Writ on water: Regina Derieva in this week’s Times Literary Supplement

October 9th, 2014
Share

derieva4I’ve written about the Russian poet Regina Derieva since her death last Decemberhere and here.  According to our mutual friend, the prominent Swedish author Bengt Jangfeldt, she was a poet “who in her best poems achieved that true metaphysical quality which, according to T.S. Eliot, is the alloy of thought and poetry at a very high temperature.” I have been fascinated by this utterly unique and uncompromising poetic voice since I learned of the poet’s existence, a few days after her death, from her husband. Now I am thrilled to announce that her papers have come to Stanford. I tell the story in this week’s Times Literary Supplement:

The Russian poet Regina Derieva was born on the Black Sea in Odessa, and enjoyed the shifting rhythms of the sea: “Water is the ideal apparel. However many times you get into it, it’s the same”. Her passion for water was shared by her epistolary friend, Joseph Brodsky, who grew up alongside St Petersburg’s canals and spent as much time as he could in Venice, where he is buried on the cemetery island of San Michele. Derieva, whom Brodsky called “a great poet”, viewed a very different landscape, however: from the age of six, she lived obscurely in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, “perhaps the most dismal corner of the former Soviet Union – once the centre of a vast prison camp universe, later just a gloomy industrial city”, according to the distinguished Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. For him, Derieva’s precise, epigrammatic poems limn “the concentration camp zone, where space is turned into emptiness, and time turned into disappearance”.

A few days after Derieva’s sudden death last December at the age of sixty-four, I received a letter from her husband, Alexander Deriev, and our ensuing correspondence eventually led to the Stanford Libraries’ acquisition of this astonishing poet’s archive. A single cardboard box postmarked Märsta, Sweden, is all that remains of a long and productive literary life, augmented by a few files of unpublished manuscripts, photographs, letters and drawings Deriev brought with him to California in his backpack.

There is a reason for the paucity of papers in a lifetime that should have left a mountain of them. Derieva’s life encompassed the upheavals of the past century, but she added an idiosyncratic twist: at each fork in the road, this outcast among outcasts made a choice – and that choice, or as often necessity, took her even farther from the pack.

I’ll have more about her in future posts – but meanwhile, please read the rest of the story in the TLS here.

Tomas Venclova: the future of the Balts and a “cowardly Leningrad hooligan”

October 8th, 2014
Share
t.venclova

An optimist … but a particular kind of optimist…

My friend Ramūnas Katilius, who died on Sunday, is still much on my mind. Last March, the physicist and Soviet-era dissident had written to me of his concern about Russian incursions into Ukraine, but added, “Here in Lithuania, however, we feel rather secure, as we are in NATO and our borders are patrolled by international NATO forces, and NATO jet fighters controlling the air space – actually at this time its USA F15s that are doing the job, with six more fighters arriving to Shiauliai air base just today.”

That was some months ago, and I’m a pessimist. I’m on my way today to the Hoover Institution, where I will be live-tweeting a talk by the former president of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who will be giving a keynote address, “Against All Odds: The Path of the Baltic States to the EU and NATO,” in conjunction with the 3-day conference “War, Revolution, and Freedom: The Baltic Countries in the Twentieth Century.”

I’m a pessimist, but the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, who is also a prominent Soviet-era dissident and human rights activist, is not. He was in the Russian press a few days ago here, and earlier in the Gazeta Wyborcza here. (Please make allowances for your humble and inadequate translator.)

“Putin has demonstrated that he is willing to do anything to intimidate others, but in fact he is more rational dictator than many others, and carefully calculates what he actually does, depending on the costs and benefits,” he said.

Can we expect bombs on Vilnius? Tomas thinks not. “I believe that Putin, in the depths of spirit, is a  cowardly Leningrad hooligan who won’t do that, because he knows that then he would die, and lose his children, his money, along with the rest of that nice life that he leads.”

“He goes crazy, and the world fears him, thinking he is a gentleman in the spirit of Hitler. But Putin is a more rational dictator. I do not like spreading defeatist sentiment – that the West is powerless and venal, and that Putin is doing what he pleases, and that here we have a third or fourth world war, which Putin, who is wiser and stronger, will win. This is stupid and facilitates Putin in his game.”

f15

An F15 … if, like me, you hadn’t a clue…

The journalist asked if the Russian regime finally gave up its “vegetarian diet,” using the poet Anna Akhmatova term to describe the Soviet Union’s less warlike moments. Said Tomas: “I wrote a poem about it. A little style in the style of Cavafy or Milosz … Yes, the monster is putting out his tentacles again, although I’m called a historical optimist – I think that everything will end well. Mr. Putin appears to be unpredictable, but he only uses this to enhance his alleged unpredictability.”

Tomas elucidated his philosophy to me in an email a few months ago, as I was fretting about the state of the world, as I am wont: “I’m a so-called historical optimist and do not think jihadists, Mr. Putin or whoever of that kind would prevail in the final account.” Then he defined his terms:  “Historical optimist can be defined as a person who says: ‘All will end well, but I will not see it.’ One Ukrainian writer defined himself as an apocalyptic optimist – a person who says: ‘All will end well, but nobody in the world will see it.’”

Requiescat in pace, Ramūnas Katilius, 1935-2014

October 6th, 2014
Share
katilius

(Photo R.R. Katilius)

Normally, I don’t hang with many award-winning physicists, but the distinguished Lithuanian scientist Ramūnas Katilius was an exception, in that as well as many other things. Our association began with our mutual friend, the poet Tomas Venclova, who suggested – rather, insisted – that I meet the Katilius family during my 2011 swing through Vilnius, one of my favorite cities. It ended yesterday, when he died in his sleep in Vilnius. He would have been 80 next year.

Romas and his wife Elė were generous and hospitable during that 2011 visit – they laid out a splendid brunch for me and their son, the photographer, Ramūnas Jr., and the father gracefully insisted I allow his son to squire me about Lithuania. With  Justina Juozėnaitė of the Venclova Museum, the three of us toured the hidden corners of Lithuania associated with the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, finally ending at the poet’s birthplace in Šeteniai (we also had a long stopover in Kaunas – I wrote about that here). A day or too later, the three of us took an enchanting moonlight stroll through the Old Town. I wondered why the physicist and his wife didn’t join us on any of our adventures. I don’t know how I was able to overlook that my host was seriously disabled, thanks to a childhood bout with polio. In retrospect, I think he didn’t want me to notice, thinking it might dampen the pleasure of our meeting. He was magnanimous that way.

IMAG0148

Liejyklos street. (Photo: Moi)

Certainly the unforgettable moments of those magic days included the afternoon when Romas (père) brought out his collection of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s manuscripts, doodles, translations, notebooks, photos, sketches, letters, postcards, and more from their decades-long friendship, and placed it on my lap. I never thought I’d see the treasure again – but when Romas later made it clear he was looking for a permanent home for it, I recommended it to the Stanford Libraries. Now it is within a mile of my home. Well, I tell that story here, but also here and here and here.

Romas tells his own story about his long friendship with the Russian poet here.  Brodsky was having personal troubles in Petersburg after his rocky return from internal exile in Archangelsk. He called his friend Andrey Sergeyev daily to complain, using expressions like  “end of the world” or “it’s a total mess” – „конец света“,  „полный завал“).

“Let him come over here. We are all in a good mood here,” said the big-hearted Romas. So began a visit and a friendship, which featured a walk much like the one I had taken:

“Joseph stayed with us for about a week. What did we do in our, so to say, spare time, apart from listening to his poetry? We took long walks in the Old Town, in daytime and at night, often accompanied by some of our friends – Juozas Tumelis, Pranas Morkus, Virgilijus Čepaitis, Ina Vapšinskaitė, as well as my brother Audronis. Joseph made friends with them very quickly.

Katiliai

Ramūnas and Elė Katilius (Photo: Arūno Baltėno)

“The Liejyklos Street, where we lived, follows the ancient line of the city wall, so it only takes a leisurely stroll of 15 or 20 minutes to reach almost any place in the Old Town. And we did take advantage of our location. The nearest route started right around the corner and continued along St. Ignatius (Šv. Ignoto) Street, leading to the Dominican monastery, closed a long time ago. The monastery has an inner courtyard that can be reached only through the second floor of the building. The building was inhabited by ordinary people, and Joseph suddenly decided to try and rent a room there for a longer period, and even called at one of the flats. Someone opened the door, but, fortunately, there were no rooms for rent, and Joseph calmed down. Obviously, there was no way he could afford it.

“I also remember our walk along the same St. Ignatius Street one late evening. At the end of that street, turning to the courtyards opposite to the Dominican monastery, one could get on the roof of a corps de garde, a ward-house – a small building with columns, pertaining to a large palace ensemble, the architectural style of which is somewhat alien to the Old Town; it was built in the times of Russian Empire as a residence for the Governor-General (today the palace is used as the President’s office).”

I love Vilnius, and Romas tells a charming and insightful story with the city as its backdrop – I really shouldn’t attempt to excerpt it, especially since it replicates his somewhat uneven English; it’s easier to catch the rhythms of it when you read more than a couple paragraphs.

I remembered the warmth of our meetings, but not the limitations of Romas’s English (which is still far, far better than my Lithuanian) – so it was always a surprise when I telephoned him as his health was failing, and I would suddenly remember that our conversation would be a bit hampered without a translator to mediate. But a few phrases were clear as a bell. In particular, I remember the last phone call, which ended after I told him how I wished to return to Vilnius, and soon. “We will wait for you!” he promised.

***

katilius3

Ramūnas & Elė Katilius with son Ramūnas Jr. and Tomas Venclova in 1977. (Photo: M. Milchik)

Postscript: I didn’t realize that Romas and I had other mutual friends until I posted this on Facebook. Ilya Levin wrote: “I first met Romas and Elia in early 2008 when posted to the U.S. embassy and then was fortunate to enjoy their hospitality on many occasions during my subsequent visits to Vilnius. RIP.“ Anna Halberstadt recalled “he and Tomas were romantic figures for us in grade school – good-looking young dissidents.” Anna Verschik added, “I visited them every time I was in Vilnius. It was always a pleasure.”  This from Mikhail Iossel, Founding Director of the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius (and, incidentally, a former Stanford Stegner Fellow):

“This is sad news. He was a remarkably interesting and generous man. Uncommonly young at heart, as the saying would have it.

“I met him for the first time in the summer of 2009 (if memory serves me), via Ilya Levin. Along with Ilya and Anna Verschik, I went one evening to his and his joyfully hospitable wife’s small apartment on the outskirts of Vilnius, where the two of them, Ramunas and his wife, Elia, over the extended dinner and for several hours thereafter, proceeded to reminisce about the many years of his close friendship with Brodsky, begun with Tomas Venclova’s participation in late-1950s Leningrad and resulting (among other fortuitous developments) in the KGB-besieged, officialdom-hounded young Leningrad poet’s subsequent frequent trips and lengthy stays in Vilnius, at Ramunas’s old place on Liejyklos Street (where, in 1971, none too incidentally, the famous “Lithuanian Divertissement” was written). Numerous old, Soviet-style, heavy-duty folders were produced by the hosts, full of painstakingly collected and carefully preserved Brodsky’s handwritten notes and drafts of poems, quick pencil sketches and rather elaborate ink drawings. The love the man felt for his famous friend was brightly intense. [This collection is now at Stanford – ED]

“After our next meeting, in the Old Town apartment of a friend of mine, I asked Ramunas to visit our inaugural SLS-Lithuania program and tell our participants about the meaning of Lithuania in Brodsky’s life. He accepted the invitation on the spot, with much eagerness, the considerable difficulty with which he already walked by then notwithstanding.

“His talk was thorough and detailed and informed of the same genuine feeling of deep devotion to Brodsky’s memory. His polite, soft-spoken, English-speaking son served as the interpreter.

“A very good man indeed, noble of spirit and honest of heart and keen of mind. A true mensch.”

romas

Katilius, Brodsky, and Venclova: Together in Ushkova, near Leningrad, in 1972.

Calvino on writing impossible books…

October 3rd, 2014
Share

From The Guardian (read the whole thing here, and about the October 27 “Another Look” event on Calvino here):

“In a lecture delivered in New York in the spring of 1983, Italo Calvino remarked that ‘most of the books I have written and those I intend to write originate from the thought that it will be impossible for me to write a book of that kind: when I have convinced myself that such a book is completely beyond my capacities of temperament or skill, I sit down and start writing it.’”

.

02/01/1981. Italo Calvino, Italian writer.

“Another Look” book club goes out of this world with Calvino’s Cosmicomics

September 30th, 2014
Share
14

Helping matter talk

We’re rolling into fall, which means we’re launching into the third season of Stanford’s “Another Look” book club. No surprise to Book Haven readers that the book is Italo Calvino‘s Cosmicomics – given recent posts about Calvino here and here. My article in Stanford Report today:

“Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.” So begins the improbable tale of a man in love with the moon, and the woman in love with him, at a time when the moon was so close to the earth you could …

Wait a minute. The moon, at the dawn of time when it was closest to the earth, was still at least 12,000 miles away. Too long for any ladder. Clearly, Italo Calvino (1923-1985) one of the greatest European writers of the last century, took a mountain of artistic license when he published his science-based fantasies, Cosmicomics, in 1965. But for the generations of readers swept away with the wit and magic of these loosely linked stories, that’s part of the fun.

Cosmicomics will be discussed at the popular “Another Look” book club, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 27, at Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center. Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, will moderate the panel, with award-winning novelist Tobias Wolff, the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor, and literary journalist and visiting scholar Cynthia Haven, who blogs at The Book Haven.

Harrison hosts the radio talk show “Entitled Opinions” and contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. The event launches the third year of “Another Look,” founded by the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English.  The event is free and open to the public.

Cosmicomics will be fêted on the eve of the launch of the Stanford Arts Institute’s year-long program of events, “Imagining the Universe.”  It’s entirely apropos; no author did a better job of imagining the universe than Calvino did. As Calvino wrote in a letter, “Man is simply the best chance we know of that matter has had of providing itself with information about itself” – and he took it upon himself to do so.

Consider dreamy passages such as this one from the same story, “The Distance of the Moon”: “When she was full – nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light – it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there.”

Each story begins with a passage from the science of the time, and follows with a tale told by a chatty, avuncular fellow named Qfwfq. We hear eyewitness accounts of the big bang, the first radiations of the sun, the advent of color. But we never know exactly what Qfwfq is – sometimes an atom, sometimes a mollusk, sometimes the last dinosaur, sometimes an undefined inhabitant of the nebulae.

cosmicomicsHarrison reminds us that the stories, fantasy notwithstanding, never stray far from the Italy of Calvino’s day.  In the postwar years of the 1950s and 1960s, Italy’s largely agrarian society went through rapid industrialization and dramatic modernization, as people migrated to the swelling cities.  Consequently, the 12 stories are suffused with longing and loss, the pull of the past as well as aspiration for the future.  (A Q&A with Harrison is here.)

Calvino loved the genre he created so much that he went on to create several more volumes of Cosmicomics, which have recently been republished as The Complete Cosmicomics. “Another Look” considers only the original 153-page volume, which some consider Calvino’s finest work.

Harrison explained why he picked the stories for the Stanford-based community book club this way: “I like them because of their imaginative vitality and flair. I thought it would be a book of the sort that hardly anyone in the group would have read. Frankly, I find that Anglo-American fiction, which is a great tradition, is far too dominated by the genres of realism, with its lifelike characters, plots, setting, and so forth. From that point of view, Cosmicomics completely scrambles the readers’ expectations.”

He added that “in so many different areas of the sciences, the forces of evolution are more and more being brought in as an explanatory mechanism for understanding anything that is under investigation. The force of evolution, the anthropomorphic imagination that you have in these stories, along with the sheer charm of the book – that’s why I chose it.”

Wolff agreed. “Cosmicomics – like all of Calvino’s work – is brilliant and unconventional, permitting itself an almost reckless freedom of imagination,” he said. “It may puzzle some readers, refusing as it does to entice us with recognizable, ‘realistic’ situations and characters, but I trust that puzzlement will turn to delight as Calvino’s wit and sense of intelligent play begin to disarm us. This is a thoroughly original piece of work, and rightly esteemed a classic.”

Cosmicomics will be available at the Stanford Bookstore, at Kepler’s in Menlo Park and at Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.

***

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 Bay Area readers with limited free time. Registration at the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.

.

Fran Lebowitz: “I could write in my own blood without hurting myself.”

September 27th, 2014
Share
Christopher Macsurak

Funny lady – but funny ha ha or funny peculiar? (Photo: Christopher Macsurak)

Fran Lebowitz popped up on the international radar with Metropolitan Life in 1978. I know. I reviewed it for the Fleet Street rag I was working for at the time. I wondered then whether she’d have a following outside New York – I wasn’t sure how many people outside Manhattan would find such lines as “There is no such thing as inner peace. There is only nervousness and death” to be funny. She seems to have found an audience nonetheless, though her books have been few. She complains of “writer’s blockade.” A few days ago I noted how The Paris Review always asks about writers’ working habits. Well, here’s how she responded in the famous journal when, in 1993, she was asked how she writes:

Lebowitz: A Bic pen. I’m such a slow writer I have no need for anything as fast as a word processor. I don’t need anything so snappy. I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself. I think if there were no such thing as men, there would be no word processors. Male writers like them because they have this sneaking suspicion that writing is not the most masculine profession. This is why you have so much idiotic behavior among male writers. There are more male writers who own guns than any other profession except police officers. They like machines because it makes them seem more masculine. Well, I work on a machine. It’s almost as good as being a mechanic.

I have a real aversion to machines. I write with a pen. Then I read it to someone who writes it onto the computer. What are those computer letters made of anyway? Light? Too insubstantial. Paper, you can feel it. A pen. There’s a connection. A pen goes exactly at your speed, whereas that machine jumps. And then, that machine is waiting for you, just humming “uh-huh, yes?”

It reminds me of when a choreographer I know was creating a ballet. He was stuck, and he asked me to come help.

point-shoes

Skip the rehearsals.

I said, How could I help you choreograph a ballet?

He said, I’d like you to come and sit there while I’m doing it. You’re so judgmental I would find it helpful.

So I went to his studio several times while he was making the ballet. I saw the only job that was worse than writing. My idea of pure hell. The dancers sit there waiting for him to come up with something. It would be as if the letters were sitting there, or the words, smoking cigarettes, staring at you, as if to say, Well? OK, come on.

Plus they are paid by the minute. And a piano player is sitting there as well. Twenty-five people sitting in the room staring at you while you are thinking. I can’t believe anyone has ever made a ballet.

Interviewer: Were you expected to criticize what was going on?

Lebowitz: I was expected to sneer. I did sit there several afternoons in a row, kind of sneering. I don’t know why he needed me, because the dancers were doing that. They were finding it hard to mask their contempt, which was: why is it taking so long for him to think this up? Now, whenever I sit at the desk, I imagine the words sitting there sulking against the wall, waiting for me to think something up. He gave me such admiration for choreographers you can’t imagine. It’s just like the way I write a sentence. I write a sentence a thousand times, changing it all the time to look at it in different ways. He has to do that with living people. Human contact at its absolute worst. When people say certain choreographers are mean to their dancers, I think, Not mean enough! If I were a choreographer the thing I would most need would be a gun. Every time someone gave you one of those looks, you could just shoot them..

Read the rest here.

.
Not all of us have been tortured by watching choreography in the making, but in an interview this month over at PaperMag here (in case you haven’t figured it out, this brand-new interview, not the 20-year-old one, is the reason for today’s musings), she explained a problem many Book Haven readers can relate to more readily:

books2

You see the problem.

I have made one bad real estate decision after another my entire life. Knowing this, I made a lot of effort to consult people who I believe to be intelligent in real estate. It made no difference. I made the worst decision of my life. Even if you’re moving to an apartment that turns out being OK, like last time, which was only four years ago, if you have 10,000 books, it’s a difficult undertaking. The more that you mention this to people, even if people know about it, the more you are criticized for having 10,000 books. I finally said to somebody the other day, “You know what? They are books. It’s not like I am running an opium den for children. There’s nothing wrong with that – you may not want to have that, you may think that’s crazy, but you cannot have a moral objection to this.” Even real estate agents would say to me, “If you got rid of the books, you wouldn’t need such a big apartment.” And I would say, “Yes that’s true, but what if I had four children? Would you say, ‘Why don’t you put them in storage, because you can’t really afford an apartment for them?’” Basically my whole life, I’ve paid for these books. Buying them is nothing, but housing them is hard because they need a giant apartment. People say, “Why do you need such a big apartment – do you throw a lot of parties?” No. It’s for the books. I believe books to be the perfect companion. They’re very good-looking, they’re there when you need them, but it’s not just the books. It’s where they live, which is in bookcases with glass doors. I only put them in cases with glass doors because dust is very bad for books.

But what did Leszek Kołakowski really mean?

September 25th, 2014
Share
kolakowski

They didn’t get it. (Photo: Piotr Wojcik)

“The seductively suggestive title of Kołakowski’s talk was ‘The Devil in History.’ For a while there was silence as students, faculty, and visitors listened intently. Kołakowski’s writings were well known to many of those present and his penchant for irony and close reasoning was familiar. But even so, the audience was clearly having trouble following his argument. Try as they would, they could not decode the metaphor. An air of bewildered mystification started to fall across the auditorium. And then, about a third of the way through, my neighbor—Timothy Garton Ash—leaned across. ‘I’ve got it,’ he whispered. ‘He really is talking about the Devil.’ And so he was.”

– From Tony Judt‘s “Leszek Kołakowski (1927–2009)” in the NYRB (hat tip to Artur Sebastian Rosman)

.

New feather in Marjorie Perloff’s cap, and a few words about making literature “useful.”

September 24th, 2014
Share
Marjorie Perloff

Undiminished

A new feather for Stanford’s Marjorie Perloff: the influential critic is the 2014 recipient of Washington University’s International Humanities Medal.  The award honors humanistic endeavors in scholarship, journalism, literature, or the arts that have made a difference in the world. Past winners include Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in 2006; journalist Michael Pollan in 2008; novelist and nonfiction writer Francine Prose in 2010, and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns in 2012. You can read more about Perloff on the Stanford website here.

She will receive the medal during a ceremony on October 22 at Washington University in St. Louis. The news is on the website of the University of Southern California, where Perloff is Florence R. Scott Professor of English Emerita at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences – here.

Perloff is the author of 16 books and hundreds of articles, and “will be honored for her outstanding body of work, and for her impact on both the discipline of literary criticism and the landscape of contemporary poetry,” according to the website.

FeatherBut the occasion gave Perloff an opportunity to say some welcome words about the humanities, and literature in particular: “One of the difficulties facing the humanities is the tendency to justify everything now by saying it must be ‘useful,’

 ” she said.

“I don’t think studying literature needs any justification,” she said. “It’s simply one of the great arenas of human endeavor and has been from ancient times to the present. The study of literature literally transforms your life, opening up to you other worlds outside your own narrow one. It enhances your sense of the richness of life and its fascinating complexity: Indeed, it is life, in another form. To have no familiarity with the great literary texts is to lead a diminished life.”

***

Hugo

Author, author! No, not me–him.

In other news, the modest fame of the Book Haven continues to spread – this time to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which gave us a shout-out in an article about upcoming production of Les Misérables at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater. In a recitation of the events of the 1832 failed uprising, it quoted from “Stanford University’s Cynthia Haven in her fun, informative blog post ‘Enjoy ‘Les Misérables.’ But please get the history straight.’” It sounds like a great production, if you’re in the area. Read the whole article here.

Humble Moi seems to have become some sort of citable expert on Les Misérables and Victor Hugo, what with our recent Stanford talk on the subject here, and other posts here and here and and here, and the original post here, which currently has 99 comments, a Book Haven record. That means you have the opportunity to make the 100th comment, if you act quickly. We’ll give you a shout-out, too.

Sufficiency

Postscript on 9/25: Congratulations, Linda McCoy! You made the 100th post on ‘Enjoy ‘Les Misérables.’ But please get the history straight.’” You had only a few minutes to enjoy the honor before I found an earlier comment from you in the spam folder. So you have the 98th and 101st comments now, technically speaking – but we’re calling it for you. You won by a hair! So here’s a little champers to celebrate. My favorite. Veuve Clicquot. Enjoy.

Italo Calvino answers the question: “Are novelists liars?”

September 22nd, 2014
Share
calvino

“a matter of mental mechanisms…”

Someone said the Paris Review interviews are more addictive than crack. I’m not sure I disagree. Here’s a case in point: the eminent journal published a collage of interviews with Italo Calvino posthumously, in 1992. We wrote about Calvino a few days ago here, but I couldn’t resist publishing a few highlights from the Paris Review. (Read the whole thing here.)

One question that always gets asked in the Paris Review concerns the writer’s method of work, in this case, the physical act of writing. I think these responses always appeal to writers, though I always wonder if these queries aren’t a crashing bore to people who are insurance actuaries or window-washers. I don’t suppose they read the Paris Review anyway, but the line of questioning may be a deterrent. Well, I’m going to chase the actuaries away, too. Here’s how Calvino responded:

“I write by hand, making many, many corrections. I would say I cross out more than I write. I have to hunt for words when I speak, and I have the same difficulty when writing. Then I make a number of additions, interpolations, that I write in a very tiny hand. There comes a moment when I myself can’t read my handwriting, so I use a magnifying glass to figure out what I’ve written. I have two different handwritings. One is large with fairly big letters—the os and as have a big hole in the center. This is the hand I use when I’m copying or when I’m rather sure of what I’m writing. My other hand corresponds to a less confident mental state and is very small—the os are like dots. This is very hard to decipher, even for me.

“My pages are always covered with canceling lines and revisions. There was a time when I made a number of handwritten drafts. Now, after the first draft, written by hand and completely scrawled over, I start typing it out, deciphering as I go. When I finally reread the typescript, I discover an entirely different text that I often revise further. Then I make more corrections. On each page I try first to make my corrections with a typewriter; I then correct some more by hand. Often the page becomes so unreadable that I type it over a second time. I envy those writers who can proceed without correcting.”

calvino-spidersIn the postwar years, Calvino began to work on his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders: “Then I began to write novels. It is a matter of mental mechanisms. If one gets used to translating into a novel one’s experiences, one’s ideas, what one has to say becomes a novel; one is left with no raw materials for another form of literary expression. My way of writing prose is rather closer to the way a poet composes a poem. I am not a novelist who writes long novels. I concentrate an idea or an experience into a short synthetic text that goes side by side with other texts to form a series. I pay particular attention to expressions and words both with regard to their rhythms, their sounds, and the images they evoke.”

Joseph Brodsky once said that the only thing poetry and politics have in common are the letters “p” and “o”. For a long time, Calvino didn’t agree, but he came around in his own time, in his own way: “The idea of putting literature in second place, after politics, is an enormous mistake, because politics almost never achieves its ideals. Literature, on the other hand, in its own field can achieve something and in the very long run can also have some practical effect. By now I have come to believe that important things are achieved only through very slow processes.”

calvino-wintersI was rather charmed by a short transcript included in the collage, Calvino’s “Thoughts Before an Interview” – perhaps because, as a journalist, I’m usually on the other side of the microphone. Calvino again: “this afternoon . . . the interviewers . . . I do not know if I will have the time to prepare. I could try to improvise but I believe an interview needs to be prepared ahead of time to sound spontaneous. Rarely does an interviewer ask questions you did not expect. I have given a lot of interviews and I have concluded that the questions always look alike. I could always give the same answers. But I believe I have to change my answers because with each interview something has changed either inside myself or in the world. An answer that was right the first time may not be right again the second. This could be the basis of a book. I am given a list of questions, always the same; every chapter would contain the answers I would give at different times. The changes would contain the answers I would give at different times. The changes would then become the itinerary, the story that the protagonist lives. Perhaps in this way I could discover some truths about myself.”

And yet… and yet… I can’t believe Calvino was asked this before: “Are novelists liars? And if they are not, what kind of truth do they tell?” Calvino’s answer:

Novelists tell that piece of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie. To a psychoanalyst it is not so important whether you tell the truth or a lie because lies are as interesting, eloquent, and revealing as any claimed truth.

I feel suspicious about writers who claim to tell the whole truth about themselves, about life, or about the world. I prefer to stay with the truths I find in writers who present themselves as the most bold-faced liars. My goal in writing If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a novel entirely based on fantasy, was to find in this way a truth that I would have not been able to find otherwise.

Orwell Watch #26: “And who’s he when he’s at home?” New names for terrorist organizations.

September 21st, 2014
Share
Caravaggio

Not laughing.

I learned in one of my Chinese classes at the University of Michigan – was it philosophy before the Han Dynasty? Or the survey of Chinese poetry? – how important names were in ancient Chinese culture, a mystical forecasting the destiny and inner traits of the child. I learned from Robert Alter that when the angels told Abraham he would have a son with Sarah, he fell on the floor laughing (and his wife laughed, too, a little more discreetly). After all, he was 100 and she 90 years old. Hence, their child was named Isaac, a transliteration of the Hebrew term Yiṣḥāq which literally means “He laughs/will laugh.” Names meant something back in those days.

Today’s Middle Eastern world doesn’t quite have the hang of this custom, for the new group of thugs terrorizing the region re-baptize themselves every other day – first ISIS, then ISIL, then IS, then the Islamic Caliphate.  Who can keep track of it all?  Apparently, they are unhappy with the monikers, discarding them one after another, like a 16-year-old Valley Girl trying on jeans in an Abercrombie and Fitch fitting room. May I join the party and do the same? I think I need a new title, too. From now on, I think I shall call myself the Pearly Queen, and you are all the Book Haven’s subjects (don’t applaud, just throw money). It seems the perfect moment to renew our long-lapsed Orwell Watch, in this case for the abusive manipulation of language for political ends.

pearly2

The new me.

The Associated Press desperately tried to get on top of the history, not realizing that the terrorists were making it up as they go along – each name more grandiose, promising more legitimacy than the previous one: “In July, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced its rebranding. He declared that the territory under his control would be part of a caliphate, or an Islamic state, shortening its name from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL — the acronym used by the Obama administration and the British Foreign Office to this day. The Levant can refer to all countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt.” The story added: “The inconsistency, while confusing for some, has not deterred the group’s growing exposure on social media, with so many hashtags, posts and tweets ultimately directing readers and viewers to their news.”

Anyway, “Vive la France!” France has always been a nation that takes its language seriously. So seriously, in fact, that Académie Française was established in 1635 to adjudicate the usages, vocabulary, and grammar of the French language, and to publish an official dictionary of the French language. Since then, they have been doing their best to drive out foreign incursions into their Larousse, fiercely rejecting neologisms and Americanisms such as “drugstore,” “cookies,” and “weekend.” The French diet became so dire that in recent decades America had to send them CARE packages with new words in them, parachuting the boxes past the Académie Française gunners.

Such a persnickety people are not going to fall over themselves trying to accommodate terrorists – at least not when it comes to language. According to the Huffington Post here:

The French foreign ministry released a statement earlier this week referencing the Islamic State group as “Daesh.” The new moniker is a transliteration of an acronym of the group’s Arabic name “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. It is also similar to the arabic word that means “to trample.”

care

And as a reward, we will send them some new words.

France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius explained that he views the organization as “a terrorist group, not a state.”

“I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it ‘Daesh,’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats,’” Fabius said, according to France 24.

Oh well, “to trample” is a good place to start. I wonder what the correct name for “to behead” or “to crucify” might be? (Fabius in the press conference referred to them as “butchers,” but apparently that name didn’t make the final cut.) Egypt had its own innovation: “Egypt’s top Islamic authority, Grand Mufti Ibrahim Negm, last month called on the international community to refer to the group as ‘al-Qaida separatists’ and not the Islamic State.” It doesn’t end there. In Britain, a group of Muslims in the UK has called on the government to call the group the “UnIslamic State.” How wet. Kind of like calling acetaminophen “non-aspirin.”

france

Aux armes, citoyens!

Here’s the bad news: the terrorist group is not happy with the French innovation. C’est dommage. According to the AP: “Several residents in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which fell to the extremist group in June, told The Associated Press that the militants threatened to cut the tongue of anyone who publicly used the acronym Daesh, instead of referring to the group by its full name, saying it shows defiance and disrespect. The residents spoke anonymously out of fear for their safety.”

If all of France uses it, ISIS/ISIL/Daesh/Whatever will have its work cut out for them – that’s 66.03 million people. In any case, the French are pros. They’ve been through the beheading thing before. Vive la France!

.


<<< Previous Series of PostssepNext Series of Posts >>>