Posts Tagged ‘Gregory Freidin’

John Hennessy likes big fat books.

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013
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Love’s much better, the second time around: Stanford prez on the joy of rereading books. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford prez John Hennessy is famously techie, right?  Here’s the surprise: the former computer scientist also likes ploughing through the big-hearted, super-retro, thousand-page classics of the 19th century. “I like sagas, a big story plus decades,” he confessed to a good-sized crowd at Piggott Hall last week during an exuberant, free-wheeling talk on “Why I Read Great Literature.”  You know the books he means: the kind that gets turned into a year’s worth of BBC Masterpiece Theatre viewing.

les_miserables_bookHe’s clearly a man after my own heart – he singled out Victor Hugo‘s Les Miserables for particular praise, saying that he’s read the whole shebang several times. This is comforting to me personally, after watching René Girard, that anti-romantic sage and immortel, politely squelch a smirk when I told him of my childhood adoration of the book.

For Hennessy, an apparent turning point in his reading tastes occurred the summer before he entered high school – an over-the-vacation reading assignment that somewhat parallels Stanford’s Three Books program.  Clearly one of the books took hold of his imagination:  he’s read Charles Dickens‘s A Tale of Two Cities several times since.  And although he wasn’t up to reciting the magnificent 118-word opening sentence last week, he did refer to it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

How many books are enclosed by an immortal first and last sentence? Hennessy had better luck reciting the the famous close:  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

copperfieldDickens “has proven enough times that I could read anything he writes,” said Hennessy. “He grapples with Victorian England, social injustices, a system that obviously tramples on people.”  As for nasty schoolmaster Squeers, in Nicholas Nickleby: “If I ever met him, I would be forced to shoot him,” said Hennessy.  These books ask, he said, “How would I have approached that situation? What would I have done?”  Now we know. Hennessy would be compelled to commit homicide.  Fortunately, fortunately, Squeers must have died in Australia at least a century ago, presumably of natural causes.

Hennessy’s love for Dickens includes the worthy chestnut A Christmas Carol, which he rereads during the holiday season. As for David Copperfield, he gleefully quoted Mr. McCawber; apparently it’s one of his favorite lines: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Well, that’s the techie in him.  Throughout the talk he kept presenting numbered lists of thoughts – he likes counting.  I always wonder how you know that, when you say you have five points to make, it’s going to stay five points, and not meander into seven.  Or you’ll forget one and have only four left.  He seems to be good at keeping track.

Like many a young ‘un, he was frogmarched to the great classics.  Some books are not wise choices for teenage boys – Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example. “I wasn’t up to it. It was too deep, too much angst to it. High school angst is different.”

stendhal_5136“An author I was tortured by in high school was Edith Wharton,” he recalled pensively.  The inevitable high-school staple, Ethan Frome – it’s mercifully short, after all – was “not the right book for high school guys.”  What kid wants to read a tragic story of wasted lives?  They say love is much better the second time around – so it seems with these reheated feasts.  He’s warmed to Henry James, too, despite a premature exposure to “Turn of the Screw.”

I couldn’t agree more with his overall point, but I think the first exposure, however flawed, is important.  I’ve just rediscovered Stendhal in a big way after reading it in high school and finding it a little too cold-edged and cynical for my delicate teenage sensibilities.  It didn’t help that the class was reading it, for the most part, in French (we all cheated and found translations, of course – I now find it amusing that we thought Mademoiselle Vance didn’t expect us to do this). René Girard definitely approves of this late-life conversion to Stendhal.  I’ll have to have another go at Rabelais now, too.  These classics, reread at ten-year intervals, resonate within us at different layers of experience, but you do need a prime coat.

Hennessy’s passion is not restricted to Golden Oldies, or reheated feasts from early class assignments – he included some more recent fare in his endless list.  “Sometimes fiction is better at telling a story than non-fiction,” he said, citing this year’s Pulitzer prizewinning book, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (we’ve written about it here and here and here and, oh, lots of other places).  He also cited Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga‘s White Tiger, which helped prepare him for trips to India a few years ago.  Where does he get the time? Clearly, he doesn’t watch TV – I wrote about that here.

Orphan_Master_s_SonSepp Gumbrecht, author of In Praise of Athletic Beauty, offered what he called “the biggest compliment” to Hennessy: “I did not anticipate half an hour when I would not think about football.”  He praised Hennessy for taking a firm departure from clever literary theory and speaking with “unbridled and deliberately naïve enthusiasm” about books.  He noted the words and phrases Hennessy used most frequently in his talk (apparently, he was counting, too, which would certainly keep his mind off football):  1) redemption, redeeming; 2) tragedy, justice; 3) sacrifice, vengeance.  It doesn’t get better than this, does it?

divinecomedyWell yes, it does. Hennessy didn’t forget the slash-and-burn, blood-and-guts classics, Homer’s Iliad and Dante’s Inferno.

And what does he read at the end of the day, before bedtime?  “Junk,” he said.  Just like the rest of us.

He escaped by a side door during the refreshments – but not before George Brown and I pleaded with him to reconsider the Purgatorio, the only book in the Divine Comedy where time counts for something – which it did for Hennessy, too, clearly, as he rushed to his next appointment.

***

(Photo above has a gaggle of professors – the contemplative head-on-hand at far right belongs to Josh Landy.  Next to him with the snowy beard is Grisha Freidin.  The ponytail at his right belongs to Gabriella Safran.  Next to her (if you leap an aisle) is David Palumbo-Liu in black glasses, and the half-head to his right belongs to Sepp.  Humble Moi at far left with the black Mary Janes.  Many thanks for the excellent photography from Linda Cicero, which has often graced this site.)

 

Remembering Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank: “He had no enemies.”

Sunday, May 26th, 2013
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Joe in his Princeton days (Photo: Robert Matthews)

Among the quieter events in a busy week at Stanford: about a hundred friends, colleagues, students, and family members gathered at the Stanford Humanities Center to commemorate the life and work of one of Stanford’s most eminent figures, Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank … well, “Dostoevsky scholar” … he was so much more than that.

As author Jeffrey Meyers of Princeton noted during his talk that afternoon (his remarks are published in his retrospective here):

Learned, widely read, and well informed about a wide range of subjects, Joe could talk intelligently about almost anything. The depth of his knowledge was astonishing and delightful. We talked about our current work, classic and recent books, Russian writers from Gogol to Solzhenitsyn, major biographers, struggles with editors, conferences attended, favorite films (if not, for Joe, “too depressing”), mutual friends in Stanford and Berkeley, wide-ranging travels, current politics, children and grandchildren, jokes and literary gossip. It was especially interesting to compare our reviews of the same book, Olivier Todd’s excellent life of André Malraux. I urged him to read the novels of Olivia Manning, J.F. Powers, and James Salter; he retaliated, unfairly I thought, by suggesting the German philosopher Max Scheler, “the founder of the sociology of knowledge.”

I liked to hear Joe reminisce about distinguished writers who’d been his friends—Allen Tate, John Berryman, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Robert Lowell, Anthony Burgess, and Carlos Fuentes — and urged him (unsuccessfully) to write a memoir about them. He remembered Elizabeth Bishop telling him of her visits to Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in D.C. and getting books for him from the Library of Congress. He recalled seeing Mary McCarthy in a hospital in New York, just before she died, and her pressing his hand at the time. He’d met the reclusive South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner, J.M. Coetzee, and found him “quite laconic and reserved, but with a kind of genuine inner warmth with people he likes.”

Bill Chace, president of Emory, opened the memorial event with the remark, “If Joe were with us today …,” or words to that effect.  Nobody seemed to notice at the moment the lights flickered for a moment, and then came on again.  Well, it is easy to make too much of small things, but still, for this observer it was a poignant moment, as if Joe were saying, “Don’t write me off just yet!”  One comment from Bill Chace’s remarks that I scribbled in my program:  “He had no enemies.”  From what I knew of Joe, it was true … but how?  How does one get through a life like this one without accumulating any enemies?  Given Joe’s unconventional path through academia, there must have been dozens of jealous or resentful knives sharpened for him.

JoeFrank2Perhaps part of the secret was related by Marilyn Yalom in her remarks. She  recalled how Joe used to light up when she came into the room.  It was only later that she realized that his face lit up when anyone entered the room.  We all thought he only had eyes for us – but that was only a fragment of his genial charm.

Granddaughter Sophie Lilla, a freshman at New York University, recalled the story of Joe leaping off the bus in postwar Paris, a stop before his intended one. He had seen an attractive woman on the bus and didn’t want to let the opportunity slip.  And shortly afterward, he went so far as to marry her.  Sophie said she wished she had the nerve – but I suspect she does (she’s could pass for the woman who inspired the incident so many years ago, her grandmama Marguerite Frank).  The tributes were interspersed with Benny Goodman tunes, and Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky‘s Eugene Onegin, a favorite of his.

Stanford Slavic scholar Gregory Freidin was in Paris, but colleague Gabriella Safran read his remarks – you can, too.  Grisha posted his talk on his blog The Noise of Time here.  An excerpt:

Great musicians, it is said, do not choose their calling—music chooses them. Reading and rereading Joseph Frank’s writings, it seems the spirit of modernity itself chose him to be its voice—a great choice for the age when brute force remaking the world was matched and animated by a titanic struggle of ideas.

Joseph and Marguerite Frank

Joe and the lady he saw on a Paris bus, in Linda Cicero’s now-iconic photo.

How else to explain, then, that Frank’s debut in Scholastic, bore a title more fitting for the epilogue of a career: “Prolegomena to All Future Literary Criticism?” The year was 1935. Frank was seventeen and an orphan. A mere decade later, while he worked as a reporter, came entry into the big leagues: The Idea of Spatial Form. His last book, Responses to Modernity, with a telling subtitle Essays in the Politics of Culture, was published just a few months before illness claimed him. In-between, there are almost three hundred essays and reviews, some in French, and a monumental biography of a Russian writer whose fictional characters come alive even as they reenact the metaphysical mystery play of the modern era.

Frank’s stutter, which he struggled with all his life (but I remember with fondness), looks in retrospect like a mark of election. The affliction came along with an extraordinary aesthetic talent and a gift for empathy. The stutter forced him to develop, while still in his teens, a powerful voice as a writer of critical prose. Authoritative and subtle, uncompromis­ing yet forgiving, it was so deeply resonant and expressive that had Hollywood come calling, only an Orson Welles with the strut of John Wayne could have filled the bill. Its force is already present in his  “Dedication to Thomas Mann,” published in the NYU student journal in 1937; it is undiminished in “Thinkers and Liars,” one of his last pieces in The New Republic, and it reverberates throughout the entirety of his Dostoevsky  Pentateuch, the first five books of every Slavicist Bible.

His writer’s voice was Aaron to his Moses, except that it was inflected with an extraordinary aesthetic intelligence—and a sense of empathy, too. For Frank, the world picture—like a poem for T.S. Eliot, as Frank noted wryly—had to “preserve some ‘impurity’ if it was to be humanly meaningful.”

I haven’t blogged the talk I gave on this occasion – and I don’t expect to – but you can read the earlier retrospective I wrote for Stanford Magazine here.

With all these articles and comments, and the memories of the man himself, which keep returning to me at odd moments, I’m coming to understand the scale of our loss. My appreciation for him grows, and in retrospect, I am humbled even more that he, who had so much to offer, appreciated me.  But he appreciated everyone, I suspect. Maybe that’s why he had no enemies.

Moscow’s 800th birthday party in 1947: Robert Capa captures a poignant moment

Monday, December 31st, 2012
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Women “celebrating” in Moscow 1947.

Slavic scholar Grisha Freidin is a child of Moscow – he and his family emigrated to the U.S. when he was teenager.  So that means he recalls the city’s 800th birthday party on September 7, 1947.  “I remember playing with the colorful commemorative insignia (few things were colorful then) and hearing my parents, probably in answer to my questions, refer to the celebrations with uncharacteristic ebullience. Clearly it was a major landmark of the post-war years in Stalin’s Russia.”

The era’s most famous war photographer, Robert Capa, was on hand to document the event with John Steinbeck – and add a little nuance to the official party line of a a people looking inexorably forward to a glorious future.  Grisha looked up Capa’s photos, and has a compelling essay over at his blog, The Noise of Time:

And yet, whatever the restrictions, this war photographer was able to convey the atmosphere of the 1947 Moscow. Indeed, many images are composed to give expression to the wrenching tension between the ordinary folks’ desire to cash in a little of that great WWII victory – to ease gently into the long-deferred private life – and the unspoken command shouting at them from every poster: “Attention! To the Glory of the Empire, March!”

Capa’s and Steinbeck’s work were serialized in The New York Herald Tribune, later published as A Russian Journal, with Photographs by Robert Capa, a book which is still in print.  I’m not sure even Steinbeck could top Grisha’s observations on the photograph above.  From his blog:

Muscovite Grisha

The woman facing the camera is wearing a thick shawl and a heavy coat, the other is in a light dress, epitomizing the two sides of the Russian “Indian summer” and, perhaps also, the desire to use hope to trump the cold reality, for “it was a brilliant cold day,” as Steinbeck noted in his Journal. Both women are young and beautiful and strikingly dignified. But their faces suggest a more complicated story. The furrowed brow, the lines around the mouth, the alarm in the eyes of the woman facing the camera – what is behind them? And what about her dancing partner? Alone in the frame in a white flowery dress, her hair beautifully arranged, but her gaze is fixed on a point in infinity and her  profile is frozen into a classical tragic mask. Her right arm, bare and vulnerable, is gracefully stretched out, and the slight curve of her back is protected by the hand of her partner, apparently, stronger and more practically dressed. The tension is palpable. Were the music to stop at that moment, one of them and perhaps both would hunch over and burst out crying. To make sure your are not imagining all of this emotional dynamite, you check their expressions and posture against the other two female couples in the background: they, too, look tentative, dispirited, and forlorn, though lacking in grace and dignity compared to the couple in the foreground. The out-of-focus smiling faces to the right of the dancers only amplify the grotesque contrast between the intended mood of the festivities and the pain of the city’s post-war life. So much sadness fills this instant captured by Capa that it can never be effaced or redeemed.

Read the rest of Grisha’s post, which includes a dicussion of Henri Cartier-Bresson‘s photos of the city a few years later, is here.

“So much sadness … can never be effaced or redeemed.”

Remembering Bella Akhmadulina, again … and a few words on Tomas Venclova as well

Monday, January 10th, 2011
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We wrote about Bella Akhmadulina, who died in November,  here.  In that post, we quoted Gregory Freidin‘s insightful tribute in Arcade.

He’s still thinking about her.  And it’s thanks to us.  From Grisha’s post, “Akhmadulina Remembered, Again,” on his blog, The Noise of Time:

“A few days ago I received a request to review an advance copy of An Invisible Rope: A Portrait of Czeslaw Milosz, edited by my friend and Stanford colleague Cynthia L. Haven (Ohio University Press, to be released shortly). Among other recollections of Milosz (he left an indelible mark in those who knew him), there was ‘Spring in Berkeley,’ by Tomas Venclova. It contains Venclova’s account of the same evening that he and I spent with Bella Akhmadulina and her husband, as it turns out, at Cheshire Cat, a Berkeley pub that is no longer in existence. Having read Tomas’ recollections, I now realize that I must have left the party shortly after Milosz joined it and, fool that I am, missed the rest of the conversation that, unbeknownst to me, continued well into the small hours of the morning.”

"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

He didn’t want to divulge too much of Venclova’s essay, except to note that the evening turned into a battle between Venclova, Milosz, and Akhmadulina over the term central to Milosz’s Captive Mindketman. The term was born in Persia, but revived by Milosz, signifying the double game by which we keep a public face that serves a totalitarian authority, while nurturing a private world of our own values.

Venclova, Lithuania’s foremost poet and one of Europe’s greatest modern poets, is too little known in the U.S., though his name surfaces regularly on the Nobel shortlists.  He was born in 1937, and capped his dissent at the 1956 invasion of Hungary with his outspoken involvement in the 70s with dissident politics – which included being a founding member of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group.  He was banned from publishing, stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1977, and, exiled. He now teaches at Yale.  According to the Bloodaxe blog:

“Venclova’s experience of growing up in the shadow of these post-war ruins is an integral part of his work. For, as in many European cities, the ruin that surrounded him was not merely metaphorical: in his writings he tells how, on his very first day of school, he got lost in Vilnius’ ruins and wandered for four hours in search of his house. Half of the city was destroyed, and on certain streets, every other house was burned out. Yet by some miracle, all the city’s churches had survived, together with certain other monuments from the capital’s architectural past. As a young man, Venclova came to regard these vestiges as a sign – one that ‘made a statement and exacted a demand’. During the years of Communist monotony and repression, he memorised Vilnius’s architectural details down to the last window frame and column, and at difficult moments in his life he would stand in one of the city’s squares and allow the sheer presence of their historical continuity to lift his spirit. These vestiges represented the remains of a coherent world, a world that – however far off that eventuality might be – could one day, given enough patience, rise from the debris.”

The poet was a sweetheart to deal with on An Invisible Rope — professional in all his dealings, on time with deadlines, invariably courteous and responsive to email requests, not at all big-headed.  I have yet to meet him, but perhaps our paths will cross during 2011, the Milosz centennial year.

Meanwhile, I got a copy of his The Junction: Selected Poems, published by the preeminent U.K. poetry publisher, Bloodaxe.  I liked especially this poem, “Commentary,” which opens:

Above all, though it’s hard, love language -
humbled in newspapers, obituaries saturated with lies,
in the bedroom’s close darkness, the informer’s confession,
in the cry at the bazaar, trenches, the stench of hospital wards,

in third-rate theatres, secret police offices, on lavatory walls.
In grey buildings where the stairwell’s shaft is guarded
by steel nets, so that it is not a man, but the century,
which selects the instant of his death;

this language, almost collapsed, littered with sound
and fury.  That’s it, love language –
banished to earth beside us,
though carrying with it the primordial Word, …

Postscript:  Don’t miss Grisha Freidin’s 500-word history of Russia here.  Rather like Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, which I bought on Jonathan Miller‘s recommendation but haven’t really given more than a cursory look. Or the ten centuries in five minutes I posted some time ago.

Remembering Bella Akhmadulina: “purity, conscience, and independence”

Sunday, December 19th, 2010
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I ran across Robin Varghese‘s recent post on 3 Quarks Daily noting that, he, too, had somehow missed the obituaries for the 73-year-old Russian poet Bella Akhmadulina, who died on November 29 of a heart attack.  I spent a little time this afternoon catching up: William Grimes‘s New York Times obituary for the “bold voice in Russian poetry” is here.

Akhmadulina came to fame in the post-Stalin years, the years of the Thaw.  She never emigrated, and never was exiled.  The Telegraph reported:

“Yet in her own quiet way Bella Akhmadulina was as much of a dissident as better known Soviet writers. Her work as a translator – she translated into Russian poetry from France, Italy, Chechnya, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia and many other countries – led to her expulsion from the Soviet Writers’ Union in the Brezhnev era, and she openly supported persecuted writers like Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and political dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov.”

In 1979, she fell out of favour by contributing a surreal short story, ‘Many dogs and one dog,’ to the Samizdat publication Metropol, and was subsequently condemned for the “eroticism” of her verse and banned from publication.”

Said the poet:  “How did I manage?  Well, I think a person has some sort of guiding light.  Without doubt, something or someone looks after us from on high.” sThat quotation is from Valentina Polukhina‘s exhaustive and enlightening series of interviews, Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, volume 1.

I didn’t know her poetry — or at least I didn’t know it much.  I remember her instead as the the bright, original, and unambiguous voice in Polukhina’s 1987 interview:  “The presence of any great poet in the world creates a marked effect on human existence.”

An excerpt:

“But in exceptional cases, as with Bunin, with Nabokov, we are talking about people who have taken with them something that became … as if they created the Russian language inside themselves.  He doesn’t need to hear Russian spoken around him; he himself becomes a force that is ripe.  He himself is both garden and gardener. …

I said this at some time to Nabokov.  He asked me, ‘Do you like my language?’ and I answered, ‘Your Russian, it’s the best,’ and he said, ‘But it seems to me that it is like frozen strawberries.’  And whatever fate does … Well, with such people what is fate?”

In a literary world notorious for backbiting and artistic rivalries, she said this of Joseph Brodsky:

“My particular relationship to Brodsky can be described quite simply: uncritical, one of adoration.  I myself have stated somewhere in connection with Akhmatova:  ‘Of all calamities, adoration is the worse.’  An admirer can never expect his adoration to be returned.  And I am sure, that Joseph … I never think about myself when I think about him.  And even when they said to me, ‘you know, what Brodsky thinks of you!’ (Thumb downward.)  As he pleases.  But it is my business to talk about him with thumbs up.”

Polukhina, however, contradicted her:  “He said that Bella is one of the few Russian poets living in Russia who by some miracle has succeeded in preserving her purity, conscience and independence.”

Akhmadulina’s finest online send-off may be the memoir from Gregory Freidin on Arcadehere.  He gives us the context for Akhmadulina’s rise to prominence:

“Because of the richness of inflection and infinite melodic variability of the language, Russian poetry is blessed with extraordinary expressive force and a mighty mnemonic potential. This comes in handy if you happen to live under a repressive ideocracy like the Soviet Union, since verses can be easily memorized and leave little material evidence. Indeed, there was no better time to realize Russian poetry’s mnemonic and ethereal  potential than in the post-Stalin Soviet Union where the absence of independent publishing coexisted with burgeoning youth culture and a minimal – and for that reason infinitely titillating – lifting of the skirt of Soviet censorship. For us, who belonged the post-WWII generation, shaped by the de-Stalinization campaign and cold war, known euphemistically as ‘peaceful coexistence,’ this toying with the ideological hemline excited our imagination and set our minds on fire! Grim and sclerotic as the Soviet empire was in its decline, it became a Garden of Eden for poetry – and a purgatory, not to say a minor inferno, for the poets themselves. Some, like Brodsky, were exiled or jailed, others went through torments of hell in trying to combine the imperative of remaining true to their calling with the relentless and crushing pressure to conform. That was the cup that Akhmadulina, twenty and otherworldly beautiful in 1956, drank to the dregs.”

I won’t spoil Freidin’s post for you; it deserves a full reading here.  And for a taste of Akhmadulina’s distinctive voice, girlish and throaty, click below: