Happy New Year! And a few passing thoughts on the kindness of strangers…

January 2nd, 2015
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Little Star, the annual journal of poetry and prose run by Ann Kjellberg, has just published its sixth issue. It includes new work by  Per Pettersen, César Aira, Eliot Weinberger, Linda Gregerson, Lydia Davis, A. J. Snijders, Gerbrand Bakker, Ange Mlinko, Georgi Gospodinov, Eugene Lim, Jacqueline Waters, Menno Wigman, Les Murray, Tim Parks, Darcie Dennigan, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, John Moran, Eugene Ostashevsky, Major Jackson, and others.

littlestarcoverLittle Star is “a sophisticated, wise and fierce little magazine. Filled with works in translation, painfully underrated writers like the brilliant Kathryn Davis and lovingly put together, I was impressed with it from start to finish,” writes Jessa Crispin. Added John Banville: “A very fine venture indeed… everything such a magazine should be.”

My issue (you can order your own here) arrived with an unusual note: “Help us out! Send us a picture of you reading this issue where you live – info@littlestarjournal.com; @littlestarmag ”

How could we resist? … but how could we comply? I staggered around Stanford, helplessly attempting a nonchalant selfie while trying to hold my cellphone steady and trying to look like I was engrossed in a journal at the same time. All the while feeling a little bit ridiculous. It didn’t work out very well. I have several dozen photos to prove it.

Finally two passing strangers asked if I needed help. I explained my mission, and they snapped the photo above, with me at the feet of Rodin‘s Jean d’Aire (I tell his story here). I wish I’d taken their names! I could have given them a photo credit! At any rate, I got favorited on Twitter by my friends at the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University in Paris; a friend I haven’t met yet, Blake Eskin; and Little Star itself.

Happy New Year everyone! Meanwhile get a copy of Little Star – and good luck with that selfie!

 

“Caligula at the Gates”: Guess who is the star of Venclova’s new poem?

December 31st, 2014
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Yes…I see the resemblance…

Those who don’t live in Eastern Europe, where memories of life under Communism during much of the last century linger, don’t fully comprehend the chilling effect across that region of what’s been happening under Vladimir Putin’s rule:

Our respite was short-lived in the end.
But after long hardships it had seemed
It would never draw to a close. Friends
Invoked poetry and feasted in gardens …

When I saw Tomas Venclovas new poem “Caligula at the Gates,”  in The Irish Times (the translator, Ellen Hinsey, had kindly dropped a note to let me know), I associated it with the Lithuanian poet’s autumn sojourn in Rome. Not so, he told me – it was, in fact, written in August, in Montenegro, one of his favorite haunts. And the subject is “Mr. Putin, of course.” Well, of course. The Roman touch is a common metonymy, he reminded me, though I shouldn’t have needed reminding. My head has been far away from current events – a luxury not afforded everyone in the world. I’ve always maintained that Tomas Venclova, who is one of the leading figures in literary Europe, and whose poetry has been published in more than twenty languages, and he should be better known in the United States, where he has been resident at Yale for years and years now (resident, that is, when he’s not on the road, as he is much of the time)…

Caligula

They have the same scowl.

We ridiculed the words of the prophets
But, agelessly, they proved to be true …

This poem, in particular, has been already published in Poland, Germany, also in Russia. But you don’t have to be located in any particular part of the world to sense the following:

Blow out the candles and close the gates.

Beyond them – Caligula and the plague.

Read the whole thing here.

 

Remembering Stanisław Barańczak: equilibristics, “Madogism,” and the phenomenology of the queue

December 29th, 2014
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Stanisław Barańczak with wife Anna (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

Stanisław Barańczak with wife Anna (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

Stanisław Barańczak died at 68 near Boston on the morning Friday, December 26. The day after Christmas Day – Boxing Day in England, St. Stephen’s Day in much of Europe. I never knew the gifted poet, translator, essayist, and longtime denizen of Harvard. However, in my 2000 interview, Czesław Miłosz, the Nobel poet had called him one of the poets who is “shamanlike”:  “He was a virtuoso of translation – he translated practically all of Shakespeare, the metaphysical English poets, Emily Dickinson and so on. But his own poetry, also, is … equilibristics. He writes rhymed poetry, because his inventiveness in this respect is fantastic.” I had approached Barańczak about contributing to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and never received an answer. I was told by colleagues that he had Parkinson’s disease, and had quit the Harvard faculty in 1997 (a full decade before I wrote him) because of it.

He was also a leading dissident while Poland was under Communist rule. Poland’s Culture Minister Malgorzata Omilanowska said that Baranczak’s death is a “great loss to Poland’s culture.” Then: “He paid a great price for his views, for his unwavering attitude,” Omilanowska said. “He dedicated his whole life to literature, to poetry. His work will always be an important part of Poland’s culture.”

Well, you can read the New York Times obituary here, or in the Polish, here.  I looked for a selection that might represent his work, but the only book I could find in my library was his lauded volume of essays, Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays (1990).  Rather that quote him talking about other writers, let me quote a few paragraphs that take us back to a bleak Christmas Eve, 1977 in Poland. He goes out for a walk to mull Tadeusz Konwicki’s novel The Polish Complex, and instead winds up in a queue. It’s apropos: “The line in Konwicki’s novel is more than a symbol of the Great Nonsense: it is both a model and a cross section of a society approaching the condition of ‘Madogism’ (from ‘mad dog’), a term coined by Alexander Zinoviev (a Soviet logician who was forced by illogical reality to become a writer of satire).”

Though a Western reader is unlikely to know Konwicki or Zinoviev, he may recognize something of the phenomenology of the queue in the post-Christmas sales. But most of all, I found these paragraphs grabbed me with a life of their vividness and insight, apart from Konwicki. Here goes:

“I’m standing in line in front of a state-owned delikatesy shop. I’m he one hundred forty-seventh person in line. The huge queue, extending toward Freedom Square, suddenly turns down a side street to avoid the road and crosses Red Army Street in the distance. Rumor has it that a delivery will arrive in a quarter of an hour. Carp or coffee – no one knows for certain. In any case, the lady who is one hundred forty-sixth in line convinces me it’s worth joining…

baranczak“I look at the queue in which I am standing, and, as always on such occasions, I feel anxiety mixed with anger. I was one hundred forty-seventh, but what number am I now? The line has swollen; we are no longer standing in a single file. The queuers are joined by their friends and the friends of their friends. Always the same. Nothing ever changes in the phenomenology of a line. Take the elderly gentleman less than twenty places in front of me who exclaims with pre-war righteousness and post-war helplessness, ‘But please, ladies and gentlemen, we can’t let this get out of hand. We must organize ourselves!’ Even he is a constant in a queue. It seems as though I’ve heard his words many times before And this old busybody right behind me who says loudly and bitterly, ‘Yeah, get yourself organized, Grandpa. There won’t be enough goods anyway.’ She, too, never fails to appear on such occasions. And, as always, the line responds in unison with muted laughter – a laughter of people who at once realize the absurdity of their lives. Briefly this sad laughter unites them, hostile and embroiled, in one big brotherhood. … Here we go! The door to the delikatesy has just opened, and a human tide, pushing and trampling, surges over the threshold. The last residual forms of social self-discipline disappear… After the first assault on the door, the commotion subsides. Rumors spread down the line that the shipment hasn’t arrived, but is expected soon, maybe in a half hour. Most probably carp…

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Equilibristics

“They’ve started selling the carp. The line creeps forward, and this limited movement brings consolation. At least something is happening; the line is not so senseless as it was before; we are approaching some goal. But at the same time anxiety grows. The basic feature of attractive merchandise is its scarcity. Since the carp is being sold, sooner or later the supply will run out, and therefore we may not be able to get any. Symptoms of panic appear, the line becomes even more shapeless. Not only do the queuers push forward, but some try to bypass the line, and others lean out so as to have at least a glimpse of the objects they desire. My well-trained eyes register a common phenomena: an elderly man, with great dignity and little confidence, produces his handicapped citizen’s card. He meets an unyielding wall of arms and elbows and angry comments: ‘Cripples, stay home!’ From the front of the line, where taller heads can already see the counter, furious cries are heard: ‘One fish per customer! Look at that! She’s stuffing her shopping bag!’ The lucky ones who’ve already made their purchases push laboriously toward the exit, fighting the stream of people. They are especially disdainful of the crowd. They complain loudly about the lack of common courtesy and, reaching the street, show each other their torn-off buttons. We regard them with genuine hatred.”

Stay away from crowds. And requiescat in pace, Stanisław Barańczak (1946-2014), in pace, after long illness.

 

New York, Warsaw: Rockefeller Center’s herald angels, and Czesław Miłosz in Twórczość

December 26th, 2014
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Herald angels at RockefellerCenter 12/2014

Hark the herald angels … at Rockefeller Center (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Zygmunt Malinowski neglected to send this photo with his Christmas batch – so here it is, as a postscript to yesterday’s post featuring New York City window displays for the season. We’re just in time for the Second Day of Christmas (ten more to go). He wrote that he “didn’t send it because we know that scene so well. It’s the main attraction: Rockefeller and the Christmas tree. As we all know, there is a lot of commercialism, but the herald angels and the Christmas tree are still at Rockefeller Center each year.” I’m fond of the Fifth Avenue snowflake photo at the top of yesterday’s post, and it’s a favorite of his, too: “I always liked the giant snowflake – it’s there every year – one can see it from a few blocks away, so it makes quite a big impression once you get to it.”

He shared a little about his own Wigilia feast at the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America (PIASA) in New York City – I described my own Wigilia here. Last summer PIASA had its annual conference in Warsaw, and Zygmunt made extra sure that they had plenty of the monthly literary journal, Twórczość on hand. The reason? The issue included his essay, which I had published in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. The piece, “Poet versus Camera: Three Encounters,” was featured on the poster to publicize the issue (see below). “I heard that whatever they had, sold!” You’ll recognize Zygmunt’s photo of Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz below as the same one that graces the cover of An Invisible Rope. Congratulations, Zygmunt!

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Books and fairy tales dominate NYC Christmas – with a few wise words from Confucius

December 25th, 2014
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5th Ave during Christmas in NYC. 12/2014

Mammoth snowflakes on Fifth Avenue. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Our New York City correspondent Zygmunt Malinowski, roving photographer extraordinaire (he’s posted for us here and here and here and here, among other places), tells us that books and fairy tales are the theme for this holiday season in New York City’s department story windows. Why not? New York City is America’s literary capital, after all. From Zygmunt:

Holiday window display in NYC. 12/2014Gergdorf & Goodman 'Literatre' detail

Christmas with Confucius (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

During the holiday season, it’s a New York tradition to stroll and view the most popular displays on Fifth Avenue, Herald Square, or Madison – and according to critics, this year’s displays are some of the best. It’s not surprising that some of the holiday department store window displays were inspired by children’s books – in modern culture, Christmas itself is a gift for children.

The streets are colorful especially in the evening with facades of buildings that sparkle with decorations. This year, the theme of Saks Fifth Ave windows (across from Rockefeller Center) is “Enchanted Experience” with animated scenes from fairy tales. In front of Saks, families with children in tow line up to view Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold, Snow White being tempted to eat an apple, or Cinderella arriving at Saks Fifth Avenue Ball. The Art Deco style amid New York settings – a tribute to Saks beginnings in the 1920s – are dazzling. Also spectacular are other department store windows such as Lord and Taylor’s (featuring historical mansions), Tiffany’s (spotlighting graphics of New York in the 1950s and 1960s), or the mechanical masterwork displays of Barneys.

A few blocks north on Fifth and 58th Street, Bergdorf Goodman celebrates the arts. Among the sophisticated displays devoted to theater, film, music, painting, or architecture, the literature window is especially fascinating. The display includes meticulously rendered large and small portraits and busts of classical writers, which invite visitors to match the face with the name. Among many classical authors, Shakespeare is the most prominent. Just below him, Confucius offers words of enlightenment: “You cannot open a book without learning something.”

Holiday window display/NYC. 12/2014      Litertare/detail at Bergdorf Goodman

Bergdorf Goodman celebrates the arts. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Holiday window display in NYC. 12/2014Bergdorf & Goodman

Families visit Bergdorf Goodman display. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

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Cinderella arrives at the Saks Fifth Avenue Ball. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

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Snow White takes the bait on Broadway. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Song without music: Auden’s “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”

December 23rd, 2014
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auden-christmasW.H. Auden learned of the death of his mother, Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden, by telephone in August 1941, while he was staying in Rhode Island. The international call was taken by his lover Chester Kallman, who came to Auden’s bedroom and told him they would not be attending a party that evening. Then he told him why.

“Auden was stunned and grieved, not only because he had been very close to his mother all his life. He was already in a state of emotional fragility, having learned just the month before that Kallman, whom he loved and to whom he considered himself married, had been having sex with other men and meant to continue the practice,” writes Alan Jacobs, editor of Princeton University Press’ splendid critical edition of Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Thursday is only the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas – if you haven’t seen the book already (it was published last year), you still have plenty of time to find it before Twelfth Night.

Auden would later write, “When mother dies, one is, for the first time, really alone in the world and that is hard” – Jacobs adds, “that experience of isolation was surely made far more intense through its arriving in the midst of hopes already ruined.”

A few weeks after the death, Auden moved to my own alma mater, the University of Michigan, to begin a year of teaching (his daunting course syllabus is here). And shortly after that he was applying to the Guggenheim to write “a long poem in several parts about Christmas, suitable for becoming the basis of a text for a large-scale musical oratorio.” That long poem was his attempt to see Christmas in double focus: as a moment in the Roman Empire and in Jewish history, and as an eternal and ever-new event.

His father, a learned and cultivated physician, was confused by the mixture of the past and present in the poem, the modern New York characters and the references to juke-boxes and clocks on the mantlepiece with ancient Judaea. Auden tried to explain in a long letter:

Sorry you are puzzled by the oratorio. Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental – the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity – that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity – and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (See Marcus Aurelius.) …

I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been ‘humanized,’ and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery picture of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.

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Inspiration from an Inkling

If a return to the older method seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization – there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.

Kind of makes one chuckle, doesn’t it? As one taps on a keyboard to produce a message that, as soon as I press the “publish” button, will be instantly available around the world…

“Auden’s recognition that those last few centuries of the Roman Empire might serve as a mirror for the twentieth-century self-immolation of the West is the initiating insight of the project that would become ‘For the Time Being,’” Jacobs writes. Well, we made it to the twenty-first. The poem was rooted in his reading of Inkling Charles Williams, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard, and many others.

Stephen Spender said that the poem “has the power in some of the choruses, of bringing to mind the mighty chorales of Bach.” The poem was set to be set to music composed by Benjamin Britten. It never was. The poem was far too long for that. Only two bits were set to music, and one, “Shepherd’s Song,” was dropped from the poem before it was published. The poem, published at the height of the war in 1944, was dedicated to the memory of his mother, Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden.

Roberto Calasso’s Ardor: the Vedas, the mind, and the “inescapable role of violence”

December 21st, 2014
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Super-compressed cores exerting an unseen unifying gravitation…

Roberto Calasso, one of Europe’s leading intellectuals and founder of Italy’s premier publishing house, Adelphi, frequently mentioned the Vedas was he was in town last month (I wrote about his visit here). No surprise, since the ancient Sanskrit texts have held a long held a fascination for him, throughout his career. Its verses and hymns are also the subject of his most recent book Ardor, which is reviewed by Pankaj Mishra in today’s New York Times Book Review and by Steven Donoghue in Open Letters Monthly. Donoghue offers a warning:

This author’s books are rhetorical equivalents of gas giants: their nominal subjects are the super-compressed cores exerting an unseen unifying gravitation, and the author’s enormous erudition, wide reading, and kitten-like distractibility form the layers and layers of roiling, chaotic, atmosphere extending for huge distances in all directions around the core. Outside the farthest reaches of that atmosphere, in the hard vacuum of space, wait the critics, their laser canons primed and ready – for the simple reason that Calasso’s scattershot, sometimes hysterical, and (kudos to [translator Richard] Dixon) frequently untranslatable scholarly woolgathering fails as often as it succeeds in, to further the planetary analogy, supporting life.

Calasso tosses Talleyrand and Tiepolo, Proust and Prajapati into his polymathic salad, along with many, many others (Kafka, for example). His guiding preoccupations: “the power and sovereignty of the mind and its relationship to the world, the basis of political and social order and the inescapable role of violence.”

An excerpt from Mishra’s review:

The Vedic Indians did not build great empires or monuments. Rather they sought an intense “state of awareness” that “became the pivot around which turned thousands and thousands of meticulously codified ritual acts.” Calasso is aware that most of his readers would regard the ritual of sacrifice as barbarous. But he sees in this contemporary recoiling an uneasy confession: that “this world of today is detached from and, at the same time, dependent on all that has preceded it.” Sacrifice was the means to acknowledge and contain violence through religious ritual and practice. But secular society with its frenzied worship of the new gods of money and power still consumes many victims without being aware of its sacrificial nature.

Calasso’s prose … demands familiarity with a very different intellectual tradition than the one manifest today in the pieties of radical, liberal and conservative thought. It assumes that the modern world can no longer explain its extraordinary violence and disorder in its own terms, and that we ought to understand the supposedly primitive customs and institutions, such as sacrifice, that linger invisibly in even postmodern societies.

ardor-coverOne of Calasso’s many interlocutors in Ardor is the religious anthropologist René Girard, who believes that mimetic desire — the desire to own what others possess — or envy, rather than transcendental authority, now underpins social order in secularized societies. But the mutual hatred and possibility of an “all against all” war it seeds is still defused by periodic scapegoating, the identification of internal or external enemies, whose violent suppression releases the tension built up by frustrated desire and unappeasable envy.

As Calasso sees it, modern warfare cannot rid itself, even despite a sophisticated machinery of killing and high death tolls, of the “lexical legacy of sacrifice,” which now includes words like “victim, self-denial, consecration, redemption, trial by fire.” The closing pages of Ardor echo the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen’s belief that “the submission of the individual to society — to the people — to humanity — to the idea — is a continuation of human sacrifice.” This has been continuously reflected in the catastrophic programs of social re-engineering from imperialism’s civilizing missions to Stalin and Mao’s socialist utopianism, and the more recent attempt to bomb whole countries into democracy, or shock-therapy them into free-market capitalism.

Today, the nation-states of Asia and Africa re-enact, in their pursuit of Western-­style modernity, human sacrifice on a vast scale and more pathological form. Calasso anticipates his reader wondering, “What can be the relevance of all we read in the Veda?” He is right to answer that such “microphysics of the mind” can bring about an “abrupt and disorientating shift of perspective” and, perhaps, snap us out of both naïve reverence for and smug disenchantment with the modern world. It is “now high time,” Goethe wrote in the early 19th century, “to envisage a humane global philosophy with no regard for nationality and creed.” Ardor outlines, in its own quirky way, that long-overdue and genuine intellectual cosmopolitanism.

Read the whole thing here. Or check out the Open Letters Monthly piece here. Or both.

Wigilia, Part II: Small favors yield big payoffs

December 19th, 2014
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Several days ago, I received word that a big package was waiting for me at the Stanford English Department, Priority Mail. I couldn’t imagine what it was, except more unrequested books from publishers when I can’t even get to the requested ones. I didn’t get back to campus to collect the package till today.

Imagine my surprise when it contained the second installment of the Wigilia season! I had done a small research errand at the Stanford Libraries for one of my favorite medievalists, Jeff Sypeck, blogger at Quid Plura – something to do with a big, obscure tome in German.

becoming-charlemagne-coverThis was his small seasonal way of saying “Danke!” To which I return with a “Dziękuję”! Jeff had apparently read my Wigilia post (it’s here), and headed for his neighborhood Polish shop in Washington, D.C., I can’t help but think this is destiny calling me to do another book about Polish literature. (My most recent one, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, I’ve written about here and here and here and here – endlessly, really.)

Jeff will be familiar to Book Haven readers as an occasional correspondent, and also the author of a book on Charlemagne, and another book, a short collection of witty poems on the unusual subject of gargoyles, to benefit the restoration of National Cathedral in D.C., where he strolls through the gardens on his walks (more about that here). The book is available on Amazon here (a great holiday gift!) – or pick one up in the National Cathedral gift shop, if you’re in D.C.

lookingup-coverI put my Polish cache on my Warsaw tablecloth above. The thing about Polish, is that it’s not too hard to figure out if you have a few pronunciation keys: “czekoladki marcepanowe” is chocolate marzipan. “Jabłko z cynamonem” is cinnamon tea. All but the heavily initiated will be lost with “borowików,” which is a porcini mushroom, but the “koncentrat” with the photo shows that this may be a good addition to a mushroom lasagna. Meanwhile, I have a zillion Christmas cookies to make tonight, so…

The packages will wait long past Wigilia, for the annual family Twelfth Night gathering at my house – though I did cheat with the marzipan, for which I have a pronounced weakness. No Shakespeare this year, but perhaps we could read a poem or two. We might start with the lines on the card from Jeff, from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s “Christmas Bells”:

The world revolved from night to day,
.   A voice, a chime,
.   A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

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Wigilia, or, how to have a Polish Christmas

December 16th, 2014
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wigilia

Bells and beads and little Polish flags. Photo and centerpiece courtesy Caria Tomczykowska.

I tried doing Wigilia on my own a few years back – but it’s not for the faint-hearted. There are a dozen courses in the traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal, which is largely vegetarian (they don’t count fish, apparently; as a vegetarian, I do). I thought it was time I went to the experts, so I accepted a Wigilia invitation from Caria Tomczykowska of the Polish Arts and Culture Foundation last weekend in Walnut Creek.  With about fifty happy Poles, or Polish wannabes, we had course after course, including creamed herring, cheese pierogi and sauerkraut and potato pierogi, barszcz with uszka, a dried fruit compote, and a poppyseed roll. That’s all I can remember – except for more fish.  Oh yes, and a California Chardonnay … Stag’s Leap, I think … and vodka.

oplatki

We’ll have to practice, Maureen.

That was just the beginning … or rather, the beginning was earlier before we even sat down. A traditional Wigilia begins with the youngest child in the household being sent outside to spot the first star. Then it begins – with opłatki. We skipped the kid (the star came out anyway, on its own) and moved directly to the opłatki. According to Sarah Zielinski on NPR, writing about opłatki here:

Nothing says “I love you,” at least in my Polish-American family, quite like the sharing of a thin, flat, tasteless wafer called an opłatek at Christmas.

We’re not alone. Before sitting down to Christmas Eve dinner, many families with roots in Poland and other Eastern European countries will take part in this tradition, which has roots dating back hundreds of years.

“For us, Polish Americans, the opłatek, that wafer, is Christmas Eve,” says Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, author of the book Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore

At the start of dinner, just after grace, the male head of the household takes the wafer and expresses his hopes for his wife in the new year. He might wish her good health, or ask for forgiveness for some fault.

milosz

He loved them, too.

“My father used to say, ‘OK, I’m not the best, but I’ll try harder,’ ” Knab says. “My mother would always say, ‘You work so hard and I appreciate you for that.’ “

The wife breaks off a piece of the opłatek and eats it. She then reciprocates the good wishes and shares the wafer with her husband. And the ceremonial sharing of wafer and good wishes continues with older relatives, guests and children, starting with the oldest.

“The sharing of this unleavened bread with another person is sharing all that is good with life,” says Knab. “It’s a time to tell each other, ‘I love you, I care about you.’ And you do it in an open area, where everyone else can see you.”

legs3According to one of my dinner companions, the charming Maureen Mroczek Morris, Americans don’t know how to do it right. We just break off a piece, smile, and say, “Merry Christmas!” Like we’re in a forced gift exchange at the office. We don’t get all warm and squishy, or even very sincere. In Poland, she says, it’s a very moving experience. Well, I had no one to ask forgiveness of, since I was surrounded by strangers. Perhaps I should have asked Maureen to forgive me, for being so Americanski. (She is Californian born and reared, so she’d understand.)

pierogi2And of course there were Christmas carols – and Polish Christmas carols really are lovely. Czesław Miłosz fostered my enthusiasm, ending his book A Year of the Hunter with a story about attending the Pastorałka: “Without a doubt, Polish carols possess a particular charm, freshness, sincerity, good humor, that simply cannot be found in such proportions in any other Christmas songs, and perhaps one ought to look at them for the essence of Polish poetry,” he wrote. “My susceptibility to that performance can be explained by my having listened to carols from childhood, but also because only the theater has such an impact, appealing to what is most our own, most deeply rooted in the rhythms of our language.” More on that here. Or watch the short clip below of a “Bóg sie rodzi,” a mazurka, which is to say a Polish folk dance in triple meter.

And there was a little poetry, too. I was asked to read Miłosz’s “Winter” – I had to read it from Caria’s smartphone, but I brought the inspiration with me. After all, I was wearing my amazing Miłosz legs. I wrote about them here.

To each and everyone, “Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia!”

Vasily Grossman recalls a bleak Christmas in wartime Russia

December 13th, 2014
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nyrbSara Kramer of the NYRB Classics dropped me a line yesterday to let me know that my submission for “A Different Stripe” had worked its way to the top of the “Coffee and Classics” stack (that must be some backlog; it’s been five months); see it online here. (And send your own submissions to this address.) The book I featured is Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate. Helen Pinkerton sent us a mini-review here, calling it “possibly the greatest novel I have ever read”. The wartime book was judged so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only the manuscript but the ribbons on which it had been typed were confiscated by the the state. Many readers are coming to share Helen’s opinion about its greatness. Author Martin Amis, for example, said that “Vasily Grossman is the Tolstoy of the U.S.S.R.”

Meanwhile, the submission gave Sara a chance to reread the bleak Christmas scenes from the book:

The soldiers … dragged another crate up to the stove, prised open the lid with their bayonets and began taking out tiny Christmas trees wrapped in cellophane. Each tree, only a few inches long, was decorated with gold tinsel, beads and tiny fruit-drops.

The general watched as the soldiers unwrapped the cellophane, then beckoned the lieutenant towards him and mumbled a few words in his ear. The lieutenant announced in a loud voice:

“The lieutenant-general would like you to know that this Christmas present from Germany was flown in by a pilot who was mortally wounded over Stalingrad itself. The plane landed in Pitomnik and he was found dead in the cabin.”

—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, translated by Robert Chandler


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