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Conversations with Brodsky – in Italian from Adelphi!

Thursday, October 8th, 2015



Heraclitis observed that ‘the dry soul is wisest and best.’ Joseph Brodsky would have agreed, at least in principle. But no one who reads these interviews will fail to note his passionate engagement with the world – the very world from which, as a poet, he was always trying to detach himself. The development of the poetry and the development of the human animal writing the poetry are often distinct – yet in Brodsky’s case, the overlap is poignant. Certainly his psyche turned to darkness as his body betrayed him – another force driving him to seek the absolute lucidity and infallibility of a mathematical axiom in his poetry, another level of his eternal combat between grief and reason. The struggle is evident in this volume.”

brodsky2– From the introduction to Joseph Brodsky: Conversations

With great pleasure we announce that Joseph Brodsky: Conversations is now available to Italian speakers, thanks to Italy’s premier publishing house, Adelphi in Milan. (We’ve written about Adelphi’s publisher and founder Roberto Calasso, who visited Stanford last year, here and here.) It’s a great honor to be part of Adelphi’s eminent family of authors. We at the Book Haven are chuffed beyond words – even if “we” means Humble Moi sitting alone at my MacBook Pro, surrounded only by stacks of books and papers and a pile of sharpened pencils.

The book was originally published in 2002 as part of the University Press of Mississippi’s Literary Conversations series, but given the Russian poet’s famous love of Italy, it should find a natural home in lovely Milano.

Thanks to all who made this possible, especially including Maria Sozzani Brodsky. Grazie mille! We’ll be running excerpts from the reviews as they roll in.

What’s that you say? You don’t speak Italian? Try looking for the English language edition on Amazon (here), which features a stunning photo by Richard Avedon on the cover.


Getting ready for the Nobel in literature. And where better to do it than Stockholm?

Monday, October 5th, 2015
Concert Hall with nobel program. Stockholm 8/2015

Laureates are seated onstage at the Concert Hall during the ceremony. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded this Thursday in Stockholm. While we await the announcement, our New York City-based  correspondent, roving photojournalist Zygmunt Malinowski, reports on his recent visit to the Nobel Empire in Stockholm…

During last summer’s visit to Gdańsk for the opening of European Solidarity Center (read about it here), I found a nearby harbor with ferry to Sweden. I remembered a well-known photograph of Polish poet Czesław Miłosz dressed up in a tuxedo receiving his diploma from the king of Sweden, and I wondered what traces his visit to Stockholm might have left.

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Stockholm City Hall for the Nobel banquet (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

A journey without the usual hustle of airports and cramped airplanes makes a ship seem more natural way to travel. Even though the ferry was spartan in its accommodations, it felt spacious (except for the usual closet-sized sleeping cabin). In the evening at the large cafeteria with panoramic windows, time passes slowly. One can order a coffee or something stronger and gaze at the grayish Baltic Sea and the semi-circular, unending horizon, where the distant water edge never seems to get any closer.

After about 19 hours, we arrived at the port city of Ninanshamn. From there, it’s a short rail ride on a comfortable train to Stockholm. Stockholm consists of interconnected islands; its many bridges and water taxis efficiently transport passengers on its clean waterways and canals. The historic old town (Gamla Stan) with the narrow cobbled streets and shops, restaurants, and cafés, dates back to 13th century. The neoclassical Nobel Museum, home of the Swedish Academy that nominates the literature award, is pretty much in the center of it.

Nobel Ice Cream at Bistro Nobel, Nobel Museum. Stockholm. 8/2015

Nobel ice cream at Bistro Nobel (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

I took advantage of a guided tour offered in English. As a young man, Alfred Nobel wanted to be a poet. Inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, he wrote all his poems in English. His father dissuaded him, saying that it was not a real job, so Alfred Nobel is remembered for inventing dynamite instead.

He also wrote several plays, but his family destroyed most of these papers, since they wanted him to be remembered for chemistry and inventions. He lived most of his adult life in Paris, never married, and had no children. His last will and testament gave away most of his fortune as annual prize. According to the museum, “Nobel was against inherited fortunes that he believed contributed to the laziness of humanity. The will was an ingenuous way of solving this dilemma. The inheritance, in the form of a prize, would reward those who have made themselves worthy by way of their work.”

Nobel had over 350 patents and made a fortune, but his idea of ideas was establishing the Nobel award in five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature, and peace (later a prize for economy was added). The peace prize is awarded in Norway. Nobel met Victor Hugo in Paris, and throughout his life corresponded with Countess Bertha Von Sutter, founder of Austrian peace movement and author of Lay Down Your Arms. The latter influenced the formation of a peace prize, which she won in 1905.

The Nobel nominating process begins in September of the previous year, when the Swedish Academy committee responsible for the literature award sends out hundreds of letters to universities, institutions, and individuals qualified to nominate Nobel laureates. By the following April, the list that’s been gathered is whittled down to about 20 candidates. In May, the selection is narrowed to five candidates. The Academy becomes familiar with the proposed authors and their work. In September, the Academy finally makes a decision and the winner is announced in October. On December 10, laureates receive their prizes. The decision process remains a secret for fifty years – only now can we learn who nominated the winner from 1965.

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Would you sign my chair, please? (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The ceremony takes place in three separate locations. The laureates are invited to the Academy for lunch, on December 9, and afterwards a rehearsal. On December 10, during a ceremony at the Concert Hall they receive an elaborate calligraphy diploma and medal from the King of Sweden, in addition to a check. Attendance is by invitation only. Limos line up to take the 1,300 guests to City Hall for the banquet, first walking through the Golden Hall down marble staircase to the spacious Blue Room. In Sweden, the event is almost a holiday; it’s followed closely on TV throughout the day.

One of the highlights while visiting the museum is having lunch and Nobel ice cream with chocolate Nobel medal at the Vienna-style ‘Bistro Nobel.’ Yes, the ice cream tastes as good as it looks, and it’s actually the same dessert that was served for many years at the Nobel Banquet. Another tradition started in recent years is signing the back seat of bistro chairs. One can turn over a chair to see which laureate signed it. Signatures started after Miłosz’s visit, but I located Mario Vargas Llosa on chair #26 and Seamus Heaney, chair #23.

So where was Miłosz? See the photo below, from the central area of the museum. Also, all Nobel winners are featured on a ceiling display (also pictured below), but it would take hours to find a specific person since they are not in any particular order. I know, I waited as Samuel Beckett, Wisława Szymborska, and Madame Curie-Sklodowska, the first woman to receive Nobel Prize and first to receive it twice, rolled past, before heading for the ice cream.


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Miłosz at last. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

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After the feast, the ball – and it takes place at the gorgeous Golden Hall. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

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Previous winner Wisława Szymborska in a rotating ceiling display at the museum. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

1 © Zygmunt Malinowski

The august Nobel Museum and the Swedish Academy. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

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In my end is my beginning. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The Hopwood Awards: still giving hope (and bucks) to young writers after 84 years

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015

Presiding deity of the Hopwood Room, Andrea Beauchamp (Photo: Humble Moi)

In my day, the University of Michigan’s Avery Hopwood Award was considered a major prize for young writers. It is even more so today – what with students winning multiple awards (two awards was once uncommon), and with supplemental bonuses that resulted in one lucky student bagging $33,000 earlier this year. Those kinds of sums defray an awful lot of tuition costs. It also pays for a lot of tea and cookies, which the Hopwood Room still dispenses regularly during the fall and winter quarters on Thursdays.


Living it up: Hopwood with Spanish dancer Rose Rolanda, 1924.

I used to feel a little glow of pride when I entered the Hopwood Room. It was my room, after all! But would it still be in the same place decades later? I was happy that I recognized Angell Hall immediately (one of the few buildings I recognized), walked up the front stairs to the door, and up stairs inside, and instinctively turned to the right. There it was, a few steps away a on the left side of the hall. And it looked … exactly the same. “Welcome to the time warp,” announced Andrea Beauchamp, assistant director and ongoing presence of the Hopwood program.

She said the room has been deliberately kept that way. She fought off attempts to replace the worn carpet “with Oreos crushed into it” with a drab new carpet that had a “standard dentist’s office” look about it. She wanted to keep the charm, books, and dark-wood ambiance, and she succeeded. Even the big round table covered with every literary journal imaginable still dominated the room – including some journals I have contributed to over the years since I left town, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Kenyon Review, the Georgia Review among them.

Arthur Miller and I won two Hopwoods, award-winning Anglo-American poet Anne Stevenson (I’ve written about her here and here) won an astonishing three. According to the website:

The program was endowed by Avery Hopwood, a popular American dramatist and member of the Michigan Class of 1905. Mr. Hopwood bequeathed one-fifth of his considerable estate to the University of Michigan with the stipulation that it be used to encourage creative writing among students. During the years that have passed since the first Hopwood Awards were made in 1931, we have been able to award a cumulative total of well over $3,000,000 to more than 3,200 gifted writers. Former winners include Arthur Miller, John Ciardi, Mary Gaitskill, Robert Hayden, Lawrence Kasdan, Jane Kenyon, Frank O’Hara, Marge Piercy, Edmund White, and Nancy Willard. …

For former director Nicholas Delbanco’s remarks on the history of the program and the legacy of Avery Hopwood, written for the New York Times in 1998, see this PDF.

I had stayed in touch with Andrea over the years, feeding tidbits to the Hopwood newsletter. I had kept up with her for so long that I rather expected her to be a wizened old lady of a zillion years rather than the smart and vibrant woman in the photo above. I had apparently conflated her with her predecessor, “Sister Hilda,” a nun who had a PhD in English and arrived from an obscure and dwindling order to manage the program. Had I read the Hopwood newsletter more faithfully, I would have known that the beloved sister died in 2004, at 92, and served enthusiastically and tenaciously from 1971-1981. I would also have known she did her dissertation on that much-married diehard Puritan John Milton. She must have had quite a kick to her, which I hadn’t suspected as a student.

But the Hopwood program has kept up with Stanford, too. Andrea warmly recalled recent visits from our newest National Medal of the Arts winner Tobias Wolff and Irish poet Eavan Boland. Well, you can read excerpts from Eavan’s inspiring talk at the Hopwood Awards ceremony last spring here.


Caffeine, camaraderie, catharsis, and 125 years of editorial freedom

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

On the threshold of the future, 1970s.

Last weekend was my first trip back to Ann Arbor since I took home a diploma several decades ago. It also marked my first trip back to the Michigan Daily offices at 420 Maynard.

Arthur Miller 1955

One of us.

The distinctive Student Publication Building has the same smell it did all those years ago, minus the rubber cement. We edited the old-fashioned way: the rip-and-glue method on pages of low-cost newsprint. The dumb waiter had vanished, too, except in the memories of those who remember the linotype days. As the 1.40 a.m. daily deadline neared, the dumb waiter saved steps as we sent copy to the typesetters on the floor below in the basement. Periodically, we would scamper downstairs to watch the progress of the night’s paper: seasoned professionals (the legendary Lucius Doyle and Merlyn Lavey foremost among them) tapped away on the big clackety linotype machines, as lead pigs were melted into pools of silver to make the slugs that were assembled on turtles, and eventually locked into place for printing. Pigs, slugs, turtles… lots of nature words for a place that was as far from the outdoor world as could be imagined – especially the underground kingdom on the floor below us. It was one of the last of the hot-type newspapers, and it was a privilege to work on it.


One of us, too. (Photo: Brian Corr)

Three Dailyites from our set went on to get Pulitzers (so far), including the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson. The Daily was considered “the New York Times of student newspapers” – though I was never sure of the provenance of that tag. Certainly its independence made it unique among the nation’s university newspapers. That tradition continues: It has no supervision from the faculty or the administration. It receives no funding from the university to run a full-circulation daily (five days a week now, six days a week back in my day). Decades ago, the student-run outfit even paid for its own building – the familiar 1930s-style brick landmark that offered nickel cokes in thick green glass bottles. (For old times’ sake, I bought a can of coke for fifty cents in the machine downstairs. Not the same.) Its revenues peaked at $1.4m in 2000 to about $500,000 last year. “The University of Michigan places a high value on the Michigan Daily’s editorial freedom,” one of the university’s attorneys wrote – the letter was projected on a screen at the gala dinner.


We paid for it.

One of us, columnist Laura Berman, described the occasion this way in The Detroit News:

As newspapers shrink and, alas, sometimes die, the Michigan Daily, a 125-year-old student-run paper, is getting attention for sheer survival.

Without support or direct interference from its parent institution, the University of Michigan, the student daily has outlasted big and smaller city dailies, including the Ann Arbor News (now part of At a university lacking a journalism department, 20-year-old editors miraculously “train” their younger cohorts, winning national recognition year after year.

Today, the Daily opens its 83-year-old building’s doors to nearly 400 alumni from across the country, including Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, academics, doctors and lawyers. From Rebecca Blumenstein, the Wall Street Journal’s deputy editor-in-chief, to Tony Schwartz, the author and business consultant who wrote Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal to Sports Illustrated columnist Michael Rosenberg and Detroit Free Press editorial page editor Stephen Henderson, it’s a varied group of pilgrims.


Sara Rimer of the New York Times celebrates her return.

Caffeine, ambition, camaraderie, and journalistic passion — but very little pay — have fueled the Daily for generations. …

At the gala dinner in the Michigan League, someone described the newsroom atmosphere as “stressful, exhausting, cathartic … addictive.” That about sums it up. We were a competitive and hard-working lot, and the newsroom atmosphere was intense.

After a whirlwind visit after so many years, it’s hard to describe all the emotions that were churned up in less than 72 hours. Let’s start with horror: the old-style morgue, with its scores of bound volumes, is being digitized. Thirty-nine of the 320 volumes are already electronically processed. I spent a short while in the morgue over the weekend, thumbing through the oversize volumes. Speaking for myself, you couldn’t bury some of my early stories deep enough. Time has not treated many of these pieces well, and I would not like to see them in my Collected. But the fact that I think that way at all probably owes something to the Daily.

According to the university’s LSA Today:

What do playwright Arthur Miller, two-time presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, and neurosurgeon/medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta have in common? They all wrote for the Michigan Daily, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this month. [Not to mention Tom Hayden. – ED.]

Covering campus, sports, local news, and culture, the Daily has been the object of both picketing and praise over its 125 years. And even as eminent newspapers have gone digital or crumbled, the Daily, which is financially independent of U-M, continues to thrive. In addition to its vigorous online presence, the Daily still publishes on paper. During the school year, it does so five days per week.


Swag bag & shirt.

“When we check Twitter or even Yik Yak, a story from the Daily is often the center of conversation,” says Jennifer Calfas, LSA senior and the Michigan Daily’s editor in chief. “Sometimes you forget how amazing it is that this work impacts so many people, but then small moments remind you.”

After all, how many university rags ever got their own segment on Jon Stewart‘s Daily Show. (Don’t believe me? Watch it here.)

My stony little heart got so sentimental I finally broke down and bought my first university t-shirt to add to the Michigan Daily mug and “M” cookie (from the fabulous local deli Zingerman’s) in my swag bag. I couldn’t bring myself to get something as naff as “Go Blue!” So I settled for “Naprzód Niebiescy,” which a Polish scholar assured me was an even stronger phrase – something along the lines of “Advance forward, blue!”



Bill Turque of the Washington Post and Lani Jordan, formerly of UPI, thumb through old volumes in the morgue.


Pulitzer-prizewinning Ann Marie Lipinski of the Chicago Tribune and award-winning author Jim Tobin watching the last hot-type Daily come off the presses in the late 1970s. “That college newsroom was everything,” she said. (Photo: Steve Kagan)


Humble Moi with photojournalist Pauline Lubens of the San Jose Mercury News, poet Marnie Heyn, and David Pap.

Sensuality and spiritual transcendence in a spiffed-up Ann Arbor

Monday, September 28th, 2015


The Book Haven is winding down from a short visit to our old digs at the University of Michigan – more specifically, from the 125th anniversary of the Michigan Daily, a celebration of more than a century of editorial freedom. A unique story, and more on that later. And we are also winding up from the record silence of the Book Haven! What with visits to the special collections at Hatcher Library, the Hopwood Room, old friends and new, we didn’t have an inch of time to spare.

Let us offer in recompense this powerful 12th-13th century stone image from the University of Michigan Museum of Art (nicknamed UMMA), to serve as a placeholder as we pull ourselves together. The museum is a stunning little gem on a remarkable campus, in a city that’s considerably more upscale and spiffed up than I remember from the grubby 1970s. In the short visit to the museum, the statue, about two feet tall, was perhaps my favorite find, along with a few Guercino sketches of Queen Esther.

From the plaque: “A cremation ground provides the stage for the paradoxically light-hearted image of Shiva’s terrible aspect Bhairava, who killed the god Brahma in a rage. The macabre context, indicated by emaciated ghosts at Bhairava’s feet, reminds viewers of the sin for which he was condemned to wander the earth in a terrifying and terror-stricken state. Bhairava carries a cup made from the skull of Brahma in his hand (one of two broken off in this sculpture). Transformed into his begging bowl, the cup identifies Shiva’s role as an ascetic – one who renounces the world and endures physical and psychological hardships to achieve spiritual transcendence. Shiva’s sensuous pose and levity communicate his liberation as a result of contemplating death in his lone wanderings through vast cemeteries.” I had not known the story of Bhairava before. Something about the themes of crime, repentance, endurance, and eventual transcendence resonated for hours afterward.

Photo courtesy David Goodman of the Associated Press, one of our small party that day.

durbar-squarePostscript: Bhairava? I should have recognized the familiar Kali, despite the name change! A quick google search revealed my confusion. Kali is very familiar to me from the righthand image, in Durbar Square in Kathmandu, where I lived all-too-briefly in the 1970s. This one seems to match my memory of the iconography of other Kalis, though perhaps it has a slight Nepali twist.

In any case, this squat, round-eyed Kali underscores the gracefulness and serenity in the portrayal of UMMA Bhairava above, despite the obliterated face, which only deepens its mystery.

Stanford’s Another Look book club reborn with J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

JLC n quince tree 2 09_1969 small (2)

The author next to a quince tree, 1969. (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)

The British novelist J.L. Carr had an implacable side. “Once he started something, he never let it drop,” his son recalled.

One example: Carr, a primary school headmaster, was wandering through a Northamptonshire village in 1964 when he ran across a dilapidated 14th-century church. Spending more than a decade in a tireless letter-writing campaign to restore the building, Carr battled bureaucrats, vandals, and a pilfering vicar. Eventually, the matter landed in the lap of the Queen of England.

From that infuriating experience was born a tender masterpiece: A Month in the Country, a late-life novel published in 1980, when Carr was well into his 60s. In the short book, two shell-shocked veterans of World War I look for healing and happiness in a Yorkshire village. One is restoring a medieval painting on the wall of the old church; the other is looking for a long-lost grave.

The Another Look book club will discuss the short novel at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19, at the Bechtel Conference Center in Stanford’s Encina Hall. Another Look events, which focus on off-the-beaten-track novels, are free and open to the public. (Stanford Bookstore and Kepler’s in Menlo Park are stocking Carr’s book.)

Another Look was founded by the distinguished author Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English. With his retirement this year, the book club was itself slated for demolition. The popular program has now been revived for its fourth season under the aegis of Stanford Continuing Studies, with Robert Pogue Harrison, a Stanford professor of Italian literature and an acclaimed author in his own right, as the new director. Harrison is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and host for the radio talk show Entitled Opinions.

For the Oct. 19 discussion, Harrison will be joined by Wolff, who received the National Medal of Arts this month, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s new dean for religious life at Stanford and author of several books.

jlc wales head&shoulders (1)

Silent, watchful. (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)

“When I attended the last meeting of Another Look this past spring, I knew that no one had offered to take over for Tobias,” said Harrison. “Seeing the crush of people at Levinthal Hall fifteen minutes before starting time, with standing room only, eager to hear a discussion of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, I realized how much this book series means to people at Stanford and in the surrounding community. I felt it would be a real shame to let it let it die, so I offered to take over the directorship. And here we are, ready to go.”

Carr’s pitch-perfect short novel earned a Guardian Fiction Prize and was short-listed for a prestigious Booker Prize when it was published. The book’s fame was briefly outstripped by the 1987 film version, which effectively marked the film debuts of Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, and Natasha Richardson. The highly praised film was neglected after its release and finally rescued from oblivion by determined fans in recent years. The book, however, has a brisker pace, a quiet wit, a charm of its own – and a more enduring life.

“I read A Month in the Country about 10 years ago and was enchanted by its style, landscapes and themes,” said Harrison. “If any book fits the bill of Another Look – namely, a short novel from the past that richly deserves another look – it is Carr’s gem of a narrative, which takes on all sorts of different sorts of hues, depending on how you view it.”

carrbookCarr was the son of a Yorkshire stationmaster who was also a Wesleyan lay preacher. He eventually moved to Northamptonshire, where he was a teacher and schoolmaster for decades. He had a reputation for eccentricity: on school sports days, for example, he would set up Arithmetic Races where students had to complete sums at trackside blackboards before running on.

He decided to chuck it and become a writer. His first novel was published when he was in his 50s. To make ends meet, he founded Quince Tree Press, a publishing house that offered hand-illustrated county maps, idiosyncratic dictionaries and small, 5″ X 3.5″ editions of great poets, for less than the cost of a greeting card. It published the works of J.L. Carr as well – and still does.

But it was hard for Carr to build a literary reputation when each of his books was entirely different, in style, subject and outlook. The Harpole Report, for example, is a novel mostly in the form of a teacher’s log; the comedy writer Frank Muir called it “the funniest and perhaps the truest story about running a school that I ever have read.” As a result, Carr had a cult following, but no mainstream success until A Month in the Country.

Fame didn’t change him. He remained in Kettering, Northamptonshire, publishing books at Quince Tree Press, which is now headed by his son, Bob Carr. The author died in 1994 of leukemia, at age 81.

His biographer Byron Rogers described his visit to Carr’s deathbed as “uneasy bonhomie on my part, and silence and watchfulness on his.” Then he adds, “Though the irony is that most conversations with Jim Carr had been like that.”


The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten 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 is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events. The website also has additional articles about J.L. Carr and other information on the Oct. 19 discussion.


Firth and Branagh in the celebrated and long-lost film.

Katharina Mommsen, still killing it at 90: “Goethe keeps me going.”

Saturday, September 19th, 2015
Palo Alto, CA.,--September 16, 2015--Professor Katharina Mommsen at home in Palo Alto

A birthday photo a few days ago at her Palo Alto home. (Photo: Norbert von der Groeben)

Happy birthday to a Stanford legend, who turns 90 today! Katharina Mommsen, the world renowned scholar of the great genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is not slowing down one bit. “She is still plugging away fourteen hour days on the ‘monster’ international project of dozens of volume on the genesis of the works of Goethe,” according to her colleague, Gerald Gillespie, an emeritus professor of German and Comparative Lit at Stanford. Inspiring? That’s putting it mildly. There’s much to learn from this lady, and not just about Goethe.

“What keeps me going?  The question is as simple as the answer and, I think, self-evident. Goethe keeps me going,” she told me. “The love of his art, and all art, is what keeps me going and always will. This essential inspiration is there for everybody.”

Taken in.

He keeps her going.

In short, she has no elixir she is about to patent. “I have no secret source of life that is not freely available to all, but one has to know how to grasp and embrace it,” she said. “Not everybody does.”

Life has taught her tenacity and resilience in other ways. Katharina and her late husband Momme Mommsen, a former conductor and fellow Goethe scholar, left prestigious research positions at the German Academy of Sciences in East Berlin when the Wall went up in 1961. They fled their homeland for the peripatetic life of the scholar, pursuing professorships, visiting and regular, in West Germany, Canada, and the U.S., finally settling at Stanford in 1974. Katharina accepted a position in German Studies and eventually held the Albert Guerard Endowed Chair for Literature.

An intimate birthday celebration will be held at her home with friends, colleagues, and students. The highlight of the afternoon will surely be this: the Consul General is coming down from San Francisco to bestow on her Germany’s highest honor for a lifetime of cultural service. Few people deserve it more.

Back to the “monster” international project: Gillespie describes it as “the dream shared with her husband Momme to restore the colossal project of a series on the genesis of works by the poet and polymath,” an effort called Die Entstehung von Goethes Werken in Dokumenten. “To implement this grand design, for coordinating the efforts of many scholars globally, Katharina established the Momme Foundation for the Advancement of Goethe Research in the millennial year 2000, an American educational charity that collaborates especially through the Weimar Goethe Archive and other institutions.”


The Divan of Hafiz … was Goethe a kindred spirit?

And so the effort has taken her well into the 21st century, but she remains undaunted in the era of Pinterest and Twitter. “It’s surely true that times change and that we live in a different – digital – age,” she said. “But nothing about the age in which we live changes the transcendence of art. Bach will always be Bach. Nothing about a changing world, now or in the future, will ever alter this essence of life.”

Among the many gems by Katharina, Gillespie recommended in particular “her deep, sensitive study of the powerful friendship between the universal poet and the younger idealist Schiller in Kein Rettungsmittel als die Liebe: Schillers und Goethes Buendnis im Spiegel ihrer Dichtungen, a case of genuine, respectful  ‘romantic’ love between two creative spirits.”

“There is so much richness to appreciate in Katharina Mommsen’s life of devotion to German literature, but right after this celebratory pause, all her fans know she will be back at her desk coping with the next task.”

Perhaps Mommsen is best known, however, for her longstanding fascination with Goethe’s Islamic interests. In 1960, she published Goethe und 1001 Nacht, a revision of her dissertation at the University of Tübingen. Later, she published a study of Goethe’s motifs from Scheherazade’s tales in the classical Walgurgnisnacht and Helena scenes of Faust. She received praise for 1988’s Goethe und die arabische Welt as well.

“Goethe was enthralled by what we would call today the Islamic world. I write about these questions in my book Goethe and the Poets of Arabia (Camden House, 2014). But Goethe was fascinated from the beginning by the art and culture of the entire region, whether as a child by the stories from A Thousand and One Nights, or later by pre-Islamic Bedouin poetry, by Hafiz and other Persian poets, or by the poets of ‘Arabia’ as well as by those of Turkey.”

“Goethe grasped the simple truth, at a time when not everyone did, that art is universal.”

Robert Pogue Harrison: the “single most significant writer in the humanities today”?

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Singled out for praise. Here’s Robert Harrison on the bucolic Stanford grounds in a recent photo.

Is Robert Pogue Harrison the “single most significant writer in the humanities today”? I expect there’s lots of competition for the title, but one writer casts his vote in the current issue of the Southern Humanities ReviewWe’ve written about Robert so many times that I can’t list them all, but you could start here and here and here and here.

David W. Price builds his case on Robert’s most recent book, Juvenescence, but not only. He points out that the author “developed a particular style of writing that takes readers on a journey through time, tracing a particular concept or trope as it manifests itself in a wide array of literary and philosophical works” – and he recalls that the same approach winds through three of his previous books, too: Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, The Dominion of the Dead, and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition.

juvenescence“In each of his books, Harrison demonstrates that responses to the most fundamental human questions often appear in the most unlikely places and that it takes a formidable intellect and an Auerbach-like memory to be able to discern a particular thread that runs through the tradition.”

Price flags a part of the book that caught my eye, too, especially since Robert has  expressed some of the same thoughts elsewhere (try here):

Invoking Benjamin, he points out that “the newness that constant change brings into the world does not replace the ruins, rather, . . . it merely adds to the rubble.” For Harrison, real education involves immersing students in history and allowing them to hear “the dead speak in their own untimely voices.” Such an education appears increasingly hard to come by. Harrison argues that our current age “has declared all-out war on the dark continent of inwardness, silence, and attention, of the self in its wholeness wholly attending.” Those devices that miniaturize the world on a screen and enthrall us actually inhibit our maturation, claims Harrison. “[F]or some reason,” he writes, “the age demands that we remain at all times connected to the Borg collective, that we join its hive and hear inside our heads not the call of world renewal but the incessant drone that fills the network of globalized interconnection.” Harrison’s observations here give us pause, especially any of us who work within the broad field of education.

Price’s encomium includes a sort of prophecy: “In the not too distant future, there will be a book written on the works of Robert Pogue Harrison, and that author will surely note that at the heart of Harrison’s critical consciousness one finds his careful reading and profound understanding of the philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Just as Vico’s New Science grounded Harrison’s understanding of the relation between civilization and nature in his book Forests, the eccentric Italian’s philosophy orients Harrison’s understanding of the youthful nature of our current world.”

It’s all online. Read the whole thing here.


Remembering Network: could we bring Chayefsky back for a sequel?

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

Peter Finch won an Oscar for his performance as the news anchor Howard Beale in “Network.”

Today, I read in the news that presidential candidates are hiring high-priced teams of experts to make them appear authentic.

I’ve never seen Robert Redford in 1972’s The Candidate, but perhaps we’ve bypassed the comparative innocence of that story for the nihilistic prophecy of 1976’s Network, about the media distortion of fantasy into our new “reality.” Can kids today even understand that there was a time before all this began? “Thirty-five years later, Network remains an incendiary if influential film, and its screenplay is still admired as much for its predictive accuracy as for its vehemence: a relentless sense of purpose,” wrote Dave Itzkoff in the New York Times in 2011. Film critic Devin Faraci wrote last year: “In 1976 this was broad and crazy; in 2014 it feels like the world in which we live. The big difference is that the internet has taken the place of the TV networks. Very little in Network still reads as obvious satire.”


Faye Dunaway in her Oscar-winning performance.

Aaron Sorkin cited scriptwriter Paddy Chayefsky when he accepted his Oscar for the screenplay of The Social Network, and wrote that “no predictor of the future — not even Orwell — has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network. ”

Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report, said that Howard Beale, the fictional news anchor who goes off his rocker, “is a precursor of people who are telling you how you feel. Not just the nighttime people that I’m sort of a parody of, not just the opinion-making people, but even what is left of straight news.” Telling you what you feel … or arranging “spontaneous” reactions, or creating authenticity with authenticity experts.

Network was the dark vision of screenwriter Chayefsky (1923-81) who won an Oscar for his searing, outraged, and excellent script. Itzkoff, a few years ago, was digging through’s his archive, acquired by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and said the papers “speak loudly for their absent author, documenting the angst and animus that consumed him on this highly personal project.” Network was the intelligent and witty expression of that rage, and Itzkoff described the progress of his scriptwriting, which earned him one of his several Academy Awards:


Chayefsky in the 1970s. Bettman/Corbis

Chayefsky seemed to sense an absurdist tone creeping in. “All this is Strangelove-y as hell,” he wrote. “Can we make it work?”

He was closing in on his central characters: Beale, the crumbling, suicidal anchor; Max Schumacher, the dispirited news division president; and Diana Christensen, the executive who is both Schumacher’s adversary and love interest. Yet Chayefsky appeared concerned that a thesis, any thesis, was eluding him, and his story was becoming increasingly nihilistic. … he confessed to himself, “I guess what bothers me is that the picture seems to have no ultimate statement beyond the idea that a network would kill for ratings, and even that doesn’t mesh with the love story.”

There’s even a book about Network – written a few years later by (you guessed it) Dave Itzkoff. It’s called Mad As Hell: The Making of Network And The Fateful Vision Of The Angriest Man In Movies (Macmillan). Faraci was writing on the occasion of it’s publication. “So much of Chayefsky’s vision – what made it on screen and what never made it off the page – was prophetic. He truly saw where it was all going; early chapters of the book have Chayefsky, who got his start writing for TV, raging against how that medium had become debased, stupid and pandering. Everything he says about TV – the way it flatters the viewer, the ways it stultifies and the way it overmagnifies minor things – is absolutely applicable to the age of Buzzfeed. Chayefsky saw our downward slope, the one we’re still on.”

network4Sorkin called it “a devastating media-industry critique — one whose author never saw television devolve into a vast wasteland of reality programming and political partisanship, but who after 35 years is still shouting just as loudly about the dangers of crass, pandering content.”

“If you put it in your DVD player today you’ll feel like it was written last week,” he said. “The commoditization of the news and the devaluing of truth are just a part of our way of life now. You wish Chayefsky could come back to life long enough to write The Internet.”

Everyone makes a big deal of the “I’m mad as hell” speech, but I think I like this one better:

“Television is not the truth. Television is a god-damned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, story tellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business. … We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds.  We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the Tube tells you. You dress like the Tube. You eat like the Tube. You raise your children like the Tube. You even think like the Tube. This is mass madness! You maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing. We are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I’m speaking to you now. Turn them off!”

Here’s the youtube clip. Take two aspirin, and play it regularly throughout the election season.


Tobias Wolff at the White House for the National Medal of Arts!

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

“A social act, in solitude.” (Screenshot from the White House)

“Time, which is your enemy in almost everything in this life, is your friend in writing,” Tobias Wolff once wrote. It certainly seems to be the case for him: he just bagged one of the top awards in America, a few short months after his formal retirement!

Toby was at the White House today, where President Obama awarded him the National Medal of the Arts, the nation’s highest honor for writers, artists, and art patrons.  Who could deserve it more? He has been a generous mentor and guiding spirit to so many at Stanford and beyond – and I, personally, am grateful for many kindnesses. And that’s before we’ve even gotten to his novels, memoirs, and collections of short stories! Oh, and the articles, most recently in The New Yorker – I wrote about one of them here. The Book Haven has written about him here and here and here and here. And he was on the Colbert Report here.

medal_big-revA video of the White House award is on youtube here. According to the citation, “With wit and compassion, Mr. Wolff’s work reflects the truths of our human experience.” Well, others have put it better. Wyatt Mason wrote in the London Review of Books, “Typically, his protagonists face an acute moral dilemma, unable to reconcile what they know to be true with what they feel to be true. Duplicity is their great failing, and Wolff’s main theme.”

Here’s what Toby himself said on the occasion of his glory: “Every award is special to me, as a reminder that the work you perform in solitude is also a social act – that you’re not just talking to yourself, that what you do can stir a response in others. It’s easy to forget that, when you spend your hours sweating over the choice of a word, taking semicolons out and putting them back in. But of course I’m not so jaded as not to feel particular gratitude at receiving this award from the hands of our president – a man I greatly admire.”

It’s not his first award by a longshot. By my reckoning, that would be way back in 1981, when Toby received the O. Henry Award for “In the Garden of North American Martyrs,” and the following year for “Next Door.” He won the same award a third time, in 1985, for “Sister.” The same year he won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for The Barracks Thief. 1989 brought two more awards: a Whiting Award for Fiction and Nonfiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Biography for This Boy’s Life. In 1989, was awarded the Rea Award for the Short Story. In 2006, he won the PEN/Malamud Award. In 2008, he was awarded The Story Prize for the Our Story Begins: New and Collected Stories. That’s a lot of awards. (And his film adaptations are another kind of accolade – This Boy’s Life became a feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Ellen Barkin; in 2001, his short story “Bullet in the Brain” was made into a short film.)

What can we say besides … Congratulations, Toby! So much has been said about him, and I’ve written about him so much myself – in addition to the links above, here and here and here and here. And on one of his birthdays, I reprinted some of his excellent words about being a writer – it’s here. But I never really thought of him as epigrammatic, until I found these passages in the course of an online search. So I share them, in the spirit of celebration:


Presiding over Another Look book club last spring. (Photo: David Schwartz)

“The beauty of a fragment is that it still supports the hope of brilliant completeness.”

“Lose Faith. Pray anyway. Persist. We are made to persist, to complete the whole tour. That’s how we find out who we are.”

“Fearlessness in those without power is maddening to those who have it.”

“Knowing that everything comes to an end is a gift of experience, a consolation gift for knowing that we ourselves are coming to an end. Before we get it we live in a continuous present, and imagine the future as more of that present. Happiness is endless happiness, innocent of its own sure passing. Pain is endless pain.”

“When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters. We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever.”

“I have never been able to understand the complaint that a story is “depressing” because of its subject matter. What depresses me are stories that don’t seem to know these things go on, or hide them in resolute chipperness; “witty stories,” in which every problem is the occasion for a joke; “upbeat” stories that flog you with transcendence. Please. We’re grown ups now.”


With Stanford Humanities Center Director Caroline Winterer for Another Look book club. (Photo: David Schwartz)

“In the very act of writing I felt pleased with what I did. There was the pleasure of having words come to me, and the pleasure of ordering them, re-ordering them, weighing one against another. Pleasure also in the imagination of the story, the feeling that it could mean something. Mostly I was glad to find out that I could write at all. In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming. It toughens you and clears your head. I could feel it happening. I was saving my life with every word I wrote, and I knew it.”

“I was giving up – being realistic, as people liked to say, meaning the same thing. Being realistic made me feel bitter.”

“When your power comes from others, on approval, you are their slave. Never sacrifice yourselves – never! Whoever urges you to self-sacrifice is worse than a common murderer, who at least cuts your throat himself, without persuading YOU to do it.”

“Reasons always came with a purpose, to give the appearance of a struggle between principle and desire. Principle had power only until you found what you had to have.”

“The very act of writing assumes, to begin with, that someone cares to hear what you have to say. It assumes that people share, that people can be reached, that people can be touched and even in some cases changed. So many of the things in our world lead us to despair. It seems to me that the final symptom of despair is silence, and that storytelling is one of the sustaining arts; it’s one of the affirming arts. A writer may have a certain pessimism in his outlook, but the very act of being a writer seems to me to be an optimistic act.”

“Want! You must want something. What do you want?”

“There’s no right way to tell all stories, only the right way to tell a particular story.”