Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Pushkin’’

“His sobering effect”: Czesław Miłosz’s “Notes on Joseph Brodsky”

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012
Share

Last weekend I was chatting with Joseph Brodsky‘s first translator, George Kline.  The Bryn Mawr professor befriended the young Russian poet in St. Petersburg, and went on to be the translator of the Harper & Row 1973 Selected Poems, with a foreword by W.H. Auden.  It was later reissued as a Penguin paperback – I carried that dog-eared volume with me from 1976, when I bought it in an Ann Arbor bookstore, until it was lost it in a foreign city … somewhere in Vilnius, as I recall, sometime in the late 1990s.

George thanked me for sending him Czesław Miłosz‘s “Notes on Brodsky.” I couldn’t recall having done so, but looked up a copy for myself in Stanford’s Green Library, in a 1996 Partisan Review, to make sure I hadn’t.

The piece is well worth excerpting.  “The presence of Brodsky for many among his poet-colleagues was a mainstay and as if a point of reference,” the Polish poet wrote.  Later, “whatever survived from the past has been due to the principle of hierarchical distinction.”

“Here was a man who by his oeuvre and by his life reminded us, against what today is so often proclaimed and written, that hierarchy exists.  That hierarchy cannot be contrived by syllogisms and established in a discourse.  Rather, by living and writing, we affirm it every day anew. It has something to do with the elementary division into beauty and ugliness, truth and falsity, goodness and cruelty, liberty and tyranny. But, first of all, hierarchy means respect for that which is elevated and unconcern, rather than scorn, for that which is base. …

“To go straight to the goal, not letting oneself be swayed by any voices calling for one’s attention. That is, knowing how to recognize what is important and clinging only to it. That was precisely the the strong side of the great Russian writers of the past.

“Brodsky’s life and writing tended toward accomplishment, as an arrow tends towards the aim. Yet, evidently, that was an illusion, just as in the case of Pushkin or Dostoevsky. We must therefore formulate it differently – that fate tends straight to the aim, while the one who is ruled by fate knows how to read its main lines and to comprehend, be it dimly, that to which one is called.”

His words brought back what the Miłosz had said to me on the same subject, about “maintaining one’s own vision, one’s own taste, let us say, against the current fashion of the day.”

Esse.

From my Georgia Review interview a dozen years ago: “I have lived a long time in the West and tried to remain faithful to a line of Polish poetry. The same applies to Brodsky and Russia. The history of poetry is the history of language. That’s why Joseph Brodsky wrote that we write to please our predecessors, not our contemporaries.”  I’ve quoted this part before, about Milosz’s crucial division between esse and devenir:

“There was at a given moment a stable world where we could see, hold on to values that were a reflection of the eternal order of things. Now we are in a flux. This is a very peculiar way of life. … When everything is in flux, revision, it is healthy to have some poets who preserve the feeling of respect.  In a way, Brodsky was a conservative voice in that sense – he had a lot of sense.”

“For me, the value of Brodsky was his sobering effect, and his enormous feeling of hierarchy. He had a great feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature.”

The word has a life of its own – “it lives in the kingdom of the mouth and the mind.”

Saturday, February 25th, 2012
Share

The author

When I visited Ann Pasternak Slater last fall, I asked if her husband, the writer Craig Raine, might have a copy of the famously blistering review he wrote of Joseph Brodsky‘s poetry. I say “famous,” but my efforts had failed to uncover any copy of the review in any library. He hadn’t, but some weeks later she wrote that he had suggested I look up the review in his 500+ page book of essays, In Defense of T.S. Eliot.  Feeling a little rebuffed, I nevertheless found a copy of the book in Stanford’s Green Library, and I must say that he’s rather won me over, on every subject except Brodsky.

This paragraph, in particular, from the essay “A Book that Changed My Life,” about finding Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita as a 14-year-old boarding school student in 1959:

“I settled to read this dirty book – undeceived by the international tributes to Nabokov’s art which were anthologized at the back – and was at once bouleversé by the first paragraph, which had, as it turned out, a particular personal message from Nabokov to me. It was this: the word has a life of its own, a sound of its own and a shape of its own. It isn’t simply a harmless drudge, it is also a monarch with a retinue of associations. It lives in the kingdom of the mouth and the mind. If it is to obey you, you must cherish it as an individual and respect its unique powers and properties. Every word is irreplaceable, as Roget paradoxically but invariably demonstrates.”

Coincidentally, today’s Washington Post announced the death of 77-year-old Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s son, whose position as heir inevitably meant much of his life was spent protecting his father’s literary legacy and translating and editing his father’s plays, poems, stories, including the novella The Enchanter and the Selected Letters.

“My father is gradually marching — with his two favorite writers, Pushkin and Joyce — arm in arm into the pantheon to join the greatest of all, Shakespeare, who is waiting for them,” Nabokov told The Associated Press in a 2009 interview. “I like to think that I did my bit to keep things on track.”

 

The day after Shakespeare’s birthday, and “the first of arts”

Sunday, April 24th, 2011
Share

Wordsworth: Yesterday's child

Yesterday was my first time attending “A Company of Authors” – a warm and friendly gathering of about 100 or so booklovers at the Stanford Humanities Center.  (Video will be added when available.)  Particularly memorable: Elena Danielson‘s breathy presentation of the ethical issues of archiving.  Don’t think that sounds exciting?  You have to hear Elena tell about it.  The author of The Ethical Archivist has been privy to billets-doux of the long-dead and recently dead, and all the burning secrets held in donated letters and memorabilia. Ian Morris, author of Why the West Rules—For Now, as always, stole the show with his story about how everything came to be in the last 15,000 or so years.

We celebrated the parade of April 23d birthdays:  William Shakespeare, Alexander Pushkin, Vladimir Nabokov, William Wordsworth, J.M.W. Turner, Shirley Temple Black, St. George, and George Steiner, too.

As promised, Peter Stansky, read George Steiner’s poem:

To choose one’s birthday is the first of arts.
Renowned birthdays mark the man of parts.
The kalends are replete with faceless days,
So why not make one’s entry in a blaze?
Alas, I failed on the first day I was born!  Steiner noted:
And honest Wordsworth  tells us in his Ode
How the Platonic soul in its abode
Must before birth make choice of room and board –
No one is born on my day, although it is St. James‘s Day.  That means I should wear a cockle shell.  Or move to Spain.  Or both.   I shall have to be my own parade.
But all such glories are but dusty ends
When set against this laurel-crown of friends. …
How could the heart do otherwise than say
How wise it was to choose St. George’s day!

Hitting the road

The Times Online wrote this for Steiner’s birthday two years ago: “The polymath Professor George Steiner  said it is rather embarrassing that birthday celebrations are taking place in Florence, Rome and Germany. There is also an event at Churchill College, Cambridge, where he has been a Fellow since 1961. He is researching a book about how great philosophy gets itself written, called The Poetry of Thought. He enjoys walks with his Old English sheepdog, known as Monsieur Ben. Professor George Steiner is 80 today.”

Meanwhile, birthdays march on:  Today Anthony Trollope was born in 1815. And Robert Penn Warren, the first U.S. poet laureate in 1905.  The Swiss poet Carl Spitteler, a 1915 Nobel winner, in 1845.

From Trollope: “As to that leisure evening of life, I must say that I do not want it. I can conceive of no contentment of which toil is not to be the immediate parent.”

Happy Easter, everyone!

Tomorrow: Meet the authors, and celebrate birthdays with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Nabokov, and St. George

Friday, April 22nd, 2011
Share

“Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”

Tomorrow, April 23, is William Shakespeare‘s birthday.  It’s also William Wordsworth‘s birthday, and Vladimir Nabokov‘s birthday – and St. George’s Day, to boot.

It’s also the 8th annual “A Company of Authors” celebration at the Stanford Humanities Center, an all-afternoon gig celebrating the variety, richness and importance of the books produced by the Stanford community.  (More on the event here.)

This year’s auspicious date is not entirely a coincidence.  George Orwell biographer Peter Stansky, who founded the event along with the late, lamented Associates of the Stanford University Libraries, was particularly pleased by the possibilities offered by the juxtaposition.

Peter will open the event by reading a poem by George Steiner about the wisdom of choosing one’s birthday – you see, it’s Steiner’s birthday, too.

The event was inspired by the Los Angeles Times Book Fair and the annual Humanities Center Book party.  There’s a difference, however: the books will be available for sale at a 10 percent discount.  The fête kicks off at 1 p.m., and it’s free at the Humanities Center on Santa Teresa, and the company will be excellent, if I do say so myself.

“It is open to all who wish to come and learn more about the authors’ thinking behind their work, would like to chat with the authors in the periods between sessions and have the opportunity to purchase their books,” he said.  It has another purpose – “and that we can all feel that somehow we are in the tradition of Shakespeare!”

Authors include:  Charlotte Jacobs, Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease;

Birthday boy

Susan Krieger, Traveling Blind; William Kays, Letters from a Soldier; Gabriella Safran, Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator: S. An-sky; Abbas Milani, Myth of the Great Satan and The Shah; Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now; Karen Wigen, A Malleable Map; Elena Danielson, The Ethical Archivist; Jack Rakove, Revolutionaries; Karen Offen, Globalizing Feminisms; Myra Strober,  Interdisciplinary Conversations; Stina Katchadourian, The Lapp King’s Daughter; Dan Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy; Herbert Lindenberger, Situating Opera: Period, Genre, Reception; Debra Satz, Why Some Things Shouldn’t Be for Sale.  And you guessed it, Humble Moi – Cynthia Haven for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz.

No RSVP needed

According to Peter, “Most importantly in my view, the books reflect the most important aspect of the University: the life of the mind which sometimes gets forgotten in the many day to day events that take place at Stanford. In my view, this event represents the essence of the University.”

It is also J.M.W. Turner‘s birthday as well as Shirley Temple‘s, which he doesn’t mention.  “Perhaps you can arrange for Shirl ey Temple to come,” he suggested to me.  Do you think?

Postscript:  I know, I know … Shakespeare’s birthday is conjecture, based on his April 26 christening.  Usually, in the 16th century, a birth was followed post haste by a christening in anticipation of instant death.  And, given that he died on April 23, and that April 23 was St. George’s day, and, after all, he did need a birthday – the world fixed on April 23rd.  Good enough for me.  Hope for you, too.  See you tomorrow.

Postscript on 4/23/2013  We mistakenly reported that Alexander Pushkin‘s birthday is on April 23.  Wrong!  It’s June 6, 1799 (what a pleasant way to usher in a new century!)  The error has been corrected.  Thank you, Tatiana Pahlen, for pointing it out to us.