Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Conquest’

Philip Larkin declared, “He is a genius”: the unpublished poems of Robert Conquest

Friday, November 2nd, 2018
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Conquest at work at his Stanford home (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

To say someone is “irreplaceable” is clichéd and self-evident. But there’s really no one quite like the late Robert Conquest – famous as the courageous and groundbreaking historian who exposed the horrors of Stalinism, and also as the poet who launched the influential “Movement” poets in England during the 1950s (a circle that included Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, Elizabeth Jennings, and others). He ran  a powerful sideline in light verse and limericks that tended to eclipse his elegant, serious lyrics.

Liddie Conquest extends the legacy.

The current issue of Britain’s Standpoint features some of his unpublished poems, with an excellent article by Elizabeth Conquest, his widow and executor – and a scholar in her own right. Thanks to her labors, The Collected Poems of Robert Conquest will be published by Waywiser Press on October 15, 2019. The 50th-anniversary edition of The Great Terror has just been published by Bodley Head. (Book Haven readers will remember that Standpoint also published his last great poem, “Getting On.”)

“Liddie” Conquest reflects on her husband’s long, productive life until his death in 2015, at age 98:

“Why do some creative people continue to write, while others retire from the field? Part of the reason is simply that people age at different rates. Kingsley Amis, complaining to Philip Larkin that he was getting ugly, old, and fat, wrote: ‘What was that quote about free from care? Certainly applies to ole Bob. He just goes on and on, as if nothing has happened.’ And so he did, possessing characteristics of successful people noted by Diane Coutu in her Harvard Business Review article ‘How Resilience Works’: a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly-held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise.” …

Receiving Poland’s Order of Merit in 2009 (with Radosław Sikorski)

“Seven years later, the week before he died Bob was hard at work editing final chapters of Two Muses — his memoirs — and also writing a poem. At the same time, with the aim of publishing a final collection of his verse, he’d been going through his earlier collections correcting misprints, and in some cases making minor alterations. After his death, as his literary executor I was tasked with sorting through his papers (a vast undertaking with an inventory running more than 120 pages); editing a comprehensive volume of Bob’s poetry; pulling together the last chapters of his memoirs from the bits he’d written (but not put in final order); and editing a selection of his letters. ”

Bob took his light verse seriously, though some lament that his reputation for light verse tended to push aside his “serious” work:

“[Critic Clive James] himself has often expressed regret that there were not more of the ‘fastidiously chiselled poems which proved his point that cool reason was not necessarily lyricism’s enemy’. I share that view, but remember the opening remarks of Bob’s 1997 address to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, when he said that of all the various awards for histories and serious verse he’d received over the years, he was ‘particularly touched and delighted to receive the Michael Braude Award for Light Verse — which honours those who are often thought of as skirmishers and sharpshooters rather than solid citizens of the world of arts and letters’.”

Read the whole article here.

Vassily Grossman: “What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested?”

Monday, October 15th, 2018
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Grossman as a reporter for the Red Star. In Germany, 1945.

 

It is the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of a magnificent and too little-known masterpiece, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, who, as a reporter for the Soviet Red Star, witnessed the apocalyptic Battle of Stalingrad. A Russian Jew, he also witnessed the opening of the Nazi extermination camp, Treblinka and wrote about it.

Elizabeth Conquest once again alerted us to a very interesting piece in The New Criterion this month, “Totalitarian Physics & Moral Threshing.”  Here’s what Jacob Howland has to say about the book:

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the first publication in the Soviet Union of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a nine-hundred-page novel of life under Stalin. This was a small posthumous triumph for the author. The KGB had confiscated the manuscript in 1961, and Grossman—who wrote to Khrushchev asking, “What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested?”—was told that it could not be published in the USSR for another two hundred years. Depressed and suffering from stomach cancer, he died in 1964.

We’ve written about Life and Fate, translated by the wonderful Robert Chandler, here and here and here and here, among other places.

Howland continues:

Life and Fate is a massive literary fusion of poetry and mathematics, narrative and scientific observation. Multiple stories of struggle and suffering—a rich accumulation of significant data about the human condition in the age of ideology—are punctuated by Tolstoyan passages of philosophical reflection on the inner meaning of these imaginatively generated phenomena. The book centers on Hitler’s invasion of the USSR and the smashing of “two hammers . . . each composed of millions of tons of metal and flesh” at the Battle of Stalingrad, events whose shock waves the narrative registers with seismographic sensitivity as they disrupt and volatilize hundreds of interconnected lives across an entire continent.

In one of the book’s first chapters, Grossman describes a firestorm unleashed by the Luftwaffe bombing of fuel tanks: “The life that had reigned hundreds of millions of years before, the terrible life of the primeval monsters, had broken out of its deep tombs; howling and roaring, stamping its huge feet, it was devouring everything round about. The fire rose thousands of feet, carrying with it clouds of vaporized oil that exploded into flame only high in the sky. The mass of flame was so vast that the surrounding whirlwind was unable to bring enough oxygen to the burning molecules of hydrocarbon; a black, swaying vault separated the starry sky of autumn from the burning earth. It was terrible to look up and see a black firmament streaming with oil.

“The columns of flame and smoke looked at one moment like living beings seized by horror and fury, at another moment like quivering poplars and aspens. Like women with long, streaming hair, the black clouds and red flames joined together in a wild dance.”

Only an eyewitness—Grossman reported from Stalingrad for the newspaper Red Star—could provide such particular details. Only a great writer could compose such an intensely lyrical apocalypsis: Life, chemically transformed inside the earth into combustible matter, rages and consumes itself in a vast, murderous vortex. Tens of millions of souls haunt these flames, including Grossman’s mother, shot over a pit with the other Jews of Berdichev, Ukraine. Here is the deep mystery at the heart of Life and Fate, and of our time: how the industrial lethality of totalitarianism gestated within, and broke free from, the soil and sediment of human life.

Read the whole thing here.  (And an excerpt from the book here.)

TLS readers respond: Hölderlin’s Greece, and René Girard on pacifism

Saturday, October 6th, 2018
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Watchful Book Haven readers alerted me to letters that have been published at the Times Literary Supplement, touching on subjects we have written about in the past. Two are in the September 28 letters column of the eminent weekly!

The first, forwarded to us by Elizabeth Conquest, concerns the recent TLS piece on my Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Read about it here.) Was René Girard a pacifist? It’s a subject I tackle in the postscript of my book:

René Girard is not a pacifist. That was the word I received from Paul Caringella, a friend and longtime visiting fellow at Stanford, who had been the first reader for this book. He had sent me a quick note of correction to an early draft of this manuscript, which he thought might lead readers to that erroneous conclusion.

I had not put Girard in quite those terms, but once the issue came up, I realized I had made certain assumptions. Given Girard’s emphasis on the renunciation of violence and his warnings about the “escalation to extremes,” it stands to reason that he would advocate disarmament and pacifism. How could one sanction any participation in the calamity of war, the inevitable atrocities and injustices, the destruction of cities, the “collateral damage” as
civilians are pulled into the slaughter, the unstable and temporary peace that follows? “René doesn’t belong to any ‘ism.’ He’s not an ‘ism’ man,” Paul later explained. “People of his stature are not going to be put in classifications like that.”

David Martin of Woking, Surrey, takes on the question with his own example of the complicated relationship between pacifism and violence. Many thanks, once again, to Liddie for the heads-up.

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We had also written about Elizabeth Powers, concerning her review of  Friedrich Hölderlin’s Life, Poetry and Madness, which has just been republished by Hesperus Press (translated by Will Stone).

She had written:

Although the inspiration came from the Greece-drenched enthusiasm of Winckelmann and Goethe, the ancient divinities were not, for Hölderlin, allegories or personifications, to be converted in art. Rather, prophet-like, he sought to bring them back to life in order to regenerate a world that, he felt, had grown old and lost its way. His earliest poems, from 1791, express the darkness of the world without such rejuvenation. “Half of Life,” however, published in 1804, without any Greek poetic apparatus, intimated where his own life was heading:

But oh, where shall I find
When winter comes, the flowers, and where
The Sunshine and shade of the earth?
The walls loom
Speechless and cold, in the wind
Weathercocks clatter

(Michael Hamburger’s translation)

Kyriaco Nikias of the University of Adelaide wrote a letter about the various rewritings of the Greeks – also included at right. Thanks to Elizabeth Powers for passing this along!

Biographers! Bah! Robert Conquest and W.H. Auden on “shilling lives”

Thursday, May 24th, 2018
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Daunting

Elizabeth Conquest, a.k.a. “Liddie”, was surprised to hear that somewhere in my garage I had squirreled away W.H. Auden’s course syllabus – a copy, of course, from the Rackham archives of the University of Michigan. But then all the extant copies of the syllabus are copies of some kind. Probably mimeograph, in that era. Somewhere I have a xerox of that mimeo copy, or perhaps a xerox of the original typescript that Auden submitted when he was the resident poet at the university in 1941-42. It’s daunting, to say the least. Check it out here.

Liddie is the widow of the groundbreaking historian of the Stalinist era, Robert Conquest. He was also an important English postwar poet, and an influential figure of the “Movement” poets. She is the editor of The Complete Poems of Robert Conquest, to be published in Spring 2019 by Waywiser Press and is currently editing The Selected Letters of Robert Conquest. She is also editing Two Muses, her husband’s memoirs.

“Cracking the Books with Wystan” stirred her memories. Wrote Liddie: “Bob was, as a budding poet, much influenced by Auden—his earliest poetry notebook (1934-35) has many Auden quotations scribbled all over the inside covers, and bits here and there elsewhere.”

Liddie remembers

She sent me a paragraph from Bob’s unpublished memoir, Two Muses. In it, he reflects on the introduction of the 1956 New Lines anthology that launched the Movement poets:

In the preface I stressed the formal side because, after all, it was really Auden who brought back the formality that had been destroyed by Pound and others.  (A lot of the best of Auden’s poetry has a sort of hard surface which rejects the reader—and the later stuff about Nones and Lakes and such is unreadable—but there is a certain amount of energetic unpretentious stuff, and also some other odds and ends of lyrics etc., which come off pretty well.)  I think his original impact was from his a) self confidence, b) “new” preaching of not too homiletic a nature, c) not being unreadably modernist, yet able to claim the advantages of the latest thing.  Also the other purveyors were either worse (Spender) or less in the then groove (MacNeice).  I didn’t take to Auden at first reading (when I was c. 14), finding it cold, but gradually fell for the vigour and skill—not the lowest poetical virtues—and also, I suppose, the (then) mythopoeic effect—as in part of The Orators.

(Well, this reader rather likes “Nones” and in fact all of Auden’s “Horae Canonicae.” But as my brother always said, that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.)

Bob Conquest at his desk (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Liddie added, “Bob thought Charles Osborne’s biography was disgraceful, and shortly after it was published in 1979, wrote this sonnet, which appeared first in (I think) the TLS.

“One thing that impressed me about Bob is how everything he ever read remained lodged in that big head of his, to be effortlessly produced when needed.  I wonder how many readers of ‘Second Death’ ever notice the aptness of echoing Auden’s sonnet on biography in this criticism of Osborne, and in the same verse form.”

That is, Auden’s poem “Who’s Who” uses the same sonnet form established by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey: iambic pentameter with abab cdcd efef gg.

Here’s Bob Conquest’s reaction to Auden’s biographer:

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                    Second Death

A ten-pound Life will give you every fact
– Facts that he’d hoped his friends would not rehearse
To an intent posterity which lacked
Nothing of moment, since it had his verse.

Or so he thought. But now we come to read
What his more honest prudence had held in:
Tasteless compulsion into trivial deed,
A squalor more outrageous than the sin,

Piss on that grave where lies the weakly carnal? . . .
– Hopeless repentance had washed clean his name,
His virtue’s strength insistent on a shame

Past all the brief bravados full and final.
Without excuses now, to the Eternal,
He makes the small, true offering of his fame.

Haven’t read the original? Here’s Auden’s sonnet “Who’s Who”:

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day …

(I have Liddie’s permission to reprint “Second Death,” but I don’t have the permission of the Auden Estate for “Who’s Who,” so the rest is here.)

Did the earth shake? Another Look totally rocked Philip Larkin’s 1947 novel, “A Girl in Winter.”

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018
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Liddie Conquest discusses Philip Larkin with Robert Harrison. (All photos by David Schwartz)

Monday, April 30, marked a notable event in the literary world: perhaps the first-ever discussion of poet Philip Larkin‘s 1947 novel, A Girl in Winter at a top-ranking university. If the event does have a precedent, it’s unlikely to have matched the high-caliber expertise assembled at the Bechtel Conference Center that night. Another Look Director Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the discussion. The Stanford professor also hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions, and contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. He was joined by renowned author and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English at Stanford.

Literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest, universally known as “Liddie,” completed the trio of panelists. She knew Philip Larkin personally—he was a close friend of her late husband, historian and poet Robert Conquest—and has written about Larkin’s poetry.

Robert Harrison introduces the book.

Some said it was our best event ever – one compared it to a delightful dance for three, to a “delicious effect.” Another said simply that they wished we had four events a year, rather than three.

Robert’s introduction of Larkin’s forgotten early novel riffed on the opening lines of the overlooked classic, originally titled The Kingdom of Winter: “There had been no more snow during the night, but because the frost continued so that the drifts lay where they had fallen, people told each other that there was more to come. And when it grew lighter, it seemed that they were right, for there was no sun, only one vast shell of cloud over the fields and woods…”

The little-known novel takes place in wartime England, where a young refugee from Europe named Katherine Lind tries to recover her life while working in a provincial library. Meanwhile, she recalls a memorable summer with the Fennel family in England before the war, and a near-romance with the son Robin.

The book was the second in a trilogy, and the third was never completed. Larkin turned to poetry instead. Was the early, forgotten book a masterpiece? Toby’s conclusion at the end of the evening was decisive and emphatic. Yes, he said.

The sparks were lively and the balance of personalities was effective and harmonious. Toby’s background as a soldier was helpful in explaining Robin’s emotional state at the end of the book, and he also shared some chilling details of the destruction of Larkin’s hometown, Coventry. Liddie reflected on Larkin’s life and poetry – and she also shared a passage he wrote in a 1977 letter to her husband. The three discussed in detail the signficance of the noisy tick-tock of Katherine’s watch. But I won’t spoil it for you by quoting the end of the book, only part of the penultimate paragraph instead:

“There was the snow, and her watch ticking. So many snowflakes, so many seconds. As time passed they seemed to mingle in their minds, heaping up into a vast shape that might be a burial mound, or the cliff of an iceberg whose summit is out of sight. Into its shadow dreams crowded, full of conceptions and stirrings of cold, as if icefloes were moving down a lightless channel of water…”

From Robert’s opening remarks, to the lively and insightful audience questions and responses – it was a remarkable and memorable evening. David Schwartz outdid himself capturing the evening in photos. Did our panelists have fun? See the photos from the panel below. Or listen to the podcast below, and make your own judgment.

TONIGHT: Philip Larkin’s early novel “A Girl in Winter” at Stanford!

Sunday, April 29th, 2018
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Portrait of the poet as a young man… Philip Larkin

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Robert Harrison

Philip Larkin is one of England’s most eminent postwar poets, but few know of his early forays into fiction. All that changes tonight, Monday, April 30, when Another Look considers Larkin’s little-known 1947 novel that takes place in wartime England, where a young refugee from the Continent attempts to recover her life while working in a provincial library. Meanwhile, she recalls an idyllic summer with an English family before the war. Please join us! The event is free and open to the public. Come early for best seats.

 

Tobias Wolff

When, where, who …

The Larkin event will take place at the Bechtel Conference Center at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 30. Panelists will include Another Look Director Robert Harrison, who will will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor and author also hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by renowned author Tobias Wolffthe founding director of Another Look, and literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest. “Liddie” Conquest knew Philip Larkin—a close friend of her late husband, historian and poet Robert Conquest and has written about Larkin’s poetry.

Liddie Conquest

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Elizabeth Conquest in the Wall Street Journal

As we wrote in the Book Haven last week, “Liddie” Conquest was featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal. The article is available to subscribers here. The article is excerpted on The Book Haven here
 
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Directions
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The Bechtel Conference Center hosts all of Another Look’s events – a map is here. The nearby Knight parking structure, underneath the nearby Graduate School of Business, has plenty of room for free parking (see here for a map). In addition, parking is available on Serra Street and in front of Encina Hall itself.
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In keeping with the Another Look mandate, this book has been pretty much forgotten in 20th century literary history. Help us jump-start a public conversation of this overlooked work. 
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“Notoriously tricky territory”: Elizabeth Conquest on the literary legacy of Robert Conquest, a long marriage, and lots of letters

Sunday, April 22nd, 2018
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A marriage that was a “long conversation” … and plenty of papers, too. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

We’ve written about historian and poet Robert Conquest before – most notably for the Times Literary Supplement here, but also here and here and here, among other places. About his widow Elizabeth Conquest – a.k.a. “Liddie” Conquest – we’ve said comparatively little. That’s about to change. She will be one of the panelists at the Another Look book club on Monday, April 30, discussing Philip Larkin‘s early novel A Girl in WinterBut you might also turn to the pages of the Tunku Varadarajan‘s article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, titled:  “The widow of historian and poet Robert Conquest talks about his legacy – which includes three books still forthcoming”.

Liddie Conquest in London.

Robert Conquest was the first historian to chronicle Stalin’s murderous havoc. His book “The Great Terror,” published in 1968, was among the 20th century’s most influential works of investigative history. Yet Conquest was also a seriously accomplished poet and a prolific letter-writer. His correspondence includes letters to Amis and Larkin (880 pages to the latter alone), as well as to the novelist Anthony Powell and poets including D.J. Enright, Thom Gunn, Vernon Scannell, Wendy Cope and others …

Banker boxes full of papers cover practically every flat surface in the Conquest household. Sideboards, tables, floors and shelves—all heave with typed and scribbled sheaves. Not only is Mrs. Conquest readying “The Great Terror” for its 50th anniversary edition this fall, she’s editing his complete poems—more than 400, some never published—for publication next spring. She’s also editing his memoirs—he died with one chapter unwritten—as well as a fat volume of his correspondence.

“There are thousands of pages of letters that he wrote,” Mrs. Conquest says. “Bob warmed up before a day’s work by writing letters. He would sit at his typewriter and he’d fire off.” Toward the end of his life, he would dictate email messages to Mrs. Conquest, who sent them from their shared account. “He was never really fond of trying to figure out the computer.”

The lot of a literary widow, Mrs. Conquest says, “is not a happy one, for she must master the management of her husband’s literary estate.” But she doesn’t sound grumpy when explaining that she has a veto over the use of his writings, including the power to say yea or nay to any requests to reprint them. This is all “notoriously tricky territory,” Mrs. Conquest concedes, and such widows have “long been caricatured in writerly circles as pantomime villains”—the younger wife who “single-mindedly devotes her remaining decades after her celebrated husband’s death to championing his artistic legacy and slaying those who dare to question it.”

One of the many comments the combox: “Mrs. Conquest seems to be an absolutely wonderful woman.” We couldn’t agree more. Read the whole thing here.

More papers: Conquest at work. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)