One of the best books of the 20th century? Werner Herzog is coming to Stanford to talk about J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine

January 15th, 2016
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J.A. Baker wrote The Peregrine at a precarious moment in environmental history: By the 1960s, the falcons had almost vanished entirely from the English countryside, thanks to aggressive use of pesticides. Baker’s response, an ecstatic panegyric to peregrines, stunned critics with its originality, power and beauty.

The little-known 1967 masterpiece will be the subject of an onstage conversation with legendary film director Werner Herzog, who has said that The Peregrine is one of his favorite books.

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The young J.A. Baker, author of “The Peregrine.” (Photo courtesy Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex)

The Another Look book club event will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2. Free tickets have sold out; registration for the waiting list is offered through the Another Look book club’s website. The Peregrine is available at Stanford Bookstore and at Kepler’s in Menlo Park.

Herzog’s interlocutor will be Robert Harrison, an acclaimed author and Stanford’s Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular radio talk show Entitled Opinions. 

‘One of the finest pieces of prose’

Herzog has made edgy films about grizzly bears, prehistoric cave drawings in southern France, Rajput festivals, and more – but he also prides himself on his role as an author and screenwriter. The Peregrine is required reading in Herzog’s Rogue Film School, and he has called it one of the greatest books of the 20th century, praising “an intensity and beauty of prose that is unprecedented, it is one of the finest pieces of prose you can ever see anywhere.” [Read more here about what he’s said about the book. – ED]

The Peregrine, which received England’s prestigious Duff Cooper Prize, has no plot and no characters. Instead, Baker distills 10 years of observations into a single autumn-to-spring period, written as a diary. Baker’s passionate, unsparing descriptions of peregrine falcons in the fenlands of Essex convey the urgency of the historical moment:

“Before it is too late, I have tried to … convey the wonder of … a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa,” he wrote. By the spring of 1961, tens of thousands of birds were found littering the countryside, dead or dying in agony, along with other animals.

peregrine copyThe ecology movement has moved on to more global issues, but The Peregrine marks a point in history when the dangers were local and immediate. In that sense, it can be seen as a companion volume to Rachel Carson‘s book Silent Spring.

Some critics have attributed the elegiac tone to Baker’s own history. He had just been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and by 1969, when his second and last book was published, he was seriously incapacitated – just as Carson was mortally ill when she wrote Silent Spring.

Both Baker and his birds got a reprieve: The most lethal chemicals have been banned, and the peregrine population, once considered at risk of global extinction, has returned to levels not seen for centuries.

And Baker himself would live quietly until 1987, finally succumbing to the cancer that had resulted from the drugs prescribed for his condition.

‘Persist, endure, follow, watch’

In the days before Facebook, Twitter, selfies and Google searches, it was possible for a man to be little known outside his circle of friends. Privacy suited Baker, who was described as very reluctant to disclose anything about himself or his private views. In the years since his death, his trail has vaporized, leaving behind only his startling classic. A few details have become known in recent years.

Baker was born in Chelmsford in 1923, a son of the lower middle classes. His formal schooling ended at 16. He had no literary connections before the publication of his book. While initially said to be a librarian, he was in fact a manager of the local automobile association (though he couldn’t drive), and later a manager at a local depot of Britvic, a beverage company. He had a long and happy marriage.

Herzog

At the 2009 Venice Film Festival. (Photo: Nicolas Genin)

Sometime in his daily schedule, he found time to bike or hike to the Essex countryside, recording his observations in passages such as this one: “They had no song. Their calls were harsh and ugly. But their soaring was like an endless silent singing.” Baker became one of the most important nature writers of the last century.

“Baker’s legacy is real and lasting, evidenced in the fact that we’re still talking about it 50 years on, and cases like me are still trying to get inside his head,” wrote author and conservationist Conor Mark Jameson, who called the book “a love story of sorts.”

He noted that Baker “showed us how to relay feelings as well as bald records, how to write up notes, how to look, how to listen.

Experts then and now have challenged the accuracy of Baker’s observations, and a small controversy has erupted around the book – underscoring that this is an imaginative work as well as a personal record. But none challenge the mesmerizing beauty of his prose, which captures his despairing view of man and his own single-minded pursuit of the bird that obsessed him.

According to British naturalist and author Mark Cocker, “he drills down into the moment to haul back to the surface a prose that is astonishing for its inventiveness, yet also for its clarity and precision.”

Cocker added, “In fact if there is any criticism, it arises because there is so little down-time in the prose.”

Some have commented that The Peregrine is not so much about watching a bird, but is about becoming one: “Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms,” Baker wrote. “Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must become the thing he hunts. What is, is now, must have the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree. Yesterday is dim and monochrome. A week ago you were not born. Persist, endure, follow, watch.”

***

Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected have been Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces that people may not have read before. Visit the anotherlook.stanford.edu website for more details.

 

A typical cat-and-a-half? You decide.

January 13th, 2016
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A few days ago, we posted about the Siberian kitten named after poet Regina Derieva, and my dear friend Alexander Deriev referred to the occasion when the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova called her protégé, Joseph Brodsky, “a typical cat-and-a-half.” I’d never heard this before (though both poets identified strongly with cats), and the punctuation of the sentence seemed odd, so I did a little digging.

What I found was a very good article about the relationship of the two poets by their mutual friend, Anatoly Naiman in a 1999 issue of the London Review of Books. The relevant excerpt (and yes, it does have the odd punctuation):

akhmatova

From one cat…

What Derzhavin was to Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova was to Brodsky: the mentor who anointed him as the next great Russian poet. When Brodsky died, the journal Zvezda printed Akhmatova’s quatrain ‘I don’t weep for myself now’, with a new dedication to Brodsky in brackets. This is what Akhmatova used to call ‘popular wish-fulfilment’ – in other words, plain forgery. Akhmatova never dedicated a poem to Brodsky and the only excuse for thinking that ‘I don’t weep …’ might have been dedicated to him derives from the reference to ‘the golden stamp of failure’ – imagined by some to be a reference to his ginger hair.

Brodsky1988

…to another.

Certainly, ‘we’ – by which I mean a group of four young Leningrad poets that included Joseph and me – found our way to Akhmatova in her last years, and her relations with Brodsky were on a higher level than her relations with the rest of us. She already knew what rank of poet he was in 1964, and we didn’t. A quarter of a century later, his biographer, Valentina Polukhina, interviewed me on a bus journey from Nottingham to Stratford. I was sitting by the window and the sun was broiling me, so that I associated the question, ‘When did you realise he was a great poet?’ (or even ‘genius’) with the various unpleasantnesses of the journey and snarled: ‘I still haven’t.’ Once I had cooled off, I decided that the question had been wrongly phrased. From our early twenties – or, to be more precise, starting when he was 19 and I was 22 – we had seen each other almost every day for years on end, but neither then nor later would it have been possible for me to say to myself: ‘That’s the great poet Joseph Brodsky!’ Akhmatova understood immediately that he was a great poet. Once, referring to her cat, Gluck – who exceeded the normal dimensions of his breed – by his nickname ‘Cat-and-a-Half’, she unexpectedly added: ‘Don’t you find that Joseph is a typical cat-and-a-half?’

regina-cat1When he died, I called Isaiah Berlin and said I’d like to talk to him about Joseph, and especially to hear what he was like when he first arrived in the West. Isaiah said that he, too, wanted to talk with me, not about that, but about what he was like ‘then, in the Akhmatova years, because everything was sown and came to fruition at that time, and the emigration years were merely the reaping of the harvest’.

Read the whole thing here. It’s worth it.

Six weeks old and a lot to live up to: Siberian show-cat named for poet Regina Derieva

January 10th, 2016
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regina-cat1

The melancholy look gave her a name. (Photo: Mikael Ågren)

I have friends who named their cat “Eliot,” after T.S. Eliot, the poet who wrote “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” I’m sure other cats have been named after, oh, Wystan Auden, or Sidney Godolphin.

siberiancat2But for the late poet Regina Derieva, this is a first. (Read about the Stanford acquisition of her archive here.)

“Just this morning I got the best Christmas gift ever – notification that a new-born kitty was named after Regina,” her husband, Alexander Derievwrote to me. And no ordinary cat by a longshot. The Swedish Society of Siberian Cats has chosen the Russian poet for its newest show cat. Derieva joined Anna Akhmatova in this unusual honor.

“The naming of cats is a difficult matter, it isn’t just one of your holiday games,” wrote Eliot. But it doesn’t seem to have been the case for these two kittens, born on November 22. “First of all, we have a tradition of giving our cats Russian historical names,”” said Mikael Ågren, one of the directors of the 15-year-old society based in the small city of Gävle. “This time, we found these two newborn kittens looked so melancholic and poetic that started to search through Swedish Wikipedia for some special names for our sister kitten. We aren’t at all experts in poetry, but the fact that both Anna Akhmatova and Regina Derieva were born in Odessa made the decision for us. After that, we found Swedish translations of both writers’ work and read them with great interest.” It helped that Derieva spent the last fifteen years of her life in Sweden.

siberiancat3According to Alexander, who spoke with Ågren, the first ten cats were imported to Sweden directly from Russia in 2000. Now the total population of Siberian cats in Sweden is around 5,000. “The society is quite active in marketing and promoting their cats. Their ‘pupils’ participate in national and international exhibitions and cat shows every year,” he said. And so it will be for the little show-cat, Regina Derieva.

The names are fitting for another reason. Both Derieva and Akhmatova were cat-lovers and cat magnets. Derieva, in particular, identified with the lynx. And they weren’t the only reasons. Alexander recalled that in Anatoly Naiman‘s memoirs you can find the following passage: “Once, referring to her cat, Gluck – who exceeded the normal dimensions of his breed – by his nickname ‘Cat-and-a-Half’, she unexpectedly added: ‘Don’t you find that Joseph is a typical cat-and-a-half?’” That would be her protege, future Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, another cat lover. Akhmatova’s lifelong friend Valeriya Sreznevskaya described her friend this way: “She was a sparkling water sprite, an avid wanderer on foot, climbed like a cat…” Alexander added, “And Modigliani in his drawings of Akhmatova depicted so well her feline’s body and expression.”

Check out the baby pictures below. Notice a resemblance?

UPDATE ON 1/13: Breaking news on kittens and Derieva in the Odessa press here.

baby-cats

Notice the resemblance? (Photo credits Russian State Archive of Literature and Art for Akhmatova, Stanford University Libraries for Derieva, and Mikael Ågren)

“Where are we going? Home, always back home”: On love, loss, and death…

January 7th, 2016
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Thomas reading Shakespeare’s sonnets in the woods outside Bucharest, 1997.

The poet Edward Hirsch wrote, “Implicit in poetry is the notion that we are deepened by heartbreaks, that we are not so much diminished as enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish–to let others vanish–without leaving a verbal record.”

A dear friend, Thomas Budd, died this week in his native Yorkshire. You don’t lose friends of such longstanding easily. When I met him in 1979 in London, you would not have guessed that he wasn’t a native Londoner, but what’s bred in the bone… After many sojourns abroad, he finally returned a few years ago to West Yorkshire, more specifically, a small village on the south end of the Yorkshire dales called Otley. And that is where his life ended.

“A deeply kind, sincere and quietly beautiful man,” said a mutual friend. Not a bad summary, but one must add that he loved language, and Shakespeare, and poetry, so it right to celebrate his life with them – celebrate even in the sobriety of loss. Circumstances conspired to remind me of him today (as if I could forget) with two poems and a bit of prose.

Dana Gioia inadvertently started it. The Virginia Quarterly Review just published his “Meditation from a Line from Novalis,” with its refrain, “Where are we going? Home, always back home,” a translation of the German line that serves as an epigraph from Novalis:

Whether through genius or incompetence,
His fragments blur together—but into what?
Not quite philosophy or even art,
But the disclosure of some primal secret.
“Love is the final purpose of the world.”

thomas2

At the National Gallery, 2012.

You can read the whole poem here. The German Romantic poet, who proposed a sort of “magical idealism,” is little-known today. “Our life is not a dream but must become one.” Schelling kept watch over him as he died, and, according to this poem, marveled at how joyfully he faced death, even at the terrifyingly young age of 28.

I visited Thomas in Otley in 2013. I’m pretty sure I began to hear the edges of a long-abandoned Yorkshire accent reappear in my all-too-brief stay with him that winter. In voice and manner, however, he still reminded me of that native Londoner Alec Guinness, one of my favorite actors. So it was a pleasant coincidence to find, this morning, that a friend had brought my attention to Guinness’s recording of T.S. Eliot‘s “Four Quartets,” one of my favorite poetic works, on youtube. If you can avoid the grating voice that introduces the quartets (she mispronounces “Dry Salvages,” too), it’s worth a hearing. It’s the same cassette recording I lost somewhere years ago, after I had played and played and played it again, and I had thought never to hear this matchless voice read these words:

… As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. …

“In my end is my beginning.” Now you can hear it, too, in the youtube video below.

Finally, today also, someone brought my attention to these words from Evelyn Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited. Charles Ryder says it to Julia Flyte, about their doomed love (and in the sense Waugh means it, perhaps all love is doomed):

“Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.”

Au revoir, Thomas.

Winston Churchill and “the English-speaking club”

January 3rd, 2016
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reidWinston Churchill the speaker was a force of nature. His rhetorical powers had a critical role to play in saving Europe from the biggest threat it had faced in a millennia, perhaps ever. There’s a reason why his rhetoric worked. Paul Reid writes in The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm 1940-1965: “Churchill, like Samuel Johnson and Shakespeare, could string together phrases that resonated with Glasgow pub patrons, Welsh coal miners, and Cockney laundresses, as well as with the Harold Nicolsons and Lady Astors. At his dinner table or in the Commons during Questions, he sprayed the room with fusillades of bons mots. But his broadcasts and speeches were strategic assaults, not tactical, and were crafted with infinite care. His broadcasts sound so English, but in fact their structural foundations date to Cicero.”

But Churchill was above all a writer, and a professional one (we wrote about that here). According to Reid:

“Churchill had been a professional writer before he became a statesman; he had supported his family with a tremendous stream of books and articles. His love of the language was deep and abiding, he had mastered it as few men have, and he was quick to correct anyone who abused it, especially those who tried to camouflage sloppy thinking with the flapdoodle of verbose military jargon or bureaucratese. He believed, with F.G. Fowler, that big words should not be used when small words will do, and that English words were always preferable to foreign words. He said: ‘Not compressing thought into a reasonable space is sheer laziness.’ On his orders ‘Communal Feeding Centres’ were renamed ‘British Restaurants,’ as ‘Local Defense Volunteers’ had become ‘Home Guard.’ And why not ‘ready-made’ rather than ‘prefabricated’? ‘Appreciate that’ was a red flag for him; he always crossed it out and substituted ‘recognize that.’ Another was ‘intensive’ when ‘intense’ was required. Once [Churchill’s private secretary] John Martin, driving along the Embankment with him, described the winding of the Thames as ‘extraordinary.’ Churchill corrected him: ‘Not “extraordinary” All rivers wind. Rather, “remarkable.”‘ In the margins of official documents, he often quoted Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a copy of which he sent to Buckingham Palace on his first Christmas as prime minister.

fowlers“John Martin believed that the P.M.’s ‘interest in basic English was inspired by politics rather than linguistics: it was a means of promoting “the English-speaking club.”‘ Certainly that was one reason. He believed that all countries where English was spoken, including America, should merge. Here lay a profound contrast with the foreign policies of his predecessors at Downing Street. They had focused upon the Continent and the various combinations of the great powers there. Neville Chamberlain had referred to the United States with amusement and contempt, and called Americans ‘creatures.’ But Churchill, though a European patriot, looked westward, and not only because he knew Hitler could not be crushed without American troops. British to the bone, he was nevertheless the son of an American mother, and long before the war, he had envisaged a union of the world’s English-speaking peoples: the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and the far-flung colonies of the British Empire.”

That’s strategy, not tactics.

P.S.  Speaking of Cicero, my colleague Frank Wilson over at Books Inq reminds me that today is the birthday of the Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist, with this quotation, which is altogether fitting for a discussion of Churchill: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero, born on this date in 106 B. C.

Keats on Milton: “life to him would be death to me,” or, a bad case of mimetic envy

January 1st, 2016
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keats-milton

Famous marginalia seems to be all the rage right now – so I thought I’d start the year with this one, John Keats‘s mark-up of his edition of John MiltonParadise Lost. The relationship of Keats and Milton was a fraught one, marked by imitation, rivalry, and rejection  – a classic case of what René Girard would call “external mediation,” where the target of envious admiration exists outside the daily sphere of the desirer. After all, Milton had died well over a century before Keats was born, so it was clearly a one-sided relationship. Sometimes those are the easiest kind. You get less back-talk.

"What was he really like?"

Bad case of mimetic envy

The history of this particular set of marginalia is such a complicated one that a whole book has been compiled on it: Keats’s “Paradise Lost” by Beth Lau. It’s an opportunity to read Milton’s masterpiece over Keats’s shoulder, so to speak.

In his review of the 1998 book, UC-Irvine’s Hugh Roberts writes: “Only Spenser and Shakespeare rival Milton as ‘precursor poets’ for the English Romantics, and the relationship with Milton is arguably the most interesting, as it is the most fraught with ideological and other tensions. From Blake’s assertion that Milton was ‘of the devil’s party without knowing it,’ to Shelley’s musings on the ‘strange and natural antithesis’ by which Milton’s poem had become an ideological prop to Church and State conservatives, to Keats’s ultimate conclusion – after trying to out Milton-Milton in his Hyperion – that ‘life to him [Milton] would be death to me,’ the Romantic poets made themselves unruly disciples, self-consciously reading their master’s epic against the grain.”

milton2One Milton scholar, Martin Evans, credibly claims that Milton is the most learned poet in the English language. I suspect Keats thought so, too. Here’s own reaction, a poem on discovering a lock of Milton’s hair, is not one of his best efforts, but insightful nonetheless:

Chief of organic numbers!
Old Scholar of the Spheres!
Thy spirit never slumbers,
But rolls about our ears,
For ever, and for ever.

Read the whole poem, “Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair” here. And happy new year.

Is France on the verge of a nervous breakdown? A report from the land of 182 billion kisses a year.

December 28th, 2015
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Home sweet home

Whew! It’s still there.

Remember when we wrote about Marcia de Sanctis‘s award-winning 100 Places to Visit in France? Remember our happy talk about Marilyn Yalom‘s acclaimed How the French Invented Love? Here is its opposite. Jonathan Miller offers a more curmudgeonly take on all things French. France: A Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Gibson Square Books) offers many reasons why the nation is going to the dogs, and you’d best stay home and avoid adding to its problems.

The British author is long familiar to me, long before the days he was a columnist for the London Times. Back at the Michigan Daily at the University of Michigan, he was one of the gods a class or two before me. During a return visit to Ann Arbor in September, we met again at the upstairs editorial room of 420 Maynard – where the old teletype machines for AP, UPI, and Reuters once clattered through the night. (His fierce advocacy made the Daily one of the early American adopters of London-based Reuters.)

He told me about his book, and he told me about his life in France. Then he sent the volume to me on his smartphone. It begins this way:

“I recently made an appointment to visit my lawyer. I was told to ignore the sign on the front door announcing that the office was on strike. It was a national day of action protesting proposed reforms to the legal profession. Instead I should knock discreetly at the side entrance and someone would let me in. The office was pretending to be on strike, while conducting business as usual. In France, not everything is always as it seems. In a country where people claim to be revolutionaries but are terrified of change, boast of their social model while condemning young people to mass unemployment, and claim to be the best cooks in the world, while a million people a day eat at McDonald’s, there is much that is paradoxical, even psychotic.

“When I bought my starter chateau in France 15 years ago, equipped with rusty O-level French, I was seduced by the beauty of the country, discouraged by the difficulty of communicating effectively with French people and understanding French media and political, economic and social discourse, and entranced by the otherness of everything.

miller1And so the story begins. In 2014, the village of Caux overwhelmingly elected him to their local council. The first problem was kissing: “Who to kiss, how many times, when? When I was elected to my local council, with 10 male members and nine women, it was apparent that all the men were required to kiss all of the women at the start of every meeting. Some of the men, who had known each other a long time, also kissed one another. In our part of France, three kisses are the norm. Hence, before any business could be transacted, at least 270 kisses were exchanged. The maths are fuzzy but one can estimate that the population of France (65 million), each kissing, say, 10 times per day (this is just a guess), could collectively be kissing up to 3.5 billion times a week, exchanging some 182 billion kisses a year.”

Inspired by Ambrose Bierce‘s Devil’s Dictionary, Jonathan began an alphabetical list to catalogue the faults of the charming French.

Houellebecq

Sells too many books. (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

Where to begin? The acclaimed author Michel Houellebecq? “He is hated by many of the French literati because he sells so many books.” Bernard-Henri Lévy? “The global brand of French public intellectual,” he wrote, noting that “Houellebecq, his frenemy, has written of BHL: ‘You dishonour even the white shirts you wear. An intimate of the powerful who, since childhood has wallowed in obscene wealth, you are… a philosopher without an original idea.’”

Thanks to Jonathan, I find that I have already made too many social mistakes to count:  “If kissing is reserved for people who you already know, poignée de main (shaking hands) is ubiquitous and you will shake hands with anyone with whom you have even a passing acquaintance. Walking through my village to the bakery in the morning, I will shake hands with up to a dozen people. Failure to observe this ritual can be taken as an insult. Arriving at work, it is customary to shake everyone’s hand. I find this custom extremely agreeable as it establishes a direct and human contact that is a formal recognition of mutual respect. It is typically accompanied by the phrase comment allez vous? (how are you?) or more informally, comment ça va? (how’s it going?). … The handshake must always be accompanied by eye contact. Those who you do not know must also be acknowledged. At the very least, you must offer a bonjour (good day). If you ask a conductor at a railway station for directions without prefacing your question with a bonjour, he or she is likely to be insulted.”

Lévy

Try navy blue. (Photo: Itzik Edri)

“These rituals are indispensable social signals. When I am in England I reflexively shake hands with many people who do not expect it, evidence, I suppose, that I am going native. It goes the other way, too. Marie-Jo, a French friend who has lived for 20 years in England, tells me she once asked an official at the Gare du Nord for advice, forgetting the obligatory bonjour, and could tell at once that the official was distressed. ‘I felt ashamed,’ she later admitted. ‘It was as if I had ignored his humanity.’”

I am an American, however. We cut to the chase. Humanity be damned. I fear that after all my faux pas I will be turned away at the border.

Lest one think that the author has soured on the nation, his Vive la France! at the end will suggest that he won’t be leaving his chateau anytime soon. Quietly tucked away in the acknowledgements, he salutes the “glorious countryside surrounding Caux.”

“Walking the flanks of the ancient volcanos among the endless vines, the orchids, the wild fennel and the abundant fig trees, has been inspirational and therapeutic.” Yeah, he’s going to stay. And I’ll be back. The rest of you? Either cancel your plane tickets or pucker up.

A Christmas Carol: Dickens and Nietzsche and Freud – oy vey!

December 24th, 2015
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marleyWhat better way to celebrate Christmas than with a secular Turkish-American writer discussing Charles Dickens‘s A Christmas Carol, in light of modern (Jewish) Freudian psychotherapy?

Elif Batuman tried explaining the relationship of the book to her therapist, but he didn’t get it: “The Ghost [of Christmas Past] in particular reminded me of someone, with his kindness and spookiness, the way he said almost nothing, except to repeat back to Scrooge his own remarks. A few days later, I figured it out, and told my therapist: the Ghost reminded me of him. He didn’t reply, only smiled gently, in a way that I interpreted to mean, ‘I’m an Israeli Freudian, please don’t make me talk about A Christmas Carol.'”

She explains:

At first, it seemed strange to me that such a Jewish discourse should be anticipated so plainly by a Christmas story—one written a decade before Freud was born. But when I thought about it more, it started to seem less strange. Freud read and admired Dickens; his first gift to his fiancée, in 1882, was a copy of David Copperfield. Why wouldn’t he have read A Christmas Carol, which is so much shorter? O.K., he was Jewish, but he was secular. He had a Christmas tree. When I was little, my parents also bought a tree every year, and we would put presents under it, and it was a little bit magical, even though we weren’t Christian. Wasn’t that a big part of Freudianism: that magic is often displaced, but never destroyed?

Sigmund_Freud

Was he just recycling Dickens?

Read the “The Ghosts of Christmas: Was Scrooge the First Psychotherapy Patient?” in the New Yorker here. She describes the darker side of Christmas and Dickens’s dystopian world, but some argue that the classic Christmas story It’s a Wonderful Life does the same thing. According to Wendell Jamieson of the New York Times, the movie portrays “a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.” Well, we wrote about that a few Christmases ago here. This theme was picked up in the mock poster below, which is making the Facebook rounds.

Dante_Giotto

Was Dickens just recycling him?

On the other hand, was A Christmas Carol as a Victorian spin on Dante Alighieri’s much older tale?

“First of all, both main characters begin in a dark wood—vividly illustrated as such in the Comedy and similarly rendered in chimney tops, alleyways, and dense fog in the Carol. The Pilgrim and the Miser have lost their way. Hence, they are taken on a mystical journey for the sake of their reclamation: Dante through Hell, Purgatory, & Heaven; Scrooge through the Past, Present, and Future. The three beasts that Dante meets before his journey begins (leopard, lion, and wolf) function similarly to the omens that Scrooge encounters on Christmas Eve: the hearse, the transformed door-knocker, the ringing bell.”

Read more about that here.

Whatever spin you put on the day, the Book Haven wishes you a Merry Christmas!

miserablelife

Rescued from oblivion: selected poems from the early and late Dunstan Thompson

December 22nd, 2015
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thompsonHere at last is Dunstan Thompson‘s Here at Last Is LoveIt’s been a group effort to get this slim volume published. Author Gregory Wolfe, California poet laureate Dana Gioia, Thompson’s longtime companion Philip Trower, and others have rescued the poet from oblivion.

Thompson (1918-75) was an American poet who had risen to fame in the New York literary scene of the 1940s. After his wartime experience, he all but disappeared in a remote Norfolk village called Cley. His poetry was no longer sought after and published. The problem was, as Dana Gioia wrote, that there were two Dunstan Thompsons: the poetry of early Thompson of the 1940s is “expansive, ornate, dramatic, and confessional.” The later poetry is “austere, urbane, controlled, and quietly confident.” (I’ve written about Gioia’s essay, “Two Poets Named Dunstan Thompson,” which is now the afterword of the book, here.)

According to Kevin Prufer, co-editor of Dunstan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Late American Master: “Here, for the first time, Gregory Wolfe draws draws poems from the poet’s entire writing life, including his harrowing, erotic wartime poetry and his almost entirely unavailable, more reflective work of maturity. In doing so, he brings to new audiences the work of an essential mid-century poet…”

Greg Wolfe, the book’s editor, has written a graceful introduction to this small volume (128 pages), but this commonplace sentence is the one that stopped me. It describes the poet’s life in rural Norfolk: “A steady stream of visitors – British and American – came to Cley. Thompson’s Harvard friend Billy Abrahams came for many visits along with his partner, the writer Peter Stansky.” Could there be two literary Peter Stanskys in the world, I wondered?

Naturally, I wrote Stanford’s Orwell scholar, Peter Stansky, right away to clear things up. He replied within an hour or so: “Many visits is an exaggeration. The first I remember fairly well, and we may have gone a second time. Dunstan was a contemporary of Billy’s at Harvard and one of his closest friends.  Dunstan had gone to England as a soldier during the war and may not have come back to the U.S.A. except briefly, but I’m not sure of that. If so, Billy would have seen him in New York after the war.

“I met Billy in 1961 and some years after that we went to England to work on Journey to the Frontier. We went to see Dunstan and his partner Philip Trower, a very nice Englishman and writer. Dunstan who had been, I believe, a rather irreverent poet had now become a devout Catholic and Philip had converted.  We had a very jolly time but I can’t remember much in particular. I bravely swam in the sea. We ate and drank well. They took us to Houghton, the great Norfolk Walpole house, where we were shown around by the Marchioness of Cholmondeley [that would be the former Sybil Sassoon, cousin to the poet Siegfried Sassoon]. Philip had been at Eton with her son.”

“Little did I know that years later after her death I would write her biography [i.e., The Worlds of Philip and Sybil (2003)], so in retrospect, it was terrific that I had met her. I have a feeling that we may have visited a Catholic English shrine at Walsingham.  The main point was for Billy and Dunstan to talk about the old days. They may have been somewhat wild, although I don’t remember anything specific mentioned,” he said.

“Billy remained in touch with Dunstan, though I don’t think either were good correspondents. It was very touching that on Dunstan’s death, he left Billy his Bulova watch, some books including, I think, an early edition of Byron I have somewhere and, most wonderfully, he very kindly left me specifically a print by Paul Nash, an artist I much admire that I have on my walls.”

Peter Stansky also gave Dana Gioia several books that Dunstan had inscribed to Billy Abrahams. The Stanford Libraries printed a selection of Abraham’s poems to commemorate Peter’s donation of Abrahams’ papers to Stanford.

The title poem is, as Greg notes, a short “shape poem” called “On a Crucifix”:

See
Here at last
Is
Love.

443px-Geertgen_tot_Sint_Jans_002It’s one of the last poems in the volume. In keeping with the season, here’s Thompson’s short “Fragment for Christmas,” another poem from the very late Thompson:

.

Dear Lord, and only ever faithful friend,
For love of us rejected, tortured, torn –
And we were there; who on the third day rose
Again, and still looks after us; descend
Into each wrecked unstable house; be born
In us, a Child among Your former foes.

Berkeley poet Chana Bloch: “There’s no point in wanting to be a different kind of a writer than you are.”

December 19th, 2015
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Chana Bloch-Peg SkorpinskiWe’ve written about Berkeley poet Chana Bloch before (here), but it’s been a few years since I spoke with her at the university, so I was happy to get an update at the “Talking Writing” website. Poet and translator Bloch, who has just released a “new and selected” Swimming in the Rain this year, was a longtime professor at Oakland’s Mills College. This first question (or rather, a comment, really) caught my eye – I’m constantly chastising myself because I’m not the fastest, most prolific, most profound writer in the English-speaking world. Apparently I’m not alone. Then I was caught by her list of favored poets.

Excerpt from her Q&A with Carol Dorf:

TW: I’m a slow writer.

CB: Slow is not necessarily bad. There’s no point in wanting to be a different kind of a writer than you are, though I must admit I’ve envied poets who are quicker, more prolific. I myself rarely stay with my early drafts. I tend to go over and over a poem—revising, distilling, trying to get at the essence.

TW: Most of your poems are brief lyrics. How do your longer sequence poems function compared with those that represent a single moment?

CB: I tend to write very short poems. Most of them fit on one page. Sometimes, a group of those poems asks to be stitched together. For example, I wrote a number of poems about my experience of ovarian cancer in 1986 that were then published in various journals. At some point, I realized that, by bringing them together in a sequence I called “In the Land of the Body” (from The Past Keeps Changing, Sheep Meadow Press, 1992), I could offer differing perspectives on the experience: that of my then-husband, our children, the radiologist, the surgeon.

TW: Which poets have been especially important to you?

swimmingInTheRainCB: George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Yehuda Amichai, Tomas Tranströmer, Elizabeth Bishop, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, Charles Simic, Gerard Manley Hopkins—not necessarily in that order.

George Herbert was an early influence. In grad school, I fell in love with his work. We made a very odd couple. I was a Jewish girl from the Bronx, and he was a seventeenth-century Anglican minister. But his poetry was about the inner life, and that drew me. There was a human depth in his poems that I found very appealing. He wrote about the self with an unsparing candor—about his irresolution, his inner contradictions. And I loved the music in his poetry.

I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation about his work, and then a book—Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible (University of California Press, 1985)—about how he transforms the biblical sources in his poetry. Seeing him take a verse from the Bible and combine it with something from his life was like watching a mind in the very process of creation.

Read the whole thing here.


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