Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Hitchens’

Here’s to Hitch on “Hitchmas”: “Never be a spectator of unfairness and stupidity.”

Saturday, December 16th, 2017
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Hitchens in 2008 (Photo: Creative Commons)

An anniversary passed yesterday, the sixth year after the death of author, essayist, and journalist Christopher HitchensIt’s not an event the Book Haven normally observes, but some in our circle do – mutual friend Steve Wasserman among them, and a few others who no doubt would raise a glass if they were here. The late poet and historian Robert Conquest (we’ve written about him here and here) was a close colleague. Some of Hitchens’s aficionados, whether they knew him or not, go so far as to call December 15 “Hitchmas” – there’s even a website for the celebrations here.

The title is catchy, but surely Hitchens himself would have scoffed at the implications of any “mass” in his honor. In any case, he hated Christmas (i.e., “Christ’s mass”) which he likened to “living for four weeks in the atmosphere of a one-party state” that “imposes a deadening routine and predictability.” Ah, but variation within custom is what makes all rituals memorable and moving – whether weddings, funerals, graduations, or holidays. It’s a delicate art. (See how fellow atheist Salman Rushdie celebrates here.)

You see? We are still arguing with him, even in absentia. While Hitchens is not a demigod to us, and while we are far from embracing all his views (indeed, who could embrace them all?), we nevertheless revere his eloquence, his frankness, his pugnaciousness, the fluency of his pen, his tenacity to what he held to be truth – and so we, too, raise a glass to him. How, after all, can one argue with this: “Never be a spectator of unfairness and stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.”

In this case, we have help in our fête. Paul Holdengräber of the New York Public Library has an undated commemorative post over at the Wild River Review, which includes a two-minute clip of his interview with the author and journalist, three days before he became gravely ill in 2010. The two discuss death, dying, and a mutual interest in obituaries. (The full hour-and-a-half interview at the NYPL is here.)

“I was particularly taken not by the politics, which everyone knew and though of interest, mattered less to me just then, than the literary side. Hitch was a great reader and more candid in print about his life, his mother and father, his origins,” Holdengräber wrote.

“When I played W. H. Auden reading, and Isaiah Berlin teaching a class on Russian Thought at Oxford, Christopher’s eyes lit up. He felt pleasure in reciting poetry, moving his lips to Auden’s reading, and hearing his old professor, Isaiah Berlin talk. A less pugilist side to Hitch.”

When he asked Hitchens why he wrote his memoir Hitch 22 at the relatively young age of 60, he answered simply: “You’ve got to do it in time.”

More than eulogies: new book considers the dead – famous and infamous

Saturday, August 20th, 2016
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deadpeople“Why should we celebrate these dead men more than the dying?” T.S. Eliot asks in “Little Gidding.” And we’re all dying, hour by hour. One new book shares Eliot’s fascination with the dead.

We’ve been following the successes of the New Yorker‘s Morgan Meis (here and here, for example) – now here’s another one. He’s teamed up with Stefany Anne Goldberg to write a book Dead People (Zero Books), that’s getting critical acclaim. It is about what the title says it is, including studies of Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens and Eric Hobsbawn; musicians like Sun Ra, MCA (Beastie Boys) and Kurt Cobain; writers like David Foster Wallace, John Updike and Tom Clancy; artists like Thomas Kinkade and Robert Rauschenberg; and controversial political figures like Osama bin Laden and Mikhail Kalashnikov.

The two conduct a self-interview over at The Nervous BreakdownAn excerpt:

Morgan Meis: Well, when I started writing about Christopher Hitchens he had literally just died. I became very emotional as I wrote. The whole thing was written while crying, to be honest. I realized two things. One, that I had a lot of anger and resentment toward the man and two, that I actually loved him, in the non-romantic sense of the term. I realized that this love was generated by something other than the usual regard for his writing and argumentative skill. In fact, upon reflection, I realized that his writing and argumentative skill were, to my mind, overrated. That made my deep feeling of connection to the man all the more mysterious, a fact that pleased the hell out of me the more I thought about it. I tried to capture some of that in the essay, which, if it has any virtue at all, has the virtue of mostly refraining from restating the well-worn Hitchens clichés. The more I wrote about Hitch, the more I realized that I have no idea why he was such a powerful person.

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Teamwork: authors Morgan Meis and Stefany Anne Goldberg

Stefany Anne Goldberg: I had an overall negative feeling about Mikhail Kalashnikov when I first heard that he died. I considered it one of those mild, everyday ironies that the man who invented one of the killing machines of the 20th century, the AK-47, was now, himself, dead. But when I started to read more about the man, and read the letter he had written to a priest near the end of his life, something changed. I started to see him as a tragic figure. That would be an interesting enough change in perception and might make for a good eulogistic essay. But then a third thing happened. I started thinking about Mary Shelley, which is something I do more often than not. I started to see Kalashnikov as involved in the struggle that faces all inventors, which is the struggle, as I see it, between nature and culture. I started to see Kalashnikov as a Dr. Frankenstein figure. This made Kalashnikov scary again, but in a better way. Now, he was no longer, for me, simply the guy who mechanized killing or the tragic figure caught up in historical events that were over his head. Instead, I started to see Kalashnikov as a monster and in being a monster of sorts, to see his specific humanity. Because the gun he invented was, after all, supposed to solve problems. It is in trying to solve problems that the trouble starts, for all of us. And yet, who would ever suggest that we should stop trying to solve problems? The are infinite knots you can get tied up in trying to resolve all the conflicting thoughts and emotions around a figure like Kalashnikov. My little essay was an attempt to get the ball rolling on that.

Read the whole thing here. And go here for Image Journal’s excerpt from the book on Leszek Kołakowski.

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. …

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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.