaw Milosz- reciepient of Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, his former apartment in Krakow. Canvas tote bag with UNESCO logo , Krakoew city of literature, with Poet's likeness and quote from poem 'Confession' My Lord I loved strawberry jam... Krakow/Poland. 8.13.20016

“My Lord, I loved strawberry jam…”

To the left there is a small room with a desk opposite the window – a bookcase; file folders; and cartons of books, mostly unopened and sent by publishers. Author copies are stacked on the floor. This was the office of his wife, Carol Thigpen, who died in 2002. On the opposite side across the corridor, I enter the spacious living room (rather high ceilings add to this perception), which served as work space, library, and sleeping quarters. Soft upholstered sofas, a small glass-top table, and large bookcases crammed with books occupy three walls. Several paintings and lithographs are on walls, including ones by Józef Czapski and Jan Lebestein, friends from his Paris years.

My attention is immediately drawn to the right corner. A small antique wooden desk, with the computer he used in his later years, with large fonts to accommodate his failing eyesight. Two chairs offer a view of the courtyard and vine-covered wall. This is where he worked and wrote poems.

On the right, the books that he authored are arranged in the bookcase so they are closest to his desk. On top of it, some small framed photographs: his mother; Miłosz with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican; beautiful Erin, his granddaughter, whom I met in New York City; Prof. Fiut with Miłosz. To the left of his desk, hanging on the center wall, are photographs of his father, his first wife Janka, a small painting of the aunt that he admired, and his father in a group picture on the deck of a ship with Fridtjof Nantes, the famous Arctic explorer (Nantes visited Siberia in 1900s). A bust he commissioned of his second wife Carol Thigpen dominates the room. The people closest to his heart were closest to his desk.

It’s a bit unnerving to be here. It seems as if the inhabitants have only left for an outing and will soon return, and once again this place will be full of life…

I am grateful to Anthony Milosz and Prof Aleksander Fiut for the opportunity to visit the apartment, also to my friends in Kraków for their help. All photos copyright Zygmunt Malinowski.

Courtyard overloking Nobel Laureat's Czeslaw Milosz's apartment. 8.13.2016. Krakow. Poland

Who are you, Elena Ferrante? “I’ve published seven books. Isn’t that sufficient?”

Monday, November 28th, 2016

cover_frantumaglia_europa-lowElena Ferrante, author of Neopolitan Novels, guards her privacy zealously – in our intrusive age, who can blame her? She has claimed that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” That hasn’t stopped repeated attempts to identify her. A few months ago, she was unmasked as the Rome-based translator Anita Raja. An earlier attempt this year tagged her as Neapolitan professor Marcella Marmo. Her website, anyway, is here

Who is she? Harper’s Magazine article assembled a sort of Q&A, taken from a collection of Ferrante’s papers that was published last month by Europa Editions as Frantumaglia. It’s here. Excerpt:

You could have the sort of fame that many people seek. Why have you chosen not to appear?

Freud tells of a woman who was afraid that someone would use her name to take possession of her personality. The woman began by refusing to write her name, and then she stopped writing completely. I am not at that point: I intend to continue to write. But when I read that story of illness it right away seemed meaningful.

Have you ever felt a surge of ego that made you want to throw open your window and cry, “It’s I who have created this world”?

My home is on the upper floors, I’m afraid of heights, and my ego gladly avoids leaning out the window.

I need to be sure whether you are a man or a woman. Establish your age. Deduce your lifestyle, your social class. I appreciate your writing but not the darkness that surrounds you.

What is better than a room that is dark except for the light of a single reading lamp? Look in the books and you will find eyes, sex, lifestyle, social class, and the id.

And finally…

Will you tell us who you are?

Elena Ferrante. I’ve published seven books. Isn’t that sufficient?

Read the whole thing here.

Fidel Castro and freedom of the press

Sunday, November 27th, 2016


In 2001, Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro invited Ann Marie Lipinski, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and editor of The Chicago Tribune, to the presidential residence to mark the historic opening of the Tribune Company bureau in Havana. Six years later, the Tribune‘s correspondent, Gary Marx, would be expelled for his coverage of human rights and other issues.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, the Americas director for Amnesty International said Castro’s regime was characterized by “a ruthless suppression of freedom of expression,” including sometimes long prison terms for people who spoke out strongly against the Cuban government. “The question now is what human rights will look like in a future Cuba,” she said. “The lives of many depend on it.”

The 90-year-old Cuban leader who defied American capitalism for half a century died on Black Friday, the annual shopping frenzy that takes place the day after Thanksgiving. This photograph was shared by Ann Marie, a former Michigan Daily colleague, on her Facebook page, and is reprinted with her permission.

Steve Wasserman comes home to Berkeley: “He’s the total package.”

Saturday, November 26th, 2016

wasserman2Excellent, excellent article on Steve Wasserman, one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals, this weekend at the San Francisco Chronicle. I’ve written about Steve in past posts on the Book Haven (here and here and here), and have been a big fan ever since I wrote for the Los Angeles Times Book Review during his nine-year editorship, when it was the best book review in the country, bar none. Now he heads Berkeley’s Heyday Books, after serving most recently as an editor at large for Yale University Press and even earlier stints (before LATBR) at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Time Books/Random House literary agent with Boston-based Kneerim & Williams. He is one of the chief architects behind the successful Los Angeles Festival of Books.

The article, by Steven Winn, a former arts and culture critic for The Chronicle, begins:


Steve with some of his books.

Books weigh heavily in the life of Steve Wasserman, the new publisher and executive director of Berkeley’s Heyday Books. So much so that when he moved from Connecticut to take the job, he shipped his 14,000-pound personal library and installed it on pristine white shelves that fill most of the wall space in the company’s warren-like offices on University Avenue.

But books, as Wasserman clearly exudes, walking a visitor through his carefully devised shelving system of some 15,000 volumes, aren’t just objects of pride and possession. They mean things, signify things in a culture that can seem indifferent if not hostile to what they embody.

“Ideas matter,” he says. “Writing well is the best revenge.”

Steve was reared in Berkeley, so his return to his roots at age 64 is fitting. A good thing for California, too: “He’s probably as knowledgeable about books and ideas as anyone alive,” said Robert Scheer, the Southern California author and journalist who has known Steven for nearly half a century. “To find someone who is both an excellent editor and agent and doesn’t feel competitive with you as a writer is very rare. He’s the total package.”

And we’d like to know a little bit more about that “carefully devised shelving system.” We could use one ourselves.

Read the whole thing here.

Junot Díaz: “Often our pain encourages us to isolate ourselves.”

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

Over at Lithub, an hour-long phone conversation with Pulitzer prizewinning Junot Díaz, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, and Paul Holdengraber. We always find the Dominican American author intriguing – here are a few excerpts:

On writing slowly


Looking for the stories that death tells us.

Part of it is bad habit. But part of it is an attempt at a different kind of methodology. I have noticed that what matters to me is to reflect very, very long on what I might call my materials or very, very long on what I might call the sources of inspiration. Lately I’ve been thinking of my writing as—what interests me more than anything—is grinding these slow lenses. What I mean is giving events, giving history, giving people the time to unfold, the time to mean—to give forth their meaning.

On pain

Often our pain encourages us to isolate ourselves. The truth of it is our pain is a badge for how we are members of this larger community. Recognizing this and recognizing our shared humanity is not a small insight. The ego pushes us towards individual, pushes us towards fantasies of achievement of power… and all of those things pull us away from our common link, our common clay… We are made of a common clay, and among the most prevalent minerals in that clay is our fragility.

On stories from the dead…

There’s also the stories that death tells us. What are the stories that the dead tell us? That’s not a language that’s easy to crack. It’s a language that I’m trying to master—that I’m trying to become sensitive to the nuances, sensitive to the phonemes, but it has been resisting me.

Go here for more.

Zbigniew Herbert: “after a flood of lies…”

Saturday, November 19th, 2016

Thanks to Lufthansa, I had a blissfully uneventful trip homeward to California and warmer weather. But my mind was still on Kraków, and last week’s conference on Zbigniew Herbert. During a stopover at the Munich airport, I idly paged through Herbert’s The Collected Prose: 1948-1998and found this pertinent essay on the use of language. Here’s an excerpt from “Shield us from the dark word…”

herbert-proseFrom all of this a certain lesson can be drawn for readers: let them try to penetrate the value of a word not only by way of its meaning but also by its back stairs, its lining. Let them try to hear its sound, see its shade, its light and weight. And let them not be ashamed of naïve perceptions. If Słowacki‘s stanza dazzles them with bright radiance, or they hear in Norwid‘s funeral rhapsody the harsh rattle of armies, they will be closer to poetry than those who conceal their literary deafness under a wreath of learned platitudes.

But the word must return to its mother port – meaning. This not just an aesthetic problem but also a moral one. Naming objects and things human conduces to their understanding and judgment. Particularly after a chaos of ideas, after the last war, after a flood of lies, poetry must take on the labor of the moral reconstruction of the world by rebuilding the value of words. We have to part good from evil, light from darkness once again.

For that reason the last stanza of a beautiful poem by Jerzy Liebert is the prayer of all poets concerned not only with aesthetic problems but also with the ethical, social dimension of poetry:

Breathe in us, may your hand
pour olive oil onto our breast.
Shield us from the dark word,
From the dark word, save us!


A short photo essay of Kraków

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

A few days ago we posted one of Artur Sebastian Rosman‘s photos of Kraków, taken last week. Artur, who runs the Cosmos the in Lost blog, was in Poland’s cultural capital for the same reason I was: an international conference on Zbigniew Herbert, hosted by the Józef Tischner Institute.

We kindly asked him for permission to publish a few more of his black-and-white studies of the city, and he kindly gave it. Here goes:



Rynek Główny, viewed from a sidestreet.


An old man walks along the Planty, Kraków’s city park.


And the rooftops are decorative, too!


Prof. Grzegorz Bak Trzebunia Niebies of Madrid speaks, with Tischner’s photo behind him.

The Book Haven goes to lovely Kraków!

Thursday, November 10th, 2016


There’s a reason for our silence. We have returned to lovely Kraków for a conference about the poet Zbigniew Herbert.

wesele1The international event is sponsored by the Józef Tischner Institute, and includes scholars, translators, poets, and others from Siberia, Brazil, London, Madrid, Rome. From America, Artur Sebastian Rosman and Humble Moi are holding down the fort.

So that’s why we’ve been so silent. There has been plenty of eating and drinking to do. Above, with Anatol Roitman from Novosibirsk. He’s a noted translator of Czesław Miłosz from Polish to Russian – so we met several years ago at the Milosz centenary. This is our first reunion. The event is documented by Artur (who, by the way, runs the Cosmos the in Lost blog).

At right, one of Artur’s shakier efforts, after plenty of wine at Wesele, a restaurant on Rynek Główny. The original building goes back to about the 13th century. This is a portion of a the original ceiling. One of many reasons it’s glorious to be back in Poland.