One of the pleasantest people I have ever met is Richard Wilbur, former U.S. poet laureate and two-time Pulitzer winner – a true gentleman, a great poet. So my bad that I almost overlooked his 91st birthday today. (I wrote about his 90th celebration a year ago here.)
Fortunately, Web of Stories kindly sent me a reminder that they have loads of video clips of the poet.
Here’s one where he describes his time at Amherst and meeting the love of his life, his wife Charlotte, who died in 2007. “I was terribly lucky she decided I would do,” he says with characteristic charm and humility:
Here’s another on his acquaintance with Russian poets, including Andrei and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Listen, in particular, to the tact and considerable diplomacy when, toward the end of the clip, he describes his interactions as he translated the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, who was notoriously tough on his translators:
Dick Wilbur was a brilliant translator of Molière – not shying away from the daunting challenge of the playwright’s rhymed couplets. Here he’s talking about his collaboration with Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman on the musical Candide. Said Hellman: “If he did alright with one witty Frenchman, he might be alright with Voltaire.”
I don’t know when this interview occurred, but his reference to his wife as still living tells us that it was at least four years ago.
Part Deux below, with two readings of two of his greatest poems.
Almost all little girls have a love affair with horses. They also seem to go through a Joan of Arc phase, too. I was indifferent to the equestrian sports – but I read all the books in my library on the illiterate virgin from Domrémy who gave birth to a nation.
So I was pleased to learn in my online peregrinations that today is her 600th birthday. How the experts have determined her birthday when we’re not even sure of the year she was born, I can’t remember, if I ever knew. The picture at right was made about half a century after her death; the only contemporary portrait made of her has not survived.
She may be a powerful reminder that events can be successful without turning out quite as we imagined. Charles VII, the king whose coronation she engineered, appears to have been a truly nasty piece of work. Having recently attended the exhibition of The Mourners at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor, I enriched my appreciation for what a first-class creep he was: “the mourners” adorn the tomb of John the Fearless, done in by the king-to-be in a particularly treacherous way. Old habits die hard: he did nothing more than a decade later to save his warrior and savior when she was captured by the Burgundians. She burned at the stake in 1431.
We know her, not only as a warrior, patriot, and saint, but also as the heroine of two great plays: Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, and Jean Anouilh‘s The Lark.
The most famous passage from Shaw’s play follows her agreement to sign a confession renouncing her “voices,” to live under permanent confinement.
“You think that life is nothing but not being dead? It is not the bread and water I fear. I can live on bread. It is no hardship to drink water if the water be clean. But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again climb the hills. To make me breathe foul damp darkness, without these things I cannot live. And by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your council is of the devil.”
Below is a 1957 Hallmark video of the play, starring that remarkable and generally underrated actress Julie Harris as Joan and the better known, for different reasons, Boris Karloff as Pierre Cauchon. Lillian Hellman made the English adaptation and Leonard Bernstein composed the incidental music. (Otherwise you could watch Carl Dreyer‘s reverential and acclaimed The Passion of Joan of Arc, which I have always found a little like watching paint dry. Guess I’m a lowbrow.
I haven’t had a chance to watch the whole Anouilh play, but it looks pretty good in the bits I’ve seen. You’ll have to skip through Hallmark’s 2-minute cheesy commercial at the beginning, and a very blurry video version – but Harris is worth it, I think.
V.S. Naipaul has offered definitive proof against the adage that to be a good writer, you must be a good reader.
First, the happy news: Naipaul has ended his 30-year feud-over-nothing with Paul Theroux. The root of the matter seems to be that Naipaul thought Theroux was horsing around with his first wife. From the Telegraph:
A furious Naipaul retaliated by trying to sell one of Theroux’s books, inscribed to Naipaul and his first wife, online for $1,500. When Theroux found out, Naipaul told him to “take it on the chin and move on.” Naturally Theroux didn’t, and went on to write a book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which he’s said to detail Naipaul’s “elevated crankishness”. The fracas went on until last weekend when – in what is surely Hay [Festival]’s biggest literary coup to date – they made up, “corralled” into a handshake by Ian McEwan in the festival’s green room.
Perhaps Hallmark ought to create a card for the occasion. The forgettable feud and its resolution is recounted here and here.
The episode has brought to mind other great literary feud of our times, recounted here:
We all love a good literary feud, not least because they are much more amusing and erudite than a spat between, say, a footballer and a reality television star. Of Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, Norman Mailer wrote: “Reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a 300lb woman. Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.” Wolfe retaliated in his essay “My Three Stooges,” casting Mailer alongside his other critics, John Irving and John Updike.
Mad men: Mailer, Gore
Revenge can take many forms. Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal. “As usual, words failed him,” said Vidal. Evelyn Waugh used the name of his tutor at Oxford for such diverse characters as a quack doctor and a psychopathic burglar. Salman Rushdieand John le Carré had a row over who had suffered more at the hands of religious fanatics, which ended in Rushdie calling le Carré “an illiterate pompous ass”.
Rushdie not above the fray (Photo: Mae Ryan)
In 2006, Salman Rushdie also fell out with John Updike after the latter panned Shalimar the Clown, in particular Rushdie’s choice of names. “A name is just a name,” Rushdie retorted. “Somewhere in Las Vegas, there’s probably a male prostitute called John Updike.” The same year Bevis Hillier duped A.N. Wilson, the writer of a rival biography of John Betjeman, into publishing a spoof love letter; the first letter of each sentence spelt out: “A N Wilson is a —-.”
Which all goes to show that maturity or character, also, isn’t a prerequisite for being a writer, either.
But in the Telegraphhere you can also read about the feuds between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman (that one will not be resolved; the principals are dead) and Harold Bloom and J.K. Rowling.
And I thought the Poles were bad with their acrimonious literary feuds – I’ve recounted the one between Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herberthere, in “The Worst Dinner Party Ever.”
Naipaul must be anxious to promote himself, because he made these cranky comments to the press. From the Guardian:
In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of [Jane] Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.
Queen of literary mathematics
He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”
The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.
He added: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”
Of course that dropped the cat among the pigeons. Why? Why would one expect Sir Vidia to say something sensible on the subject? He’s obviously not a careful reader of Austen.
As for women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world,” I have only two words to say: Simone Weil.
“He is such a kook. It makes me laugh because he sounds like such a cranky old man. It’s the classic case of how prejudice works – you feel like you see it confirmed all over the world but the prejudice is tainting your perception everywhere you look.”
“I would put money on the fact that he has not read Jane Austen in 10 years. She’s the most cool, mathematical writer to come along, male or female. It’s a word no one who’s familiar with her work would call her. The nature of the comments read as so silly that it’s hard to see it spurring a gigantic turmoil. They’re not remarks that lead to a deeply-engaged conversation because they’re just so easily dismissible, largely because of what he says about Austen. He raises questions about his authority by calling her sentimental. Only a person with an idea of what Austen is — and not actual familiarity with her work – would say that. She’s not a melodramatic writer.”
Meanwhile, the Guardian has published “The Naipaul Test: Can You Tell an Author’s Sex?” – it’s here.
Naipaul is said to be a great writer (I haven’t read him, so I’m taking that on authority), but a crappy human being. So why do we take any of his opinions seriously?
If you’ve a taste for this sort of thing, Vidal and Mailer wrangle on fuzzy clip from The Dick Cavett Showbelow – journalist Janet Flanner takes the better part.
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