Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Hitchens’

Indefatigable spirit: Remembering the legendary Robert Conquest (1917–2015)

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

My favorite photo of him, by the matchless Linda Cicero.

 

To each of those who’ve processed me
Into their scrap of fame or pelf:
You think in marks for decency
I’d lose to you? Don’t kid yourself.

Robert Conquest wrote these lines in his last collection of poems, Penultimata (Waywiser, 2009). I suppose, although he was too polite to say so, I might be included in his roster, since we met when I interviewed him – here.  Although the interview form is a kind of exploitation, I suppose, it didn’t exactly bring me either fame or pelf, but something much better. I expect my own “processing” will continue for some time now, as I digest, in future years, his work over a long lifetime. As everyone now knows, the Anglo-American historian and poet died on Monday, after long illness. He was 98.  (Obituaries from the New York Times here, the Wall Street Journal here, and London’s Telegraph here.) He was working until his last few weeks on an unfinished memoir called Two Muses. I hope there’s enough of it to publish.

The short quatrain above refers, I expect, to his dirty limericks and light verse, rather than his sobering prose and more serious poems. “Limericks are not very gentlemanly – or it’s a special kind of gentleman,” he told me. But perhaps the lightness of much of his verse was a necessary psychological counterbalance to the grim history he relentlessly documented in the books that were his major achievement, chronicling the devastation caused by the Soviet regime, throughout its existence. His landmark book, The Great Terror reads like a thriller, and is a detailed log of Stalin’s assassinations, arrests, tortures, frame-ups, forced confessions, show trials, executions and incarcerations that destroyed millions of lives. The book instantly became a classic of modern history, and other titles followed, including The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986) and a 1977 translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s 1,400-line poem, Prussian Nights, undertaken at the author’s request.

The late Christopher Hitchens, a close friend, praised Bob’s “devastatingly dry and lethal manner,” hailing him as “the softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny.” Timothy Garton Ash said“He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn.”

When he revised The Great Terror for republication in 1990, his chum Kingsley Amis proposed a new title, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.” Catchy title, although Bob settled for the more circumspect The Great Terror: A Reassessment. 

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Mentor and mentee, 2009.

“His historical intuition was astonishing,” Norman Naimark told the New York Times (we’ve written about Norm here and here and here). “He saw things clearly without having access to archives or internal information from the Soviet government. We had a whole industry of Soviet historians who were exposed to a lot of the same material but did not come up with the same conclusions. This was groundbreaking, pioneering work.”

My 2010 interview, however, wasn’t my first encounter with the poet-historian, although it was his first encounter with me. I was one of a throng of people who attended a 2009 ceremony at Hoover event when Radosław Sikorski, then Poland’s minister of foreign affairs, awarded him the country’s Order of Merit. (I wrote about the occasion here. Incidentally, Bob received a U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.)

“His books made a huge impact on the debate about the Soviet Union, both in the West and in the East. In the West, people had always had access to the information about Communism but were not always ready to believe in it,” said Sikorski at that time. ”We longed for confirmation that the West knew what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. Robert Conquest’s books gave us such a confirmation. They also transmitted a message of solidarity with the oppressed and gave us hope that the truth would prevail.”

An excerpt from my 2010 article:

Susan Sontag was a visiting star at Stanford in the 1990s. But when she was introduced to Robert Conquest, the constellations tilted for a moment.

“You’re my hero!” she announced as she flung her arms around the elderly poet and acclaimed historian. It was a few years since she had called communism “fascism with a human face” – and Conquest, author of The Great Terror, a record of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, had apparently been part of her political earthquake.

Sitting in his Stanford campus home last week and chatting over a cup of tea, the 93-year-old insisted it’s all true: “I promise. We had witnesses.” His wife, Liddie, sitting nearby confirmed the account, laughing.

Conquest, a Hoover Institution senior research fellow emeritus, moves gingerly with a walker, and speaks so softly it can be hard to understand him. But his writing continues to find new directions: He published his seventh collection of poems last year and a book of limericks this year, finished a 200-line poetic summa and is working on his memoirs.

He’s been a powerful inspiration for others besides Sontag. In his new memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens described Conquest, who came to Stanford in 1979, as a “great poet and even greater historian.” The writer Paul Johnson goes further, calling Conquest “our greatest living historian.”

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He deserved the medal. In 2005.

I made a few return visits to that immaculate and airy Stanford townhouse on the campus. Liddie was always bubbly, intelligent, and hospitable – a thorough Texan, and always a charming and welcoming hostess. Often the two of us were talking so quickly and with such animation Bob couldn’t keep up – he spoke barely above a whisper. He was still a terrific conversationalist, one just had to listen harder. Among his considerable gifts, “He had a wicked sense of humor and he loved to laugh: the look of playful delight that animated his face as he nailed a punch line is impossible to forget,” said Bert Patenaude (I also wrote about Bert here). “His poems and limericks convey a sense of his mischievousness—and naughtiness—and his late poems chronicle the aging process with sensitivity and, one is easily persuaded, acute psychological insight.”

Another of our mutual friends, the poet R.S. Gwynn, agreed: ”As a poet Bob is funny, intensely lyrical and deeply reflective,” he said. “Whenever I read him I think of how rarely we are allowed to see a mind at work, and what a mind it is.” (I’ve written about Sam Gwynn here and here.)

Bert said that Bob’s final speaking appearance on the Stanford campus may well have been his participation in an annual book event, “A Company of Authors,” where he discussed Penultimata on April 24, 2010. “Bob seemed frail that day, and at times it was difficult to hear him and to understand his meaning, but no one in the room could doubt that the genial elderly man up there reciting his poetry could have carried the entire company of authors on his back. Seated next to me in the audience was a Stanford history professor, a man (not incidentally) of the political left, someone I had known since my graduate student days—not a person I would ever have imagined would be drawn to Bob Conquest. Yet he had come to the event, he told me, specifically in order to see and hear the venerable poet-historian: ‘It’s rare that you get to be in the presence of a great man. Robert Conquest is a great man.’ Indeed he was.”

In the last few months, I tried to visit – but the Conquests were either traveling or packing, or else, more distressingly, he was in the hospital or recovering from a round of illnesses. And finally time ran out altogether. Time always wins. We don’t have time; it has us.

Postscript on 8/7: My publisher Philip Hoy pointed out in the comments section below that Penultimata was not Bob’s final collection of poems, it was (as the name suggests) a penultimate one. Blokelore & Blokesongs was published by Waywiser in 2012.

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A pleasure to know you, sir. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

 

Salman Rushdie: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.”

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015
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Would people defend him today? He thinks not. With Timothy Garton Ash last year. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Charlie Hebdo has announced that they will publish no more cartoons featuring Mohammed, although every other religion and public figure will continue to be fair game. In other words, the terrorists have won. “We have drawn Mohammed to defend the principle that one can draw whatever they want… We’ve done our job,” said Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief.

It’s hard to be nostalgic about a fatwa, but Sir Salman Rushdie‘s recent comments in The Telegraph remind us that his Valentine’s Day card from the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 were the good old days. Leading figures from around the world linked arms to express solidarity with him, and to protest any encroachment on freedom of speech. Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joseph Brodsky, Christopher Hitchens, Seamus Heaneyand others stood for Rushdie. There was no backing down. And today?

Said Rushdie, “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.” The author of the condemned Satanic Verses, told France’s L’Express. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.”

Everblooming friendship

Thank you, Christopher.

In particular, Rushdie said he was dismayed by the protests that followed a decision by the American branch of the PEN writers’ association to award a prize for courage to Charlie Hebdo after a dozen of its staff were massacred in January. More than 200 writers, including Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Peter Carey, and Junot Díaz, signed a letter objecting to PEN rewarding the satirical magazine for publishing “material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

“It seems we have learnt the wrong lessons,” Rushdie told L’Express. “Instead of realizing that we need to oppose these attacks on freedom of expression, we thought that we need to placate them with compromise and renunciation.” Cole explained to him that his case was different – 1989 protesters defended Rushdie against charges of blasphemy; Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, he argued, were an expression of Islamophobia.

Rushdie thinks it’s a case of political correctness gone wild. “It’s exactly the same thing,” he said. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against The Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.” (To be clear, I find Charlie Hebdo cartoons tasteless and not very funny. That’s not the point.) 

Let’s remember Sontag, president of PEN, in that 1989 moment. Hitchens wrote: ”Susan Sontag was absolutely superb. She stood up proudly where everyone could see her and denounced the hirelings of the Ayatollah. She nagged everybody on her mailing list and shamed them, if they needed to be shamed, into either signing or showing up. ‘A bit of civic fortitude,’ as she put it in that gravelly voice that she could summon so well, ‘is what is required here.’ Cowardice is horribly infectious, but in that abysmal week she showed that courage can be infectious, too. I loved her. This may sound sentimental, but when she got Rushdie on the phone—not an easy thing to do once he had vanished into the netherworld of ultraprotection—she chuckled: ‘Salman! It’s like being in love! I think of you night and day: all the time!’ Against the riot of hatred and cruelty and rage that had been conjured into existence by a verminous religious fanatic, this very manner of expression seemed an antidote: a humanist love plainly expressed against those whose love was only for death.”

sontag3

Thank you, Susan.

Sontag and Hitchens were famous people, of course, who lived in high-rise apartments and could go into hiding, as Rushdie did. But a lot of other people put their lives on the line. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, was stabbed to death on the campus where he taught, the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was knifed in his Milan apartment, and in Oslo, William Nygaard, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, was shot three times in the back and left for dead.

Others at risk included bookstore owners, bookstore managers, and the people who worked for them. So let me take a few moments to recall the heroism of one of them, Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, which was bombed in the middle of the night two weeks after the fatwa was announced. On his own blog (he is now a literary agent) he wrote:

I spoke of the fire bombing that occurred at 2 AM. More troubling was that as we were cleaning up in the morning, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. … As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Literally hundreds. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. At this point I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent. …

Codys2006

Cody’s in 2006. (Photo: Creative Commons/Pretzelpaws)

One-time heroism wasn’t enough. How were they to react to the attack? Would they continue selling the book? Would they put it at the front of the store, or hide it somewhere towards the back? Or would it, like 1950s pornography, be offered by request only, in a brown paper bag?

I stood and told the staff that we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or to take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this. It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was the moment when I realized that bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation. Because ideas are powerful weapons. It was also the moment that I realized in a very concrete way that what I had told Susan Sontag was truer and more prophetic  than anything I could have then imagined. I felt just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But from the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

The story wasn’t over. Rushdie visits the Bay Area regularly (I wrote about his visit to Kepler’s here). And even while in official hiding, he insisted on calling on Cody’s several years later (Berkeley rents finally did what bombs could not, and the valiant bookstore closed its doors in 2008). Ross recalls Rushdie’s appearance at Cody’s:

We were told that we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence, had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole”. Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “well, you know some people get statues – and others get holes.”

Read the whole thing here.

Miłosz at the Faculty Club

Monday, June 11th, 2012
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My friend Mike Ross immediately thought of me when he read today’s post from “The Rice History Corner” blog at his alma mater, Rice University in Houston.  (I’m flattered.)  It features a Czesław Miłosz having lunch at the university’s faculty club with Prof. Ewa Thompson.  The Nobel poet recorded a program for KUHT-TV with Thompson and other Houston writers and scholars, and also gave a talk at the University of Houston.

Zagajewski provided another Houston link

The column is written by the university’s “centennial historian,” who doesn’t give her name.  She has good taste, though:  Patrick Kurp‘s blog Anecdotal Evidence is at the top of her blogroll.  Moreover, she delights in such poets as Zbigniew Herbert and Adam Zagajewski, as well as Miłosz.

The connection between Miłosz and Houston rang a bell in other ways.  Adam Zagajewski arrived on the campus of the University of Houston in 1988, and later launched a program connecting the students in Texas with Miłosz in Kraków.  So the link between Miłosz and Houston is stronger than might be supposed.

Meanwhile, in my perambulations around the web, I found Christopher Hitchens‘s “The Captive Mind Now,” words written on Miłosz’s death in 2004, in which he revisits the landmark Captive Mind and “ketman,” and somehow brings Azar Nafisi‘s Reading Lolita in Tehran into the mix, with its dedication from the Polish poet’s “Annalena”:

To whom do we tell what happened on the
Earth, for whom do we place everywhere huge
Mirrors in the hope that they will be filled up
And will stay so?

“The Hitch” concludes:  “The long-term achievement of Milosz was to have scrutinized, not just in between but clean through, and well beyond, the party ‘lines’ that claim for themselves exclusive truth. In doing so he shamed the so-called intellectuals who managed the ugly trick of denying freedom to their own minds, the better to visit the same deprivation upon others.”

 

Amis: “The world has got drunk, lost its handbag, and been sick in the bus so many times now.”

Saturday, May 26th, 2012
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This long article in The Telegraph on Martin Amis, newly transplanted to New York City, has so many good bits  I couldn’t resist a post.  (If you missed my earlier post on Amis, it’s here.)

Much of the article,  discusses his newest book, Lionel Asbo:

The book is a wicked satire on the English class system, the vapidity of celebrity culture and the triumph of selfishness. …  Lionel is a comic monster for the times, as John Self, the hero of Money was for Thatcher-era greed and boorishness. Amis ‘adores’ him: ‘You can’t write about characters that disgust you. The whole form of fiction is actually a loving form, and you wouldn’t have the energy to put it down unless you had some, almost erotic affection for your characters. Similarly, I’m not disgusted but amused by the triumph of superficiality. And the egotism of people who are eminent without being in the least distinguished and somehow feeling that that’s their due – that seems to me to be a peculiarly English phenomenon.’

Amis describes it as a book, above all, about intelligence – how it is used, developed and wasted. ‘There is a tremendous amount of latent intelligence in England, and it’s awful that we cultivate it so patchily and randomly. … And there’s a saturation in values that all point the other way – very much exemplified by the reality show. What are they getting these rewards for? Their personality! It’s delusional. You make a complete chump of yourself, prostitute yourself, for a celebrity that is absolutely weightless; a floating celebrity that has no ballast. But it’s seen as a kind of punishment, not being famous. As a deprivation.’ …

‘But the thing I value most – and this comes out in fiction in a way you don’t think about in your daily life – is innocence. And the trouble with having that as your main value is that innocence is diminishing all the time. The world has got drunk, lost its handbag and been sick in the bus so many times now.’

He somewhat contradicts his thought at Stanford, that “It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end” – or does he?

The Hitch

At the memorial service for [Christopher] Hitch­ens, Amis was talking to another friend, who said that Hitchens’ death had left him with the feeling there was now less in life to hang on to. Amis doesn’t see it like that. The ‘shameful secret’, he says, is that the death of a friend very much increases your love of life. We grieve for them but by loving life more, because they can’t do that any more. You treasure the moments on their behalf. It’s a great gift from your dead friends that they make life more precious to you. It’s quite a subversive thought.’ He falls silent for a moment. ‘It’s very complicated, all this – coming to terms with it. It’s slow and stubborn and will take the rest of my life to process. As Hitch and I used to say, the idea of “closure”, in the vernacular, is disgusting, a wank.

‘He grappled with the Nietzsche line, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Amis gives a bleak smile. ‘I always thought that was all balls; what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker, and kills you later on.’

Read the whole thing here.

Martin Amis: “It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

Saturday, May 19th, 2012
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Medical science has a lot to answer for. (Creative Commons)

“As you get older – and this has to be faced – most writers go off,” Martin Amis said.  “I lay the blame at the feet of medical science.”

He was not (to start again), what one had expected.

Amis came to town, and was slight, and witty, and dry, and thoroughly serious despite his zingers.  He was not the ferocious, controversial hurricane – he was quiet and scholarly. And he was preoccupied by age.

Amis put it this way in his most recent novel, Pregnant Widow:

Your hams get skinnier—but that’s all right, because your gut gets fatter…. Shrill or sudden noises are getting painfully sharper—but that’s all right, because you’re getting deafer. The hair on your head gets thinner—but that’s all right, because the hair in your nose and in your ears gets thicker. It all works out in the end.

He cited W.B. Yeats: “Now I may wither into the truth.”

Although occasionally withering, he was far from withered.  As for his way of making a living, “What could be more agreeable?” he asked.  Non-fiction, compared with fiction, is a chore: it makes him start the day with “heavy tread and heavy heart.”

Fiction isn't faster. (Photo: Mae Ryan)

Salman Rushdie told him that he writes essays at twice the speed of fiction – “I find that, too,” he agreed. “All creative stuff comes from the spine and up through the head.”

“What a lyric poem does is stop the clock.”  Oddly, he did a similar trick with his acclaimed Time’s Arrow (1991),  a book that describes the Holocaust, backwards.

In a puzzling move, Amis began the evening with recounting long lists of Nazi atrocities – a return to Time’s Arrow.  The subject matter is timeless, he said, and defies “that greasy little word – closure.”  (Fine.  About time someone took that cliché down.) “Rule Number One:  Nobody gets over anything.  It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

What’s fiction’s verboten subject?  Sex.  “It’s too tied up with the author’s quiddity,” he said, although he’s famous for writing about … sex.  What else?  Religion. “You have to write around religion, although there’s nothing more fascinating, in a way.”

“Writing about religious people is something else a novel cannot do,” he said because you’re taking on all sorts of inherited preconceptions, he said. “It’s not just clichés of the pen,” such as “‘bitterly cold,’” he said, but those of the heart as well.  In novels, “a great clattering tea trolley comes in, and it’s religion.”

Off the hook.

Paradise Lost?  That’s poetry. “But fiction is a rational form.  To be universal, it has to be rational.” (I wanted to shout, “What about Father Zossima?” but restrained myself.)

Questions from the audience inevitably discussed his buddy Christopher Hitchens, who had the peculiar habit of referring to himself in the third person – “not usually consonant with sound mental health.” An example: at the first sign of injustice, he was wont to say, “the pen of the Hitch will flash from its scabbard.”

Another question: what is Amis reading?  “What I am not reading is 25-year-old novelists.”

But his finest, and perhaps most unexpected moment, occurred when a man asked why he was turning to events of half-a-century ago to furnish his novels.  The question had a slightly belligerent edge – or did we imagine it?  In any case, a suppressed collective gasp rippled over the crowd.  But Amis, much to his credit, took the question at face value, and answered it earnestly, and utterly without snark.

“It’s not that you are desperately searching for a subject.  It isn’t the idle selection of a subject – it chooses you,” he said. “My whole body is involved.”

Taking apart Theodor Adorno‘s famous dictum that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Amis responded, “Actually, there was poetry during Auschwitz,” he said.  John and Mary Felstiner would have agreed – and were probably somewhere in the audience.  Paul Célan comes to mind, but so do many others.

Whither the novel? “There’s been a qualitative change in fiction in the past generation.”  It’s the end of the meditative novel, he said.  “Forward motion is paramount now.” The future novel will be “more and more streamlined, and aerodynamic, and plot-driven and character-driven.”

All this thanks to “the acceleration of history and the diminishing attention span.”

Britlit’s bad boy is coming to town: Martin Amis reading and colloquium on Monday, May 7

Friday, May 4th, 2012
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Not happy in León, Spain, 2007 (Creative Commons)

Martin Amis is celebrated as one of the leading writers in English today. In Britain, he is almost as famous for his pyrotechnic quips and spats, which regularly launch front-page media frenzies.

He will give a reading at Stanford at 8 p.m. on Monday, May 7, in Cemex Auditorium in the Knight Management Center. Amis will also hold an 11 a.m. colloquium the same day in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall. Both events are free and open to the public.

Amis has written a dozen novels, as well as a memoir, two collections of stories and six nonfiction works.  His next book, Lionel Asbo: State of England, a satirical stab at England through the story of a violent criminal who wins the lottery, will be published by Knopf this summer.

Amis was foremost in a circle of writers who rose to prominence in the 1970s, including the late Christopher Hitchens, Clive James, Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Craig Raine and Ian McEwan. He has had high-voltage quarrels with at least two of those figures. The one with best chum Hitchens healed seamlessly: “My friendship with the Hitch has always been perfectly cloudless. It is a love whose month is ever May,” he said in an interview.

He is also famous for being one half of an unusual team, a hereditary novelist. His father, Sir Kingsley Amis, has been called the finest English comic novelist of the postwar era; he wrote 20 novels, six collections of poetry, and other works.

Everblooming friendship

The elder Amis, who died in 1995, was also his son’s earliest critic, lamenting the “terrible compulsive vividness in his style.”

Martin Amis recalled to the New York Times, “He was always saying, ‘I think you need more sentences like ‘He put down his drink, got up and left the room,’ and I thought you needed rather fewer of them.”

As a writer, Amis is known for his lifelong love affair with the English sentence, which he calls “a basic rhythm from which the writer is free to glance off in unexpected directions.”

Amis considers the English sentence as the essential building block of good prose, telling the Paris Review in 1998, “Much modern prose is praised for its terseness, its scrupulous avoidance of curlicue, etc. But I don’t feel the deeper rhythm there. I don’t think these writers are being terse out of choice. I think they are being terse because it’s the only way they can write.”

Charles McGrath of the New York Times said that a typical Amis sentence “tends to be maximalist and attention-grabbing, a riff with all the speakers turned up high.”

Here’s a sample from his most recent novel, The Pregnant Widow:

They walked down steep alleyways, scooter-torn and transected by wind-ruffled tapestries of clothing and bedding, and on every other corner there lurked a little shrine, with candles and doilies and the lifesize effigy of a saint, a martyr, a haggard cleric. Crucifixes, vestments, wax apples green or cankered. And then there was the smell, sour wine, cigarette smoke, cooked cabbage, drains, lancingly sweet cologne, and also the tang of fever. The trio came to a polite halt as a stately brown rat – lavishly assimilated – went ambling across their path: given the power of speech, this rat would have grunted out a perfunctory buona sera. Dogs barked. Keith breathed deep, he drank deep of the ticklish, the teasing tang of fever.

The barbed comments have often distracted from the prose.  In February, Amis created a literary kerfuffle when he said that only “serious brain injury” would make him write for children.  He has tangled with critics Terry Eagleton and Tibor Fischer, columnist Julie Burchill, and others.

“What is important is to write freely and passionately and with all the resources that the language provides,” he said in the Paris Review interview.

“You’re always looking for a way to see the world as if you’ve never seen it before.   As if you’d never really got used to living here on this planet.”

New poems, old stories: Robert Conquest balances “the inhuman reign of the lie” with naughty verse

Monday, December 26th, 2011
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

When Christopher Hitchens died this month, I thought immediately of Robert Conquest and his wife, Elizabeth, who were close friends of the renowned journalist and author. Believe it or not, Hitchens used to spend a good deal of time in Palo Alto – his wife’s family, as I recall.

No, Bob did not have anything he wanted to share publicly in memoriam; he is not of the “sharing” generation who tweets his thoughts.  But there’s plenty else that is public.

Britain’s Standpoint is printing ten poems from Bob’s new book of light verse: Blokesongs and Blokelore from Old Fred, which will be out from the U.K.’s Waywiser Press in May.  You can read them here.

Here’s the nasty truth: I’ve never been attracted to “light verse.” Limericks are lost on me.  I’ve never, really, seen the point.  But Bob Conquest has devoted years to them, and it occurred to me that the silly poems are a necessary release from his groundbreaking historical work on the effects of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe – the work that earned him an Order of Merit from Poland in 2009.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, at almost the same moment Standpoint published the new poems, the Daily Beast published Bob’s analysis of the current crisis with the Russian anti-Putin protests following the Dec. 4 elections.

The upshot of the article: “The present regime may have abandoned the compulsive economic ideologies of the Communist past, but it has not developed anything like an open society.”  It comes down to a peculiar relationship to truth:

Honored in 2009

After the disaster of collectivization [1929–33], the leadership had two options: either to admit failure and change policy—perhaps even to relinquish total power—or to pretend that success had been achieved. Falsification took place on a barely credible scale, in every sphere. Real facts, honest statistics, disappeared. History, especially that of the Communist Party, was rewritten. Unpersons vanished from the official record. A spurious past and a fictitious present were imposed on the captive minds of the Soviet people. To focus solely on the physical manifestations of the Communist terror—the killings, the deportations, the people who were driven to suicide—would be to overlook the larger context: what Boris Pasternak called “the inhuman reign of the lie.” Until Gorbachev came to power, the country lived a double existence—an official world of fantasy, grand achievements, wonderful statistics, liberty, democracy, all juxtaposed with a reality of gloom, suffering, terror, denunciation, and apparatchik degeneration.

When lies become part of the national fabric, the result was a thoroughly corrupted society:

Sakharov nailed it. (Photo: RIA Novosti)

Sakharov described the problem in the late 1970s: “A deeply cynical caste has come into being, one which I consider dangerous (to itself as well as to all mankind)—a sick society ruled by two principles: blat [a little slang word meaning ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’], and the popular saw: ‘No use banging your head against the wall.’ But beneath the petrified surface of our society exist cruelty on a mass scale, lawlessness, the absence of civil rights protecting the average man against the authorities, and the latter’s total unaccountability toward their own people or the whole world.”

The Soviet bureaucracy’s reaction to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster demonstrated what Sakharov had been talking about. As David Remnick later noted in The New Yorker, it was typical of the regime that plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, on being told that the reactor’s radiation was millions of times higher than normal, replied that the meter was obviously defective and must be thrown away. Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina rejected a suggestion to order a mass evacuation. “Panic is worse than radiation,” he said.

So what’s changed in 2011?  As everywhere, technology makes certain lies untenable:

Russians are used to electoral fraud. There were never any expectations that the Dec. 4 elections would be carried out with complete honesty, any more than Russia’s past votes were. But this time, instances of ballot irregularity were recorded by mobile devices and then posted on the Internet, to which more than 40 percent of Russians now have access. Outrage—and calls to protest—flashed from computer to computer. Political discourse is thriving in blogs, tweets, posts to Facebook, uploads to YouTube—challenging the regime’s old-media monopoly on news and opinion.

Read it all here.

 

Lying: Sam Harris and the $1.99 book

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011
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Over at the Daily Beast, neuroscientist Sam Harris threw down the gauntlet, and I picked it up.  For $1.99 I bought Lying, his book on radical honesty, and downloaded it to my Droid.

This makes me something of an anachronism, apparently, in an era where everyone wants everything now, free.

Where publishing is concerned, the Internet is both midwife and executioner. It has never been easier to reach large numbers of readers, but these readers have never felt more entitled to be informed and entertained for free. I have been very slow to appreciate these developments, and yet it is clear even to me that there are reasons to fear for the life of the printed book. Needless to say, many of the changes occurring in publishing are changes that neither publishers nor authors want.

The bestselling author points out that a Christopher Hitchens‘s article in the glossy Vanity Fair, praising the work of Joan Didion, gets fewer tweets and Facebook “likes” than one of his own blog posts – sometimes by a factor of ten. What’s worse, a heavily trafficked blog gets more hits than the entire splashy Vanity Fair magazine website.  It’s a sign of the impossible plight of my beleaguered profession:

Journalism was the first casualty of this transformation. How can newspapers and magazines continue to make a profit? Online ads don’t generate enough revenue and paywalls are intolerable; thus, the business of journalism is in shambles. Even though I sympathize with the plight of publishers—and share it by association as a writer—as a reader, I am without pity. If your content is behind a paywall, I will get my news elsewhere. I subscribe to the print edition of The New Yorker, but when I want to read one of its articles online, I find it galling to have to login and wrestle with its proprietary e-reader. The result is that I read and reference New Yorker articles far less frequently than I otherwise would. I’ve been a subscriber for 25 years, but The New Yorker is about to lose me. What can they do? I don’t know. The truth is, I now expect their content to be free.

So how does this get back to Lying?  In the “All Free, All Now” era, “If your book is 600-pages-long, you are demanding more of my time than I feel free to give. And if I could accomplish the same change in my view of the world by reading a 60-page version of your argument, why didn’t you just publish a book this length instead?” Harris’s response: the unprinted book that can be absorbed in one sitting.  In this case, Lying, a book about the need for absolute honesty in all aspects of one’s life.

It’s an interesting topic.  I would go further than he does, however.  Someone once defined lying as speaking about something one doesn’t know, as if one knew or could know.  For example, adhering to this standard would eliminate most political discussions, which would be a mercy.

I find that most lying, if not all, is an attempt to manipulate someone else’s reality to one’s own benefit – to control their choices by limiting the information they need to make informed choices, while keeping the full range of options for oneself.

It is said that no lie is innocent.  I thought of one exception: the lie to conceal a surprise birthday party.  But it pretty much stops there.

However interesting his topic, Harris’s gambit didn’t work, at least not entirely.  People still griped.

Some did not understand the format—a very short book that can be read in 40 minutes—and expected to get a much longer book for $1.99. Many wondered why it is available only as an ebook. Some fans of ebooks were powerfully aggrieved to find it available only on the Kindle platform—they own Nooks, or detest Amazon for one reason or another. However, the fact is that Amazon made it extraordinarily easy for me to do this; the Kindle Single is the perfect format for so short a book; and Kindle content can be read on every computer and almost any handheld device. I decided that it was not worth my time or other people’s money to publish Lying elsewhere, or as a physical book.

On the surface, the launch of Lying has been a great success. It reached the #1 spot for Kindle Singles immediately and #9 for all Kindle content. It is amazing to finish writing, hit “upload,” and watch one’s work soar and settle, however briefly, above the vampire novels and diet books.

I would be lying, however, if I said that I wasn’t stung by some of the early criticism. Some readers felt that a 9000-word essay was not worth $1.99, especially when they can read my 5000-word blog posts for free. It is true that I put a lot of work into many of my blog posts, but Lying took considerably longer to write than any of them. It is a deceptively simple book—and I made it simple for a reason. Some of my readers seem not to have appreciated this and prefer to follow me into my usual thickets of argument and detail. That’s fine. But it is, nevertheless, painful to lose a competition with oneself, especially over a difference of $1.99.

It didn’t quite work for me, either.  I still haven’t finished it.  If reading is confined to the in-between moments when I happen to have my Droid with me, not much more than an email message can be read in “one sitting.”  Moreover, aren’t all the health articles nowadays urging us not to sit on our cans for more than a few minutes at a time?

Everything seems to conspire against reading, nowadays.

 

 

 

Top global thinkers read Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules — For Now … and an odd blunder

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010
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Archaeologist Morris digs for the secrets of the ages

Foreign Policy has published its Second Annual Top 100 Global Thinkers List — “a unique portrait of 2010′s global marketplace of ideas and the thinkers who make them” — and there are inevitably some surprises.

The one that pleased us most is that nestled in Niall Ferguson‘s recommended reading list of three books (Ferguson comes in at #80) –  Ian Morris‘s Why the West Rules — For Now.  We’ve written about Morris, the man who knows everything, here and here.

Other names mentioned in these pages appear on the list — Christopher Hitchens, Liu Xiaobo, Mario Vargas Llosa, Clay Shirky, David GrossmanAyaan Hirsi Ali made the cut, and so, ironically, did the man who has derided her — Ian Buruma finishes the list at #100.  (Tariq Ramadan follows immediately after at #62).  But what’s curious about her blurb is this bizarre understatement:

“The first time you heard about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it was likely the story of a brave Muslim woman fleeing her forced marriage in Somalia to become an outspoken critic of Islam. But her flight didn’t stop there; after more than a decade living in the Netherlands, she left Europe and its painful debates over assimilation for more comfortable ground: conservative America.”

Well, no.  Not quite.  They neglect to mention that she fled Holland because a fatwa called for her death, her colleague Theo van Gogh was murdered, and the Netherlands not only failed to protect her, but turned on her, questioning her immigration status. Big difference.

Why did no one at Foreign Policy flag this boo boo?  I guess all the copy editors have been laid off.

D.G. Myers on Hitchens, Pausch, and cancer: “Hope is a dicey thing”

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010
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Been there

Cancer has been the odd topic of discussion here the last few days — one more thought from D.G. Myers over at the Commonplace Blog (hat tip to Dave Lull, patron saint of bloggers in the cold, cold state of Minnesota).  Myers, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer a few months ago, agrees with Christopher Hitchens on Randy Pausch‘s Last Lecture: “Pausch’s giddiness has nothing to do with real hope, nor with preparing oneself for death. If you recommend it, your friend will conclude—correctly, as it turns out—that you are not serious about what he is going through.”

“Even so, hope is a dicey thing. And as far as I can tell, no one else can raise your hopes for you. There is no standardized method for achieving it, no universally valid argument for its reality. …

"Nothing to do with real hope"

Don’t try to make hopeful sounds, then. What I found consoling was the consolation that was offered to my wife. It helped enormously to know that she and the children would not be left alone, even if I were to leave them. Similarly, I guess, it gave me steel to understand that I was important and dear to some people. Three or four of my friends were particularly good at this, dropping into my hospital room to say, ‘I read something today that reminded me of you,’ or, ‘I listened to something and wondered what your reaction would be.’ Only two people thought to send me books—no one sent me any movies—and even though the books they sent weren’t really to my liking, they meant a lot to me.

Then there were those who never even contacted me, including my own sister. Nothing quite makes you more aware of the nothingness that awaits you on the other side of Stage Four cancer. My advice: say anything, keep it light and trivial if need be—better lightness and triviality, in fact, than the awkward groping for profundity—but say something. If you say nothing, because you are afraid that you will not know what to say, then you are abandoning the cancer patient to his worst fears, and indulging your own self-centeredness and even solipsism at his expense.

Only one thing is worse than silence, he says: telling cancer patients of “alternative cures.”  Hitchens agrees, but during my own experience with the Valley of the Shadow, I collected all the stories I could.  Part of the research effort.  One of the things Bob Beyers taught me – you never know where the help might come from, or from what unlikely people.

Postscript on 11/11/10:  Myers posted his recommended reading list today, here.