Posts Tagged ‘“joseph brodsky”’

Happy birthday to the Book Haven! We’re ten years old!

Saturday, November 30th, 2019
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We began on November 19, 2009. And we’ve been going ever since. For years we’ve anticipated this special tenth anniversary (alright, alright, we’re eleven days late; we’ve been busy).

What did we imagine? We had envisioned champers and brie and little pink cakes! We had hoped for international acclaim and cybercards and cyberroses … oh well, why bother? Instead: one solitary woman at a computer, cranking out books and articles (and even the occasional blogpost) faster than any reasonable person should.

However, the occasion of our tenth anniversary was not entirely unmarked. The Book Haven has made it’s debut appearance in The Smithsonian Magazinewith this paragraph in the current issue, on a subject we know startlingly little about. It generated a scholarly query last week in my inbox, so it’s good to know our July 11, 2018, post is getting some attention

The end result, according to a blog post by Stanford University’s Cynthia Haven, was a masterful collection of 1,299 gouaches, 340 transparent text overlays and a total of 32,000 words. One painting finds the artist cuddling in bed with her mother; another shows a seemingly endless parade of Nazis celebrating Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Germany’s chancellor while swastikas swirl above their heads.

Maybe next year?

Read more here.

What else has happened, since we last wrote about ourselves, five years ago, here? Some time ago, we hit a record high of 45,000 hits in a month. However, gone are the days when we used to wake up in the morning, pull the laptop out from under the bed, and compulsively check our numbers on Google Analytics. We have our following, and we get our bouquets and our punches … and our letters. Like this one a few days ago, from the U.K.: “I am just writing a very quick thank you for introducing Edna St Vincent Millay to me. I had been searching for Sara Teasdale and found a wonderful article written by you at The Book Haven. If it wasn’t for your article I wouldn’t  have found and fallen in love with Edna.” We’re glad you did, sir!

This year alone: We’ve posted on the controversy surrounding the Stanford University Press here and here. After the death of the notable Johns Hopkins polymath and bibliophile Richard Macksey, we were quoted in The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun and wrote about his passing here and here and here. We’ve forged a partnership with The Los Angeles Review of Books to create an Entitled Opinions channel, as well as a series of articles.

Books, books, books. We’ve written about many books. We wrote about our debut in Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Nation, plus reviews of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. (Too many to list – put it in the Book Haven search engine). Plus… we were named a 2018-19 National Endowment for the Humanities public scholar, the inaugural Milton Cottage resident, and oohhh, so much more.

Sorry, maybe for 2020.

The Book Haven broke the national news of President Trump‘s plans to scuttle the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts – but other media outlets were close on our heels. We memorialized fallen greats at Stanford, many of them friends: Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank and theater director and Brecht protégée Carl Weber, French intellectual Michel Serres and Milton Scholar Martin Evans, and of course, the French theorist René Girard. And, this month, another cherished friend, the French scholar Marilyn Yalom.

The Book Haven has taken you to Bergen, Sigtuna and Stockholm, Kraków and London, Warsaw, Paris, and Avignon, among other locales.

We’ve described how we brought about the acquisition of Russian Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky Papers at Stanford, and our debut on Russian TV … and later the acquisition of Russian poet Regina Derieva‘s papers.

We’re still here. So many excellent blogs and online journals have folded – Elegant Variation, House of Mirth, Bookslut – and journals, too, such as Quarterly Conversation and Smart Set. We’re still here, and looking forward, in six weeks time, in joining you for the brand new decade for all of us.

C’mon, December, we’re ready to take you on – to the end of the year and beyond. Our vision going forward is 2020.

Happy birthday to us! Long may we live!

Australian poet Les Murray is dead at 80: “The deadliest inertia is to conform with your times” – and he didn’t.

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019
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With the Russian poet Regina Derieva in Stockholm, 2007 (Photo: Tomas Oneborg)

The Nobel evaded him, and now he shall never get it, though he was considered among the greatest poets of our era. The Australian poet Les Murray died peacefully yesterday at 80. In 2012, the National Trust of Australia classified Murray as one of Australia’s 100 living treasures, but he was much more than that, from the beginning.

David Mason – a new Australian

David Mason, writing in today’s First Things: “Murray grew up in dire poverty on a farm with no electricity or running water, and always felt exiled from the privileged classes. Largely self-educated, at university he was so poor he ate the scraps he found on plates in the cafeteria. Profoundly asocial, he once called himself ‘a bit of a stranger to the human race.’ He also suffered at times from debilitating depression, and was bullied in school for being bookish and fat. Yet he transformed his sense of personal injury to a poetic voice of rigor and flexibility, humor and empathy, and enormous formal range. He was a generous anthologist and editor as well as an essayist, poet, and verse novelist. ‘It was a very great epiphany for me,’ he once said, ‘to realize that poetry is inexhaustible, that I would never get to the end of its reserves.’”

We had mutual friends, among them Alexander Deriev, whose wife was the late Russian poet Regina Derieva, and the poet Dave Mason himself, who is now an Australian poet by choice rather than birth. He had corresponded with Murray, who published some of his poems (presumably in the Australian Quadrant, where Murray was poetry editor) but they never met face to face.

Here’s another treat: if you want to know something about him, you might go to this soundcloud 1985 PEN recording of Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, and Richard Howard in conversation with Murray. I’m still listening to it…

“The body of work that he’s left is just one of the great glories of Australian writing,”said his agent of three decades, Margaret Connolly. “The thought that there will be no more poems and no more essays and no more thoughts from Les – it’s very sad and a great loss.”

David Mason, writes: “Murray deserves to be ranked among the best devotional poets—from Donne and Herbert to Eliot and Auden—but his work has an earthiness and irreverence of its own, a tragic sense of human life and a Whitmanesque sympathy for the lives of animals. His wordscapes and landscapes were local, Australian, with everything that distinction signifies—including the transported convict’s sense of justice and the nation’s thoroughly multicultural heritage. His art wasn’t bound by pieties, political or otherwise, because he understood the position of poetry—and of language itself—in relation to reality.”

Faced with the theological question “Why does God not spare the innocent?,” Murray replied in a quatrain that is perhaps one of his best known poems, perhaps because of, rather than despite, its economy of words:

The answer to that is not in
the same world as the question
so you would shrink from me
in terror if I could answer it.

Les Murray, Daniel Weissbort and Alexander Deriev having meal after the Ars Interpres Poetry Festival. Stockholm, 2004.

David notes that the poem, called “The Knockdown Question,” is a minor epigram in the Murray oeuvre, “but it partakes of the same theological experience as Eliot’s Four Quartets. Murray was not always so blunt.”

David Malouf told the ABC that Murray was “utterly unorthodox” and described his work as “undoubtedly the best poems anybody has produced in Australia.”

“He knew that he could be difficult — nobody pretends that he wasn’t — but he was always difficult in an interesting way.”

He told the Paris Review:  I’m a dissident author; the deadliest inertia is to conform with your times.”

For Joseph Brodsky, on the 23rd anniversary of his death

Monday, January 28th, 2019
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From “Elegy for John Donne” (1963)

Like some great bird, he too will wake at dawn;
but now he lies beneath a veil of white,
while snow and sleep stitch up the throbbing void
between his soul and his own dreaming flesh. …

Man’s garment gapes with holes. It can be torn,
by him who will, at this edge or at that.
It falls to shreds and is made whole again.
Once more it’s rent. And only the far sky,
in darkness, brings the healing needle home.

… Sleep soundly, do not fret
your soul. As for your coat, it’s torn; all limp
it hangs. But see, there from the clouds will shine
that Star which made your world endure till now.

(trans. George L. Kline)

 

An Oxford scholar ponders Joseph Brodsky, memory in Stanford’s archives.

Friday, August 24th, 2018
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Last June, I got an email from an Oxford scholar, working on a dissertation about Joseph Brodsky and memory. He wrote that he would be visiting the Stanford archives. Could we meet for coffee or lunch?

Sure, I said. But why don’t we start at the Brodsky archives at Stanford’s Special Collections and the Hoover Library & Archives, where he was doing his research? Book Haven readers will remember I shepherded one archive to Green Library, via the poet’s close friend, Ramūnas Katilius in Vilnius (I tell that story here), the other important collection came to Hoover through the efforts of archivist Lora Soroka via another close friend of the Russian Nobel laureate, Diana MyersI wrote about the collection for The Hoover Digest here. But I had an ulterior motive in my suggestion: it’s always fun and revelatory to see these collections through the eyes of others.

He stayed in touch. (Nationaal Archief)

He pored over both. What did he appreciate most of all? Oddly enough, the postcards – a perspective I don’t remember anyone considering before. With postcards, he said, the exiled poet was able to stay in touch with the friends he left on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and let them know what he was doing, where he was traveling, and what he was seeing. It was a sort of early “Instagram.” The number of postcards he sent reached their zenith in the 1970s, and then began to taper off.

Did time and distance dampen friendship? Not at all, he said. International phone calls became cheaper, and eventually email displaced written correspondence. Moreover, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians could travel all over the world, and meet Joseph in London, Paris, Rome, New York, or Venice.

As for myself, I liked the cryptic aperçus he would occasionally drop in letters, notes, and yes, postcards: “Shadow and light turn us into human beings,” or “Movement is the victory over emptiness.” Perhaps too offhand to be overthought, but still … a few sparks thrown off from the Catherine Wheel of his genius.

We ended each day with coffee and conversation at the Stanford Bookstore, hours and hours of talk about Russian writers, Oxford, Stanford, the humanities, the future, the past, and of course, always, Joseph Brodsky.

One of the top six writers of the 20th century? Stalin didn’t think so.

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018
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The Soviet FD locomotive, featured in “Immortality” (Photo: LHOO/Peter van den Bossche)

Who was the greatest writer of the 20th century? Not many would put Andrey Platonov in the top half-dozen. But Nobel prizewinning poet Joseph Brodsky did.

“I squint back on our century and I see six writers I think it will be remembered for.  They are Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, William Faulkner, Andrey Platonov and Samuel Beckett…. They are summits in the literary landscape of our century … What’s more, they don’t lose an inch of their status when compared to the giants of fiction from the previous century,” he said. Gorky, Bulgakov, and Pasternak might have seconded the vote for Platonov. Unfortunately, Stalin called him scum.

He ended his days sweeping streets.

According to The Irish Times literary critic Eileen Battersby writing eight years ago: “The poet Joseph Brodsky divided the world into those who had read Platonov, and so merited the title of readers, and those who had not, and thus were dismissed outright as lesser mortals. For Brodsky, Platonov ‘simply had a tendency to see his words to their logical – that is absurd, that is totally paralysing – end. In other words, like no other Russian writer before or after him, Platonov was able to reveal a self-destructive, eschatological element within the language itself.’”

At the time I first heard about him, however, I don’t think The Foundation Pit had been published in English yet. But now you can read Platonov’s short story “Immortality,” which Platonov published in 1936, breaking years of silence and official censure. (This short story was published an editorial saying the author had overcome his “grave, creative errors.”) The story is an experiment in social realism, but perhaps the best of that misguided genre had to offer – and, as the son of a railway worker, it perhaps borrows a bit of his own history.

It begins:

After midnight, on the approach to Red Peregon station, the FD locomotive began to shout and weep.1 It sang in the winter darkness with the deep strength of its hot belly and then began to change to a gentle, weeping human breathing, addressing someone who was not replying. After falling briefly silent, the FD again complained into the air: human words could already be discerned in this signal, and whoever now heard them must have felt pressure on his own conscience because of the engine’s torment—helpless, heavy rolling stock hung on the maternal hook of her tender and the station’s approach signal was signaling red. The driver closed the last steam cutoff—the signal was still an obstinate red—and gave the three toots of a complete stop. He took out a red handkerchief and wiped his face, which the winter night’s wind was covering all the time with tears out of his eyes. The man’s vision had begun to weaken and his heart had become sensitive: the driver had lived some time in the world and travelled some distance over the earth. He did not curse into the darkness at the fools in the station, though he was going to have to take two thousand tons, from a standstill, up the incline, and the friction of the locomotive’s metal wheel rims would draw fire from the frozen rails.

The selfless hero of the story is the station chief Emmanuil Semyonovich Levin. His housekeeper approaches his room to wake him up:

The telephone above her boss’s bed was silent; her boss also slept and his body, accustomed to brief rest, was gathering strength, quickly, hurriedly—his heart had stilled in the depth of his chest, his breathing had shortened, supporting only a small watchful flame of life, each muscle and each tendon was secretly tugging, struggling against monstrosity and the creases of daytime tension. But in the darkness of a mind abundantly irrigated with blood, one quivering spot still gleamed, shining through the half-dark of eyes half-shuttered by lids: it was as if a lamp was burning on a distant post, by the entry switch of the main track coming out from real life, and this meek light could be transformed at any moment into a vast radiance of all consciousness and so set the heart to run at full speed.

The translators are Lisa Hayden and the matchless Robert Chandler. (And read Chandler’s fascinating discussion of Platonov in The Guardian here.) Read Platonov’s “Immortality” in its entirety over at E-flux here.

Does good literature inoculate us against lies? Poet Tomas Venclova thinks so.

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018
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“Above all, love language” (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

I was one of the few people to review Magnetic North, the great Baltic poet Tomas Venclova‘s book-length Q&A with poet and translator Ellen Hinsey certainly in the West, when I wrote for the Times Literary Supplement earlier this year. The book was never going to get a huge commercial audience, certainly, but seeing the long excerpt in the current Music & Literature makes me wonder if the book will have a second (and maybe third and fourth) life in excerpts.

I’m willing to help the process along, so here is an excerpt of the excerpt in the tony online journal (and if you don’t know Music & Literatureyou should): 

Before we go on to speak about other poems, I’d like to ask about poetic inspiration. In her book Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam says that for poets “auditory hallucinations” are a reoccurring occupational hazard, and that Osip Mandelstam experienced poetic inspiration as a musical phrase insistently ringing in his ears. Early on, did you notice any particular sensations that heralded the onset of a poem?

I’m not a very musical person. My imagination is more visual than aural: I admire (and, I hope, understand) architecture and painting, and I love Bach, Handel, and Purcell primarily because they remind me of architecture. Thus, the phenomenon of auditory hallucination described by Nadezhda Mandelstam comes to me not so much as musical phrases sensu stricto, but rather as rhythmic units that can also be understood in spatial terms. But yes, I experience an insistent and intrusive, even irksome feeling of something constantly repeating itself and demanding a liberating effort. It is frequently preceded by a general feeling of unease and a bout of bad mood. In my youth, I learned to understand this as the signal: “A poem is coming.”

Interlocutor

The passage above was the first that caught my eye in the Music & Literature article, but then another further dow, picked up a theme I’d discussed only a few days ago in The Book Haven post, “’Bro – he lives!’ Joseph Brodsky on the morality of uselessness, and the need to ‘switch off’. The Lithuanian poet Venclova’s work, from the beginning “constituted his own specific universe,” as his interlocutor, said his translator, Ellen Hinsey. 

I think Brodsky had in mind not just Soviet reality, but reality as such. True, Soviet reality was grimmer than most. After the nightmare of the camps and executions, from which we were trying to awake (to quote Stephen Dedalus, whose experience was milder than ours), we were confronted by an ugly and monotonous present that promised no further change. We were surrounded by the absurd. And that was only a part—one of the worst parts, to tell the truth—of the chaos and nonsense of life. Poetry—and art in general—was a way of resisting that chaos, holding it at bay. This also had political consequences. Politics, seen from this perspective, was something transitory (even if one had to make decent choices in everyday life). On the other hand, it would be an overstatement or even a distortion to assert that we were totally apolitical in our work. The stifling Soviet atmosphere, aggravated by the smug audacity of the authorities, provoked not only disdain, but resentment and indignation that could not help but find its way into our verses. …

Everything possible

Akhmatova frequently speaks about how the Soviet period robbed individuals of the chance to live out their own destinies. In your “A Poem about Memory,” and elsewhere, you reflect on “such a shortage of authentic fate—”

In her magnificent poem, the fifth “Northern Elegy,” Akhmatova speaks about all the things she was denied due to the circumstances of her era. She nevertheless states that she perhaps did everything that was possible in the only life left to her. I was stunned by these proud words. Naturally, our situations were not comparable, but in “A Poem about Memory,” I attempted to understand the way to “do everything possible.” …

He loves architecture.

All literature of quality provides the reader with patterns and insights that enable him or her—perhaps not systematically, but frequently enough—to resist false doctrines. Poetry, in particular, is somewhat mysteriously linked to ethics; and poetic discipline to the fortitude of the spirit. Many poets, including Zbigniew Herbert and Akhmatova—and her protégé, Joseph Brodsky—insisted that refusal to succumb to evil is primarily a matter of taste. I was of the same mind. …

Thus the human quality of tenacity also becomes an important component of personal and poetic ethics. Or as you described in “A Poem about Friends,” dedicated to Natasha Gorbanevskaya, and written after the 1968 demonstration against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in Red Square: “And those who live are chosen by the fog, / Deserted houses, journeys into the distance, / Their weapons are staunchness, abstinence from speech”—

During this period, it seemed as though the course of events were governed by laws of raw power, that is, by statistics. The force of words and human solidarity were our means to counter this, even if this meant prison or exile, as was the case for many of my friends. Speech—or, at least, a silent refusal to lie—was the axis of their existence. I tried to convey this in the very title of my book.

And the title of the book is Magnetic NorthRead the Music & Literature piece here

“Bro – he lives!” Joseph Brodsky on the morality of uselessness, and the need to “switch off”

Monday, May 28th, 2018
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Sentenced to hard labor in Norenskaya, after a show trial.

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky famously said that all that poetry and politics have in common are the letters “p” and “o.” In a sense, that can be said to be the topic of Rachel Wiseman‘s “Switching Off: Joseph Brodsky and the Moral Responsibility to Be Useless,” over at The Point. 

It was the poet’s birthday a few days ago (he would have been 78), but it was also right after Philip Roth‘s death, so I didn’t post. Yet it would be ungrateful not to say something about the man who gave so much to me.

Fortunately, David Streitfeld of the New York Times sent me this article this morning, and it’s too good not to let the world know about it. (It’s one of a series on intellectuals – here.)

Спасибо, David

Wiseman begins with the 1964 show trial, where the Nobel poet, then 23, was labeled a social parasite. Then she contrasts his position with journalist Keith Gessen‘s criticism of him:

“If a poet has any obligation to society,” Brodsky said, “it is to write well. Being in the minority, he has no other choice.” The Soviet trial judge is not the only one who has taken this attitude to indicate a lack of social conscience. The novelist and critic Keith Gessen, in a 2008 article for the New York Times Book Reviewfaulted Brodsky’s generation of intellectuals and those who followed for being “powerless to stop Putin from terrorizing the country, not because they feared him, but because after the destruction of the Soviet Union they retreated into ‘private life,’ which is what they wanted all along.” Gessen is a great fan of Brodsky the poet, but wishes he would be more of a critic. In a New Yorker essay from 2011, he condemned Brodsky for allowing himself to become a “propagandist for poetry.” Gessen searched Brodsky’s oeuvre in vain for an example that might undercut the unapologetic aestheticism that had “hardened into dogma.” Not unlike the judge, Gessen seemed to demand of Brodsky, How were you useful to the motherland? How could someone of Brodsky’s intelligence actually believe that aesthetics governs ethics and not the other way around?

In a sense, she begins to demonstrate the point the article is trying to make. It sags in midway, as she addresses growing up in the “multicultural, bubblegum Nineties” and the politics du jour (“national nightmare”) – the piece becomes predictable and rote in outlook. It fades into outrage, repetitive emotions, and the mob before it regains altitude:

Every generation of intellectuals finds a way of coming to terms with the limits of their agency. Brodsky’s chose poetry; mine and Gessen’s took the train downtown. It’s not a strict binary, of course: these two tendencies can coexist in the same individual and express themselves in different ways. But we might consider that switching off, for Brodsky, was a way of performing his social responsibility, not shirking it. In Brodsky’s view, politics was one level of human existence, but it was a low rung. The business of poetry, he thought, is to “indicate something more … the size of the whole ladder.” He held that “art is not a better, but an alternative existence … not an attempt to escape reality but the opposite, an attempt to animate it.” What compels a poet to write is less “a concern for one’s perishable flesh” than “the urge to spare certain things of one’s world—of one’s personal civilization—one’s own non-semantic continuum.”

Gessen critiques

Hard to know what to quote because so much of it is so good. But let’s end at the ending. Those who have sent me emails know my standard footer: “Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.” It’s a remarkable quote, and true in just about every case I can think of. Here’s where it comes from, embedded in his remarks on the Biblical passage enjoining us to turn the other cheek:

Brodsky gives an account of the standard interpretation of the lines of scripture that inspired this doctrine of passive resistance and then goes on to mention the ending, which is less commonly quoted. The idea is not just to turn the cheek to the person who strikes you—you are also supposed to give him your coat: “No matter how evil your enemy is, the crucial thing is that he is human; and although incapable of loving another like ourselves, we nonetheless know that evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another. (This is why you’ve been hit on your right cheek in the first place.) At best, therefore, what one can get from turning the other cheek to one’s enemy is the satisfaction of alerting the latter to the futility of his action. ‘Look,’ the other cheek says, ‘what you are hitting is just flesh. It’s not me. You can’t crush my soul.’”

As David wrote to me when he sent the link, “bro – he lives!” Then he added, “anyway, what was it exactly they used to call him?  joe the bro, no? it was a play off  ‘joe the pro.'”

С днем ​​рождения, Иосиф. It’s true. “Bro, he lives.”

Postscript: Oh, but I forgot to include the tweet David sent a few minutes earlier. It’s below. Sounds about right, except … a “green velour suit”? In the 1970s, maybe … but the 90s?  I went to twitter and a whole stream of postscripts followed, including some from James Marcus:

Postscript on 7/15: Look what I found in the garage, while looking for other records. Naturally, I was so chuffed I had to tweet:

 

My “Joseph Brodsky: Conversations” – now in Portuguese!

Sunday, May 13th, 2018
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The Brazilian edition of my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations has just been published by the tony new house Editora Âyiné, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

That’s the third language for the collection of interviews. It made its Italian debut with Milano’s first-rate Adelphi in 2015 (we wrote about that here), and of course the English language edition with the cover photo by Richard Avedon was published a dozen years ago.

Do you speak Portuguese? Now’s your chance. Order your copy on Brazil’s amazon site here. From the website:

Como nasce a poesia? De qual misterioso labor é êxito? Qual é sua tarefa? Quem se colocou, ao menos uma vez, uma dessas perguntas poderá enfim encontrar nestas entrevistas – que cobrem a vida de Brodsky no exílio, desde o início da década de 1970 até poucas semanas antes de sua morte súbita em New York em 1996 – respostas de uma clareza audaz. Descobrirá que a poesia é «um acelerador incrível do processo cognitivo», «nosso objetivo antropológico, nosso objetivo genético», e que não há melhor instrumento para «mostrar às pessoas a verdadeira versão da escala das coisas». Descobrirá também que o que sempre considerou artifícios técnicos inescrutáveis – esquemas métricos, por exemplo – são, na verdade, «padrões mágicos», «ímãs espirituais», capazes de afetar profundamente a poesia, fazendo com que um conteúdo moderno expresso segundo uma forma fixa (um soneto, por assim dizer) possa assustar tanto quanto «um carro indo pela pista errada numa rodovia». Brodsky sabia iluminar o trabalho dos poetas que amava – Auden, Frost, Kavafis, Mandelstam, Akhmátova, Tsvetáeva, Miłosz, Herbert, para limitarmo-nos a seus contemporâneos – com uma lucidez sempre acompanhada de uma vibrante participação: «Eu dificilmente extraio tanta alegria da leitura como quando estou lendo Auden. É uma verdadeira alegria, e, com alegria, não quero dizer simplesmente prazer, pois a alegria é algo muito sombrio em si mesmo». Essas conversações servirão também como um guia à melhor poesia: esse «esforço estético» capaz de frear «nossa bestialidade».

Joseph Brodsky a second Pushkin? “Prove it!” he said. And she did.

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018
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Men attended, but only women and guest author lined up for photographer Jakob Margolis.

Valentina Polukhina was one of the women being honored during Mark Yakovlev‘s presentation of his book Joseph Brodsky and The Fate of Three Women. Valentina spoke at the Russian Cultural Center on Kensington High Street in London. She is one of the world’s leading scholars of the Russian Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky.

She proved it.

During her talk, she retold a story that she told me sometime earlier, so I’ll share it here. During her early days with the poet, she told him he was a second Pushkin. Not the first time he had been compared with the ur-Russian poet of all time, the author of the justly renowned Eugene Onegin.

But his reaction was skeptical. “Prove it!” he said.

Her response: to interview his fellow Russian poets, writers, and other colleagues. That was volume 1 of the remarkably insightful Brodsky Through the Eyes of His ContemporariesThen she followed up by interviewing his colleagues in other countries. That was volume 2. Then she interviewed still others for a third volume. (The series has been slightly abbreviated for the two-volume English-language series by Academic Studies Press.)

Humble Moi also spoke at the Russian Cultural Centre that evening, but my topic was George L. Kline, the pivotal scholar who smuggled his poems out of the Soviet Union and translated his Selected Poems. My words:

“George Kline was a modest and retiring man, but on occasion he could be as forthright and adamant as Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky himself. In a 1994 letter, he wrote: ‘Akhamatova discovered Brodsky for Russia, but I discovered him for the West.’ And in 1987, ‘I was the first in the West to recognize him as a major poet, and the first to translate his work in extenso.’

“And it was true. What’s lesser known is how greatly this quiet Bryn Mawr professor supported scholars around the world who were working with Russian poetry and Brodsky in particular.

“Though we had never met face to face, George Kline was a regular presence in my life. My publication fifteen years ago of Joseph Brodsky: Conversations was my carte d’entree to this world, decades after I had studied with Brodsky at the University of Michigan. Some months after publication George sent me a multi-page letter noting the errata in my text. I later learned that anyone in the world who wrote or published something about Joseph Brodsky could expect such a letter, delineating the errors in the text. He did the same for his own works, carefully setting out the mistakes.

Answering a question or two. (Photo: Jakob Margolis)

“He was thorough, neutral, scholarly. Nevertheless, I persisted, and I don’t think I could have made whatever scholarly contribution I have in the Brodsky world without George’s encouragement, advice, and occasional recommendation. And in 2012, we decided to create a long written record of his work with Brodsky, in the form of a conversation.

“I didn’t know then what I would learn. That he had been a World War II pilot, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. That he was the founder and acknowledged dean of the Russian philosophy in the United States as a scholarly specialty. And that he’d translated Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Tomas Venclova, and others. Even so, he’s mostly he’s remembered today as the man who brought Joseph Brodsky into English, and the poems into America itself by bootlegging manuscripts out of the Soviet Union.”

Yes, one person asked me, but did George translate the poet to replicate the meter and rhyme of the original? Yes, I said, he did. “But did he succeed?” queried a second. “Read for yourself! ‘The Butterfly’ is a masterpiece!”

Oh, and the bronze sculpture of the poet in the corner next to Valentina? It was also honored. But then, Yuri Firsov‘s creation had an event of its own, tonight:

Poet Tomas Venclova in the TLS: “All will end well, but I will not see it.”

Friday, February 2nd, 2018
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A “historical optimist” (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

My review of  Lithuanian poet, essayist, and freedom fighter Tomas Venclova‘s Magnetic North, “No Pigeons in the Attic,” is featured in this week’s Times Literary Supplement here. Readers of the Book Haven will recognize the name of the eminent European intellectual, although it is, in general, too little recognized on this side of the Atlantic. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here, among other places. Magnetic North is a book-length Q&A with translator Ellen Hinsey, recapping his life, his art, and his nation’s turbulent history.

A few excerpts from my piece:

He rejects the romantic notion that a poet’s work only thrives in his or her homeland. “It would be absurd to maintain that a writer needs permanent contact with his or her native soil and withers when deprived of it”, he says, citing Marina Tsvetaeva, Nabokov and Brodsky among the dislocated Russians; Mickiewicz, Norwid, Miłosz and Gombrowicz among the Poles. He finds something fortunate even in exile, and seems to enjoy the role of lucid observer: “As a rule, one sees the general contours of the country’s development more clearly if one is not embroiled in local squabbles. For  an ‘outsider,’ these contours are projected on the larger screen of history”. But his international wanderings have not eroded his love of country – he has written three books on Vilnius, one of them the most commercially successful of his long career. He likens his beloved capital to a European Jerusalem. “I once said that these heterogeneous, asymmetric, and extraordinary buildings kept us from forgetting the very idea of civilization”, he recalls. “I still believe this.”

***

Lithuanian, the native tongue of 3 million people, continues to fascinate and sustain him, as it is “not only archaic, but rich and sonorous, virtually on a par with the Greek of Homer and Aeschylus. To me, as a poet, this has been rewarding”. He likens its rough phonetics to feldspar, adding that it has retained an archaic vocabulary and grammatical structure akin to preclassical Latin of the third century BC. And, Venclova points out, while it is one of the classical Indo-European languages, like Latin, Ancient Greek, Gothic, or Old Slavonic, it is the only one of them that  is still alive. It nearly was not so. In the nineteenth century, it was in serious decline, like Gaelic or Welsh. Venclova compares it to the former, another archaic language that embodies an ancient past. Neighbouring Poland views Lithuania the way the English view Scotland, as wild and untamed, with “more primeval forests and a valiant but not-too-civilized people”.

***

And the historical winner is…

Venclova has described himself as an “historical optimist”, which he characterizes thus: “All will end well, but I will not see it”. He views with dismay the growing nationalism that is threatening the cosmopolitanism he embraces. He notes that everyone in the twentieth century was a “loser” – Franz Joseph, Wilhelm II, Nicholas II, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Churchill, even Mahatma Gandhi. All except for Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, an obscure Serbian nationalist: “The only winner was Gavrilo Princip, since his mentality has survived – indeed, it has resolutely endured”.

 Read the rest here.  As for the title,  “No Pigeons in the Attic,” well … read the article.

Postscript on 2/21: And some nice feedback in the TLS letters column, as tweeted: