Afrikaans author André Brink, 1935-2015: Remembering a conversation long ago in London

February 8th, 2015
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Not what he looked like then. (Photo: Seamus Kearney)

André Brink, the Afrikaans author banned during the apartheid era, died Friday, February 6, after he became fatally ill during a flight from Amsterdam to his native South Africa. He had just received an honorary doctorate in Belgium.

I interviewed him in London, way back in the late 1970s, when I was working on Fleet Street. He was already an an awarded and acclaimed author, and already censored in South Africa. He was rather good-looking in a way I can’t find in any of the photos of him. Not craggy, as he was to become, nor with the bushy mop of hair he would acquire in the 80s. He was rather a “square” –  clean cut, professional, in a business suit. But his stories about being a banned writer were anything but square. He was continually watched by the security police, his phone tapped, and his mail intercepted and occasionally stolen. My cover story on him may no longer exist anywhere, except perhaps in one of the boxes in the garage. I think his book Rumours of Rain had just come out – or perhaps he had just published his Looking on Darkness in English.

According to the New York Times, “Mr. Brink’s work was often cited alongside that of Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee as an exemplar of South Africa’s ability to transform the experience of harsh racial politics into literature with a global reach.”

From The Guardian:

He was born in 1935 in Vrede, a small town in the Free State and became famous for using Afrikaans to speak against apartheid. His novel Looking on Darkness, was banned by the apartheid government in 1974. His other works include Devil’s Valley, Before I Forget and Praying Mantis. The books An Instant in the Wind and Rumours of Rain were both shortlisted for the Booker prize.

After circulation of copies of Rumours of Rain was held up for six months by the South African authorities in 1978, Brink reverted to private distribution for A Dry White Season.

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Hard work.

“We had a subscription list of those who had bought the earlier books,” he said the following year. “We sold about 4,000 copies that way.” After several months the censors gave approval to the book, also lifting a ban on Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, and it was released through formal publication channels.

Ten years later, Brando left retirement on Tahiti to take a small part in the film of A Dry White Season, which starred Donald Sutherland, Zakes Mokae and Susan Sarandon, and was banned in South Africa.

In 2012, Brink was again long-listed for the Man Booker prize for his slavery novel Philida.

His 1974 novel was the first book written in Afrikaans to be banned – so he translated it into English, thus Looking on Darkness launched his international reputation. And here’s the part of our conversation I do remember: I asked him what it was like to translate his own books into English. He said it was difficult, because Afrikaans was a young language and English a comparatively old one. In Afrikaans, you could express love and patriotism – and the emotions would be fresh and vital and new. But when tried to do the same thing in English, the effect would be overblown, hackneyed, and a little foolish. It was the difference between Shakespeare and Austen, he said. Shakespeare could express himself in English and he was inventing the world anew. Everything was possible. By the time Austen wrote, all the effects are understated. She achieves her effects by pulling back. (One reason why Darcy never makes his proposal to Elizabeth in her pages – it’s only the failed marriage proposals that are described in blow-by-blow detail.)

I’ve been thinking about what he said ever since. (And if I find the article in the garage someday, I’ll let you know.)

 

 

 

Quoting Diane Middlebrook

February 7th, 2015
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Quotable (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Brendan Boyle has written a review of Diane Middlebrook’s posthumous Young Ovid for the Wall Street Journal here, in a piece titled “Love and Other Crimes.” (And I’ve written about the book here and here.) My attention was immediately drawn to it because it leads with a line from my obituary for the celebrated biographer – here. The quote was taken from the unpublished bits of an interview I did with her in 2003, for my Stanford Magazine interview here.  Since obituaries typically aren’t chatty and first person-y, I didn’t mention my 2003 interview, and simply quoted her.

Here is the whole passage:

When asked several years ago why she picked Ovid as her subject, she responded with characteristic breeziness, “No estates, no psychotherapy, no interviews, no history—I just make it up.” She frequently pointed out that there is no historical record of Ovid’s life; all we know is in his poetry. In other words, the biographer is forced to rely on the text itself. Can literature be primary source? Her answer was always a resounding yes—especially evident in her biography of Hughes and Plath, a book that was called the “gold standard” on a contentious theme.

But later, Middlebrook would add that she was also attracted to “the remarkable confidence that Ovid had in his own survival.” At a Stanford address last January, Middlebrook noted, “The evidence inside his poetry is the key to this longevity. His voice comes to us like a plucked string, immediate and recognizable across two millennia…”

Why is there no attribution? Presumably Boyle picked it up from Wikipedia, which didn’t attribute the source, either. Nor did it credit me with this quotation from her obituary: “One of the reasons I like working on biographies is that it takes a long time,” she said. “You don’t have to work quickly. People are going to stay dead.”

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Redundant?

In my ham-fisted way, I’ve corrected the Wikipedia listings. Honestly, what is the point of doing interviews, trying hard to make the quotations accurate, transcribing recordings, which takes hours and hours … if people are going to treat what you’ve written as if it popped out of thin air? Boyle writes, “It’s the second half of the response that’s worrisome and surely can’t have been meant in earnest.” Well, of course it wasn’t. If he had gone to the article that included it, he would have seen that it was said with “characteristic breeziness.” She was being flippant. But he couldn’t. Because he was using Wikipedia, which didn’t list a source.

In any case, Boyle didn’t think much of the book, apparently, and what she said to me about “making it up” sealed her doom in his eyes, since he refers to that remark a lot. “The fictionalized interludes that Middlebrook herself writes do not add much and often have that florid, overripe air that descends upon so much writing about the ancient world.” He repeatedly makes it clear that “there is already a very fine account of Ovid’s life in Peter Green’s 1982 introduction to the Penguin edition of Ovid’s erotic poems.”  After recounting its virtues, he concludes, “All of this, and far more, is available in Mr. Green’s introduction, and no one looking for a sophisticated, compendious account of the poet’s life should search elsewhere.” Then why review this book at all?

Jean Genet’s “The Balcony” at the San Francisco Old Mint – tonight through February 21!

February 5th, 2015
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Audrey Dundee Hannah and Jack Halton explore the Old Mint.

I received a note from actor-director Florentina Mocanu-Schendel a week or so ago, inviting me to the Collected Work’s new production of Jean Genet‘s The Balcony. It promises to be an unusual production. Here’s one reason why: it’s performed at the gloomy Old Mint in San Francisco – also known as the City’s “Granite Lady,” with its dark stone corridors and vaults. You can see at the two bottom photos exactly what I  mean, if the other photos don’t give you a feel for the place. (All photos, by the way, taken by Jamie Lyons, who co-directs the play with Michael Hunter.) The Granite Lady is a survivor, the only financial institution open for business after the 1906 earthquake. They thought it was an apt setting for a play about the struggle for institutional power.

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San Francisco’s cheery landmark.

The Balcony is about a revolutionary uprising in the streets of an unnamed city. While armed rebels fight to take control of the city’s power structures, most of the action takes place in a brothel or “house of illusions,” where clients act out their fantasies of institutional power: they play judges, biships, and generals as their counterparts in the “real” world struggle to maintain their authority.

Important voices had lots to say about the controversial classic: Genet’s biographer, the critic Edmund White, wrote that, with the foregrounding of illusion and meta-theatricality i creating contemporary power and desire, Genet invented modern theater.  The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan described the play as the rebirth of the spirit of Aristophanes, while the philosopher Lucien Goldmann called it “the first great Brechtian play in French literature.” Martin Esslin has called The Balcony “one of the masterpieces of our time.”

Collected Works was founded in 2012 by a a group of theater directors, actors, and designers, mostly from the PhD program in drama at Stanford, where they had worked under the enlightened guidance of Carl Weber, who in turn had been the assistant director to Bertolt Brecht at the Berliner Ensemble. The San Francisco Weekly said the group is “hell-bent on bringing exceptional, experimental performance to the West Coast theater scene” – and in offbeat venues, too. Go here for more information.

We’ve written about Collected Works before, here, for it’s earlier production of Gombrowicz’s Princess Ivona. This one definitely sounds like it’s worth checking out. Go here for times and tickets.

 

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Right to left: Ryan Tacata (facing the wall) Scott Baker, Val Sinckler, and Florentina herself. (Photo: Jamie Lyons)

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Ryan Tacata has a nightcap, with Valerie Fachman.

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Val Sinckler ponders the script.

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Ryan Tacata finds a lot to ponder, too.

“I am dying, and that’s a helluva way of introducing the book of my greatest love”: Middlebrook’s posthumous Young Ovid; Djerassi’s last public appearance

January 31st, 2015
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Last wishes fulfilled. (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Carl Djerassi had a way of stealing the show, and last week may prove, in retrospect, to have been no exception. The January 22 occasion was the launch of biographer Diane Middlebrook‘s posthumous book, Young Ovid: A Life Recreated (Counterpoint Press) a book that has taken seven years since the author’s death to find its way into book form. Last week’s event, at the fabulous Djerassi digs atop Russian Hill, will be known equally as Carl’s last public appearance. The eminent chemist who has been called “father of the pill” (surely a contradiction in terms) – and also an author, playwright, and founder of an artists’ colony – died yesterday of cancer at 91. It’s certainly appropriate that his final public appearance was a last salute to his late wife, who died of cancer in 2007.

According to Diane’s daughter, Leah Middlebrook, the posthumous book would not have come out with him. “He kept her alive and kept her distracted,” she recalled. She had reached a lowpoint in her long illness when she realized she would not be able to finish her book. Carl suggested a “Young Ovid” biography, and that gave her new life. She discussed the manuscript with Carl to the last days of her life. A pleasure as well as a duty, for Ovid was her lifelong passion. “Reading a page and a half will convince you her voice is still present with us,” said her daughter.

I bought a copy, available at the event courtesy Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and though I’ve only had a chance to cast a casual eye over it, it’s impressive, perhaps some of her best work. “It is Diane’s prose. It is Diane’s writing,” said Leah. It wasn’t easy. Middlebrook had continued writing until a month before her death. She conveyed to a circle of insiders her plans and intentions for the finished book. The execution finally rested in the hands of others – and the search of a publisher was a labor of its own. The New Yorker has already named it as one of their “Books to Watch Out For” here.

At the event last week, however, tribulations were forgotten amid plenty of champagne, plenty of brie, plenty of dolmas, and plenty of little bits of goat cheese wrapped in strips of fried zucchini, against the backdrop of what must be one of the most stunning views in a city full of them. I described it a dozen years ago (here) this way:

“The couple’s art interests are evident in their home, surely one of the most fabulous apartments in San Francisco. It occupies the entire 15th floor (they gradually absorbed four apartments) of an art-deco building on Green Street, atop Russian Hill. The elevator from the lobby opens onto blue walls meant to suggest a night sky, with poetry by Ovid, Paul Klee, Wallace Stevens, Basho, Hughes and others written across it in different scripts and languages and illustrated with zodiacal signs. To the left are living quarters; to the right, offices and the salon area, where the couple entertains. They enjoy a 360-degree view of the city.

(Photo: Isabella Gregor)

He liked this one. (Photo: I. Gregor)

“Middlebrook’s office features Eurodesign cabinets and built-in bookcases, with a computer desk and round work table. As in the hotel room, all is very neat, very well-organized—a Middlebrook cardinal virtue. A painted baroque ceiling, with blue, gray and plum-colored swirls, gives the impression the sky is right above you.

“Works of art by Klee, usually on the walls in the salon area, are currently on loan to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, keeping company with the permanent Klee collection Djerassi donated. The couple has one of the world’s most significant private Klee collections.”

Much of the evening buzz over hors d’oeuvres was about Carl’s health – whispers that this would be his last public appearance, and so it was. (I still can’t believe that he won’t email me tomorrow with the photo he’d rather have me use for this farewell post – but the one I’m including is the one he preferred last time, so here it is again.) When Carl finally appeared and was helped to a chair at the front of the gathering he was startlingly thin, exceedingly frail, but erect and dignified, surprisingly present, altogether there. “Can you hear me back there? All of you back there?” he called. “I’m losing my voice, and I am losing my voice because I am dying, and that’s a helluva way of introducing the book of my greatest love.”

He had a slender, old-fashioned paperback – 1930s, Europe – on the small table next to his side as he spoke, and told his story about fleeing Austria with his mother in 1938 to escape the Nazis. “What would you take as a refugee? No furniture of any size, nothing heavy,” he recalled. Just clothing, pictures, and some books – and one of the books was this one – naturally, a book of Ovid. Heavy going for a teenager who had only four years of Latin, he admitted, but the relic from his past traveled with him to New York; Newark, New Jersey; the Midwest; Mexico; and California. It’s still with him. If he were writing a book, it would be framed as a prefiguration of the woman he would find towards the end of a journey – a woman whose lifelong passion was Ovid – and the book that would connect them at the end of both their lives.

middlebrook1“Diane, I want to tell you how important that book was to me that you finally finished,” he said.

Let the last words be hers, however. Her close friend Marilyn Yalom read, if not a page and a half, at least this part from the introduction to the book, turning on Ovid’s own words: “Throughout all ages,/if poets have vision to prophesy truth, I shall live.”

“To a biographer, Ovid’s declaration ‘I shall live’ can feel like a glove slapping a cheek across twenty centuries. Quite aside from its embarrassingly self-promotional aspect, the phrase can be dismissed as empty convention: Ovid’s most celebrated contemporaries incorporated lines like this in work of their own they most admired. But what if Ovid meant it? What could support a writer’s belief that works of poetry could be immortal and that his own was destined for this rare elevation?

“Biography is a medium for working out solutions to such puzzles. Yet Ovid is not an obvious candidate for biography; there is almost no documentation of Ovid’s life outside his poetry. The evidence inside his poetry is all we have to go on. But it is enough, for Ovid was an unusually autobiographical writer for his time. His voice comes toward us like a plucked string, immediate and recognizable across two millenia, partly because he made frequent use of an effective rhetorical strategy: accosting us readers as if we were present in the room with him. At one point he even calls us, his heirs, by name: ‘Who is this I you read … ?/You want to know, posterity? Then attend” (Tristia 4.10.1-2).

 

“Her exemplary effort to swallow the world”: Wasserman on Sontag, yesterday in Berlin

January 30th, 2015
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“For Steve, who was there, then; with love, as always – Susan.”

My sole face-to-face encounter with Susan Sontag occurred at Stanford, when she was a visiting star sometime in the 1990s. She was dressed in the slightly dowdy “prison matron” threads that were her trademark, alleviated with a colorful scarf, another trademark. I had expected her to be physically towering; she was not. Obviously, that was the impression her books left on my psyche. I’m pretty certain she would say that had been the real encounter.

Steve Wasserman, editor at large for Yale University Press (and my former editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review) got the double exposure of her books and her friendship. He recounted both yesterday in Berlin, in his keynote address, “Susan Sontag: Critic and Crusader” at a symposium at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry (Steve called it a “secular monastery”). He spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the “Susan Sontag Revisited” symposium honoring the legendary cultural critic and author ten years after her death. He gave was a knockout address – one that should become the defining retrospective on the impact Susan Sontag has had on an entire generation.

His comments on her writing:

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Steve, in color.

“Sontag’s style is her subject. For it is the way she thinks, how she goes about it, how she offers her readers the chance, as it were, to eavesdrop on a mind thinking as hard and as nimbly as it can that is most compelling about her work. Or, to put it another way, it is not so much her opinions that matter—though of course they do—but rather how she goes about arriving at them, how she renders them, the very warp and woof of her sentences. Wayne Koestenbaum, in his appreciation written soon after her death, understood this well, observing that she ‘is usually cited for her content rather than her form or style, and yet her paragraphs and sentences bear close and admiring scrutiny as exemplars of … prose forms that would permit maximum drift and detour.’ He marveled at what he called ‘her prose’s Mercurochrome aesthetic, her stern, self-conscious, tense sentences.’ He saw that ‘Her essays behave like fictions (disguised, arch, upholstered with attitudes), while her fictions behave like essays (pontificating, pedagogic, discursive).’ Koestenbaum writes that ‘The ends of her novels are the best parts.’ Often the same is true of her essays. He offers a number of examples: ‘The last three sentences of The Volcano Lover: ‘They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.’ The last two sentences of Death Kit: ‘Diddy has made his final chart; drawn up his last map. Diddy has perceived the inventory of the world.’ The last sentence of The Benefactor: ‘You may imagine me in a bare room, my feet near the stove, bundled up in many sweaters, my black hair turned grey, enjoying the waning tribulations of subjectivity and the repose of a privacy that is genuine.’

‘And, of course, the famous end of her essay on Riefenstahl and Nazi aesthetics: ‘The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.’”

Koestenbaum’s appraisal is insightful, but the best words yesterday came from Steve himself:

“Writers, Sontag had long felt, if they are any good at all, are obliged to try to understand the forces that shape us. They seek to give us a more truthful sense of things, a more nuanced sense of the world we inhabit. They oppose simplification and mystification. They are interested in complex readings informed by history. They write to help us understand what, for many, eludes understanding.

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Avant le déluge… (Photo: Kyra Meyer)

“Sontag in all her political essays and public statements and interviews and deeds tried valiantly to marshal her exceptional combination of erudition, intelligence, and empathy yoked to an abiding commitment to democratic values, in order to illuminate the present in a time of dizzying transformations, cynical manipulations and malleable geopolitical realities. She wanted to apprehend the forces that have given rise to murderous anger and to excavate the specific policies and alliances that have gone awry. She tried to articulate a coruscating and lucid analysis of the underlying conflict of our times: religious and tribal fundamentalism versus secular consumerist capitalism, or, in Benjamin Barber’s succinct formulation, Jihad versus McWorld. That conflict has birthed a world that is simultaneously coming together and falling apart. On the one hand, warp-speed capitalism is steadily weaving the globe into a single international market, challenging traditional notions of national sovereignty. On the other hand, the world is increasingly riven by fratricide, civil war, identity politics, and the breakup of nations. What capitalism and fundamentalism have in common is a distaste for democracy.

“Americans, Sontag long recognized, suffer from a persistent collective historical amnesia. Our politics are hobbled by our refusal to understand the manifold ways in which history, as was once so famously said, weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Americans have cleaved to the conceit that history, insofar as it was deemed important at all, was more hindrance than help in our presumed march to the munificent future. Optimistic, pragmatic, impatient, inventive, generous, Americans refused to be held hostage to history, believing that America had burst its bounds and that it could remake the entire planet in its own image. More: that the peoples of the world yearned to be Americans. The cost, as Sontag knew, of such myopia is large. It enfeebles understanding, promotes nostrums of all kinds, licenses the infantilization of public debate.”

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At the podium… (Photo: Kyra Meyer)

“For too long, Americans have let our romance with distance and escape and denial define our culture and our politics. Susan understood this in her gut and in her head. For her, as she often said, California was America’s America, where you went to reinvent yourself. Her voluntary migration to New York was an effort to make her home in the one city she thought least American, if by “American” we mean deliberately provincial, uninterested in the rest of the world, anti-cosmopolitan. Similarly, for Sontag, New York was America’s Europe. And indeed, for many years, she divided her time between America and Europe, traveling incessantly. She both championed the American Dream of self-invention and was herself a successful example of such a project, and, as her critics rightly suspected, its fervent opponent, if by American Dream one means a country devoted, as Michael Wood suggested in his useful book, America in the Movies, to ‘a dream of freedom which appears in many places and many forms, which lies somewhere at the back of several varieties of isolationism. . .It is a dream of freedom from others; it is a fear … of entanglement. It is what we mean when we say, in our familiar phrase, that we don’t want to get involved.” There is, however, as 9/11 made clear and as the grotesque assault on Charlie Hebdo in Paris made plain, no hiatus from history, no reprieve from reality, no retreat from engagement.

“Sontag endeavored to live as Einstein enjoined us: to ‘remember your humanity and forget the rest.’ She sought assiduously to affirm—and to reaffirm—the ideas of secularism, reason, libertarianism, internationalism, and solidarity.

“In an interview for the Paris Review, published in 1995, Sontag was asked what she thought was the purpose of literature:

‘A novel worth reading,’ she replied, ‘is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.’ She was the cartographer of her own literary explorations. Henry James once remarked that ‘Nothing is my last word on anything.’ For Sontag, as for James, there was always more to be said, more to be felt. Alas, these ten years since her death, there is only silence from her grave at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, alongside Baudelaire and Beckett and Sartre.

Sontag_06“And yet and yet: the sound of Susan’s voice is still in my head. Her lust for life, her avidity, her pursuit of aesthetic bliss, her detestation of philistinism, her love of learning, her opposition to ethical and aesthetic shallowness, her insistence on being a grown-up, her passion for justice and capacity for outrage, and, always, her hatred of suffering and death, are everywhere to be found in her sentences, in her essays and in her stories. Her exemplary effort to swallow the world, as she concludes her revelatory short story, ‘Unguided Tour,’ tells the tale: ‘If I go this fast, I won’t see anything. If I slow down—Everything. –then I won’t have seen everything before it disappears. Everywhere. I’ve been everywhere. I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list. Land’s end. But there’s water, O my heart. And salt on my tongue. The end of the world. This is not the end of the world.’

I hear most of all her cri de coeur, given to the narrator of her story, “Debriefing,” – it could be her epitaph, her final aria, as she ends her story with the defiant throbbing declaration: ‘Sisyphus, I. I cling to my rock, you don’t have to chain me. Stand back! I roll it up – up, up. And. . .down we go. I knew that would happen. See, I’m on my feet again. See, I’m starting to roll it up again. Don’t try to talk me out of it. Nothing, nothing could tear me away from this rock.’”

Synchronicity: the words with which Steve ended his talk are the very same words with which Sontag ended her talk and reading at Stanford. I never forgot them.

 

What are the odds that this is the grave of Cervantes?

January 28th, 2015
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What are the odds that we’ve found the grave of Miguel de Cervantes? Pretty good, I’d say. The author of Don Quixote (1547-1616) asked to be buried at this Trinitarian convent, and sure enough, with ground-penetrating radar, the researchers have found a crumbling wooden coffin with the initials “M.C.” spelled out in metal tacks. It’s one of the half-dozen graves identified in the graveyard of the brick-walled convent in the heart of Madrid, which is a pretty nice city to be lost in.

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Maybe Cervantes, maybe not.

It’s not his first wandering, by a longshot. In 1569, he traveled to Rome where he was the chamber assistant to a cardinal. By 1570, Cervantes had enlisted as a soldier in the Spanish Navy Marines, and the following year participated in the pivotal Battle of Lepanto, in which the Holy League defeated the Ottoman Empire. Though taken with a fever, he insisted on taking part, saying he would rather die for his God and his king than keep under cover. He almost did: he received three gunshot wounds, one which rendered his left arm useless. In Journey to Parnassus he was to say that he “had lost the movement of the left hand for the glory of the right” (thinking of his career as a right-handed author). And that’s how we may be able to identify him.

According to The Guardian:

Experts said his bones should be easy to identify as they would bear the marks of wounds suffered during the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Cervantes received wounds to his chest and arms during a battle which saw a Spanish-led fleet defeat their Ottoman enemies in the Gulf of Patras off western Greece.

“He received a blast from a harquebus in the chest and another wound that left him unable to use one hand,” [historian Fernando] Prado said. “Those two things will have left some imprint on his bones.”

Cervantes was buried in the convent after dying at his home nearby in 1616. … Cervantes’ bones went missing in 1673 when building work was done at the convent. They are known to have been taken to a different convent and were returned later.

So what are the chances? The Book Haven puts down its bet for “yes,” although the experts are advising caution. And who knows? Scientists may be able to tell whether he did indeed die of complications from cirrhosis of the liver, and so was the tippler he was rumored to be. I’m more interested in whether his DNA will show whether he was a converso, that is, of Jewish descent. Just about everybody brilliant in Spain seemed to be, including the leading Spanish poet (and mystic) of all time, his contemporary Juan de la Cruz. Forensic archaeologists may even be able to reconstruct the face of a man only known from a picture painted by artist Juan de Jáuregui a couple decades after his death (see above).  Current scholarship does not accept this, or any other graphic representation of Cervantes, to be authentic.

Susan Sontag, Berlin, 10 years later: “Thinking is a form of feeling, feeling is a form of thinking”

January 25th, 2015
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Sontag_06The Institute for Cultural Literacy in Berlin is having a retrospective on cultural icon and author Susan Sontag ten years after her death, to discuss the continuing relevance of her work. The reason I know about this distant event: my former editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Steve Wasserman, will be giving the keynote address. Steve, a friend of the late author and cultural critic, is now editor-at-large for Yale University Press, which under his guidance recently released Jonathan Cott‘s Complete Rolling Stone InterviewSontag was also one of the contributors of the late lamented LATBR, so I was in good company.

“Susan Sontag Revisited” will take place January 29-30 at Christinenstrasse 18/19. Apparently, the organizers are apparently expecting a crowd, for the website warns: “For safety reasons, venue doors will be closed when capacity limits are reached. We apologize for any inconvenience.” Get there early, or you will be pushed away by gendarmes.

In addition to Steve, other speakers include: Andrea Braidt, Carolin Emcke, Jörn Glasenapp, Erika and Ulrich Gregor, E. Ann Kaplan, Nihad Kresevljakovic, Michael Krüger, Juliane Lorenz, Christina Pareigis, Anne Ratte-Polle, Laurence Rickels, Hanna Schygulla, with Christina Tilmann moderating the proceedings, in English and German.

An excerpt from Steve’s blogpost about his friendship with Sontag:

I would repair, at her invitation, to Sontag’s penthouse, Jasper Johns’ former studio, located on the Upper West Side at 340 Riverside Drive.

sontagI remember the apartment well.  Flooded with sunlight, surrounded by a generous terrace overlooking the Hudson, it was spartan: hardwood floors, white walls, high ceilings; in the living room a single Eames chair, an original Andy Warhol of Chairman Mao, and in the dining room a long monk’s table made of oak with a brace of long benches on either side; in the kitchen’s cupboards a stack of plates, a few glasses, and row after row of back issues of Partisan Review; leaning against one wall of Susan’s bedroom a curious stained-glass window from Italy of a spooky Death’s Head, a kind of memento mori and, perhaps most impressive, by her bedside a 24-hour clock featuring time zones spanning the globe.  Most important, of course, were the walls which bore the weight of her 8,000 books, a library which Susan would later call her “personal retrieval system.”

I spent the summer nearly getting a crick in my neck from perusing the books and I remember thinking that, while I had just finished four years of college, my real education was only beginning.  I discovered scores of writers I had never heard of as well as writers I distantly knew but had never read.  For reasons wholly mysterious I found myself drawn to four blue-backed volumes: the journals of André Gide.  These, like others in Susan’s library, were filled with her pencil underlinings and marginal notes.  One such passage by Gide made a deep impression: “When I cease getting angry, I shall have already begun my old age.”

I think Gide is wrong on that one – but I think Sontag is right when she declares, according to Steve, “what amounts to a credo, asserting that ‘thinking is a form of feeling and that feeling is a form of thinking.’” Check out Steve’s post and voice recording of Sontag here.

René Girard on terrorism: “We have to radically change the way we think.” Have we?

January 22nd, 2015
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Police at the Charlie Hebdo offices, January 7, 2015. (Photo Thierry Caro)

The events in Paris and elsewhere have brought René Girard‘s prescient Battling to the End front and center, at least for me. Keep in mind this book was first published in Paris in 2007, long before the current cycle of events. Hence, he reflected on the devastation of September 11, 2001, but his suggestions are even more pertinent today, “as history has accelerated and politics has lost importance.” He called for a deeper understanding and a radical rethinking of our current assumptions, understandings, and strategies. “The work to be done is immense,” he wrote. Has that happened? I don’t think so. I reviewed this book for the San Francisco Chronicle here, and wrote an article about him here – which included part of the excerpt below:

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Work to be done.

Atta, the leader of the September 11 group who piloted one of the two airplanes, was the son of a middle class Egyptian family. It is staggering to think that during the three last days before the attack, he spent his nights in bars with his accomplices. There is something mysterious and intriguing in this. Who asks about the souls of those men? Who were they and what were their motivations? What did Islam mean to them? What does it mean to kill themselves for the cause? The growing number of attacks in Iraq is impressive. I think it is strange that there is so little interest in the logic of these events, which dominate the world just as the Cold War once did. Since when? We are not really sure. No one could have imagined that we would be in this situation barely 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell. This disturbs our vision of history as it has been written since the American and French revolutions. Our vision of history does not take into account the fact that the entire West is challenged and threatened by this. We have to say “this” because we do not know what it is. …

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“People were shaken, but they quickly calmed down.”

On September 11, people were shaken, but they quickly calmed down. There was a flash of awareness, which lasted a few fractions of a second. People could feel that something was happening. Then a blanket of silence covered up the crack in our certainty of safety. Western rationalism operates like a myth: we always work harder to avoid seeing the catastrophe. We neither can nor want to see violence as it is. The only way we will be able to meet the terrorist challenge is by radically changing the way we think. Yet the clearer it is what is happening, the stronger our refusal to acknowledge it. This historical configuration is so new that we do not know how to deal with it. It is precisely a modality of what Pascal saw: the war between violence and truth. Think about the inadequacy of our recent avant-gardes that preached the non-existence of the real. …

If we had said in the 1980s that Islamism would play the role it plays today, people would have thought we were crazy. Yet the ideology promoted by Stalin already contained para-religious components that foreshadowed the increasingly radical contamination that has occurred over time. Europe was less malleable in Napoleons time. After Communism, its vulnerability has returned to that of a medieval village facing the Vikings. The Arab conquest was a shock, while the French Revolution was slowed by the nationalism that it provoked across Europe. In its first historical deployment, Islam conquered religiously. This was its strength and it also explains the solidity of its roots. The revolutionary impetus accelerated by the Napoleonic era was checked by the equilibrium among nations. However, nations became inflamed in turn, and destroyed the only possible means of stopping revolutions from happening.

We therefore have to radically change the way we think, and try to understand the situation without any presuppositions and using all the resources available from the study of Islam. The work to be done is immense. …

battling to end_webOf course, there is resentment in its attitude to Judeo-Christianity and the West, but it is also a new religion. This cannot be denied. Historians of religion, and even anthropologists, have to show how and why it emerged. Indeed, some aspects of this religion contain a relationship to violence that we do not understand and that are all the more worrying for that reason. For us, it makes no sense to be ready to pay with one’s life for the pleasure of seeing the other die. We do not know whether such phenomena belong to a special psychology or not. We are thus facing complete failure; we cannot talk about it and also we cannot document the situation because terrorism is something new that exploits Islamic codes, but does not at all belong to classical Islamic theory. Today’s terrorism is new, even from an Islamic point of view. It is a modern effort to counter the most powerful and refined tool of the Western world: technology. It counters technology in a way that we do not understand, and that classical Islam may not understand either.

Thus, it is not enough to simply condemn the attacks. The defensive thought by which we oppose the phenomenon does not necessarily embody a desire to understand. Often it even reveals a desire to not understand, or an intention to comfort oneself. Clausewitz is easier to integrate into a historical development. He gives us the intellectual tools to understand the violent escalation. However, where do we find such ideas in Islam? Modern resentment never leads all the way to suicide. Thus we do not have the analogical structures that could help us to understand. I am not saying that they are not possible, that they will not appear, but I admit my inability to grasp them. This is why our explanations often belong to the province of fraudulent propaganda against Muslims.

Vico: “Man becomes all things by not understanding them.”

January 20th, 2015
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GiambattistaVicoI ran across this quotation from the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668 – 1744) in Robert Pogue Harrison‘s new book Juvenescence – and I have been thinking about it ever since. I hope to give the book a fuller discussion later (although we included it briefly in a discussion here). Meanwhile, consider these provocative words from Vico a sort of down payment in a busy week:

So that, as rational metaphysics teaches that man becomes all things by understanding them … this imaginative metaphysics [of early humans] shows that man becomes all things by not understanding them … and perhaps the latter proposition is truer than the former, for when man understands he extends his mind and takes in the things, but when he does not understand he makes the things out of himself and becomes them by transforming himself into them.

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Translating Orhan Pamuk: “I was, without knowing it, putting myself into a trance.”

January 18th, 2015
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Cahier’s illustrations by Rie Iwatake.

“Translators, like editors, are the lieutenants of culture,” my friend and former publisher David Sanders recently reminded me. I wrote about one of these lieutenants in my most recent post here. Perhaps that’s what inspired me to finally open Angry in Piraeus, the most recent offering from the Cahiers Series (we’ve written about it here and here, among other places). It had long languished in a pile of books and periodicals waiting for my attention. The excellent Cahiers Series is a project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and despite the international kudos, is still too little known.

Museum-of-InnocenceMaureen Freely, the author of this 37-page essay, is known for her translations of the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, but she is also a novelist in her own right. Her family moved to Turkey when she was a child, and Pamuk was a school chum – hence, the second career in translation. According to the Sylph Editions website, which publishes the Cahiers Series: “Angry in Piraeus is the story of the creation of a translator. In this cahier, Maureen Freely explores what it was in her childhood that led her to become a traveler across the spaces that exist between countries, languages, and forms. She offers rich descriptions of her itinerant upbringing in America, Turkey, and Greece, vividly evoking what it means to be constantly commuting between worlds – geographical, conceptual, linguistic, and literary – in search of a home, or a self, that is proving elusive.”

In Angry in Piraeus, she writes the delicate tightrope act between her stories and the stories of others, and the different worlds translation creates.”When I am questioned about my ‘fidelity’ to the text I live to serve, what I can never quite manage to explain is this: if I am to be faithful to anything in the opening passage of a novel, or a short story, or a memoir, it will be to its mood. It will be to the trance it sets up, the sız sız sız, the magic trick that takes the reader through the page and into the secret realm beyond.”

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Author under fire.

Translation, she writes, is the “slowest, deepest, and most intimate form of reading.” Her relationship with her the childhood friend becomes strained as she translates from his Istanbul and into her own, and then back again – and as he becomes a controversial figure, widely hated in Turkey for his outspoken remarks about the Armenian genocide.

An Excerpt:

By the time I embarked on our fifth and last collaboration. The Museum of Innocence, I had been wandering through the labyrinths of his mind long enough to know their every twist and turn. I had come to accept that everything he wrote had to be anchored in some way in the streets of his childhood. I had also come to understand that, as good as he was at capturing voices, his stories came to him in images. In The Museum of Innocence these images are highly detailed, and meticulously positioned. That order is reflected, and at times even replicated, in his Turkish sentences. I can only imagine the delight he found in creating a text that embedded the conceits of the narrative at the molecular level. At a time in his life when the newspapers printed a new lie about him almost every day, narrative might also have offered some semblance of order. He was not, I think, surprised when I told him he could not exert the same sort of control over a translation. That did not stop him from trying. By that time, he had a lot of clout. I do not think I could have made it through that hellish year, had it not been for the daydream that was always waiting for me, every time I came up for air.

This was the Istanbul that I was slowly beginning to see again, if only to keep breathing. It wasn’t drained of colour, like Orhan’s city. It was golden, and the troubled bourgeoisie that I’d been translating for seven years was nowhere in sight. There were only the wild and beautiful bohemians who had brought me up. Their real-world counterparts were mostly dead and gone, or sacrificed to their bad habits, but in the 1962 of my daydream, they were still living recklessly and getting away with it, beautifully.

When at last I had sent Orhan’s museum off to the publisher, I went back into my own head for what felt at first like a luxury vacation. Little by little, I translated myself out of Orhan’s Istanbul and back into my own. And when I look back on what happened next, I can only think that I must have been using words differently after all those years in translation. I was no longer using the clipped, cut-glass language I had always trusted most. I was letting myself loop and curve across the page. I was, without knowing it, putting myself into a trance. Word by word, I conjured up Istanbul circa 1962. And when I had succeeded in putting myself back there, it turned out not to be the paradise I remembered: the gold was laced with jealousy, confusion, and terror.

 Do yourself a favor and order it here. You’ll even find out what the sız sız sız is.


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