Posts Tagged ‘“Marilyn Yalom’

Is it possible to collapse from too much love?

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

At the Pont de l”Archevêché, “a forest of glittering objects…” (Photo: Francis Hannaway)

Some months ago we posted this, from Marilyn Yalom‘s How the French Invented Love:

During the summer of the [Dominique] Strauss-Kahn affair, I found myself walking behind the Cathedral of Notre Dame and wondering how I could finish this book. Had love in France become little more than a myth?  Were the French abandoning the ideal of “the great love” in favor of serial affairs?  Had seduction won out over sentiment? And then my eye was drawn to a strange sight. I saw, attached to the grille on the Pont de l”Archevêché crossing the Seine, a forest of glittering objects, small padlocks with initials or names on them, sometimes with dates or hearts: C and K, Agnes & René, Barbara & Christian, Luni & Leo, Paul & Laura, 16–6–10. There must be at least two or three thousand. And already, on the other side of the bridge, a few similar locks were clinging to the grille.  How long before that side would also be completely covered?

I hung around, enchanted by the spectacle, and was rewarded by the sight of two youthful lovers, who came across the bridge arm in arm, affixed a lock to the grille, drank from each other’s lips, and threw the key into the Seine.

how-the-french-invented-loveWe wondered at the time … can love sometimes be too much? Could the burden of love be lighter?  Is it possible to collapse from too much love? Yes! And that’s exactly what happened:

… the celebrated bridge had to be evacuated at the weekend after part of the railing collapsed under the weight of love locks attached to it.

Police ordered visitors to leave and closed the footbridge after a 2.4-metre section of railing broke loose.

Since the phenomenon began in 2008 it has become a headache for city officials. Not only is the full 150-metre Pont des Arts covered in locks, but visiting lovebirds have targeted other bridges in the French capital. Forty locks are reported to have been removed from the Eiffel tower. …

Protesters who say the thousands of locks are an eyesore and vandalism have long warned they are also a risk to the iron bridge, which is a listed monument, and launched a petition to have them removed. There are also campaigns on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

The protesters wrote an open letter to the Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, saying the locks were “like a plague on our city’s historic bridges and sites.” They complained: ”This is most apparent on the Pont des Arts, which has been terribly degraded, both visually and structurally In a few short years, the heart of Paris has been made ugly, robbing Parisians of quality of life and the ability to safely enjoy their own public spaces along the Seine, which has itself been polluted by thousands of discarded keys. The time has come to enact a ban on ‘love locks’ in order to return our bridges to their original beauty and purpose.”

The Guardian article is here. Or the BBC article here. One reader worried: “Does this mean that thousands of innocent tourists have now fallen out of love? Their dreams consigned to the watery depths of the Seine?” Another sniped: “Nothing says I love you like putting a padlock on a bridge in Paris.” I’d settle for a trip to Paris and a 7th floor walk-up on the Rue des Petits Champs.

Stanford’s “Another Look” spotlights Marguerite Duras’ The Lover

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Stanford’s book club honors the famous French writer’s centenary with a May 12 discussion of The Lover, her autobiographical tale of her scandalous teenage affair with an older Chinese millionaire, set in her native Saigon. Read more below.


pantheon-coverLong before most Americans could find Vietnam on a map, the French ruled Indochina, and its Chinese, French, and native Annamese denizens lived in an unequal colonial stew. So when a 15-year-old French schoolgirl had a passionate affair with a wealthy 27-year-old Chinese lover in Saigon, it created a scandal. The affair eventually became a book, and the book became a masterpiece.

The writer, Marguerite Duras, would tell the story again and again, throughout her lifetime, but never more compellingly than in The Lover, which received a prestigious Prix Goncourt when it was published in 1984, and sold two million copies.

Now, in Marguerite Duras’s centenary year, the “Another Look” book club is celebrating the author and her book at 7:30 p.m., Monday, May 12, at the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Hall. The panel will be moderated by Blakey Vermeule, professor of English, with her colleague Paula Moya, professor of English, and Stephen Seligman, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco. The event is free and open to the public.

Vermeule had read the short novel as a high school student, but on rereading it, “I was gobsmacked,” she said. “It’s one of these masterpieces that gets rediscovered again and again. It’s a very intense book, so powerful it had slipped my mind what a truly great and subtle work of art it is.” With the centenary, she thought it was an excellent moment to revisit the book the New York Times Book Review had called “powerful, authentic, completely successful … perfect.”

Duras’ simple, terse writing style reads “as if language itself were merely a vehicle for conveying passion and desire, pain and despair,” wrote British author and journalist Alan Riding. “The mysteries of love and sex consumed her, but she had no room for sentimentality in her works, or indeed, in her life.”

“I write about love, yes, but not about tenderness,” she had told him in a 1990 New York Times interview. “I don’t like tender people. I myself am very harsh. When I love someone, I desire them. But tenderness supposes the exclusion of desire.”


A presidential pal

Duras was born in Gia Dinh, near Saigon. Her father fell ill and returned to France, where he died. Her widowed mother, a teacher, was bankrupted in a shady land deal. The family struggled as impoverished colonials in a small tight-knit, gossiping community. Duras recalls an abusive mother who had severe bouts with depression, a drug-addicted brother who beat his sister fiercely and stole from the family (and even its servants), and a beloved younger brother who died young. When she met a Chinese millionaire on the ferry crossing the Mekong River, the teenager saw a doorway to a different world. The affair continued until Duras returned to France to finish her education at 18.

In France, she worked in the French Résistance in a team under the direction future French President François Mitterand, who remained a lifelong friend. After the war, she became a member of the French Communist Party. Duras is often categorized with the writers of the postwar “nouveau roman,” a movement that loosened the grip of plot- and character-driven narrative, blurring the boundaries of time and space, but Duras resists easy categorization. She experimented with novels, plays, films, essays, journalism, and memoir. She was fascinated, in particular, by the possibilities of film, most notably writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais‘s 1960 classic, Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

She wrote The Lover at 70, when she had become a tiny old woman, her body wracked by alcoholism and cigarettes, giving interviews often read like a parody of what a French avant-garde writer is expected to sound like. She told the story in different ways with widely divergent details, so much so that until the discovery of an unpublished diary, there could be doubts that the affair had happened at all.

“She had an intensive, almost anti-social capacity to tell the story the way she wanted to tell it, in all its violence and ugliness,” said Vermeule. “The need to be utterly solitary, and socially antipathetic – very rarely does one see it in women writers. It’s not a pose they claim,” she said.

“This book is so very psychoanalytic. She’s clearly under that spell. Look at the nonlinearity of the story. As narrrator, she is almost dissociated from herself, moving from first to third person and back.”


The 1992 film that irked her…

Duras quarreled with film director Jean-Jacques Annaud as they collaborated on the 1992 film of the book, and retaliated with 1991′s The North China Lover, as a way of reclaiming her story. But no version before or since had the luster of The Lover. According to Stanford scholar Marilyn Yalom writing in How the French Invented Love, “She could transform a somewhat sordid affair into a mutually passionate romance and project into posterity her vision of love as an irresistable force that penetrates through the skin, regardless of its color.”

That vision continues to transfix readers, and The Lover continues to draw fans, decades after its first publication. In The Independent, South African playright and novelist Deborah Levy wrote in 2011, “The Lover does not just portray a forbidden sexual encounter of mind-blowing passion and intensity; it is also an essay on memory, death, desire and how colonialism messes up everyone.”

“Marguerite Duras was a reckless thinker, an egomaniac, a bit preposterous really. I believe she had to be. When she walks her bold but ‘puny’ female subject in her gold lamé shoes into the arms of her Chinese millionaire, Duras never covertly apologises for the moral or psychological way that she exists.”


The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.


Lit Crawl, Litquake, and the City of Love…

Monday, October 14th, 2013

At the Pont de l”Archevêché, “a forest of glittering objects…” (Photo: Francis Hannaway)

clayton San Francisco’s Litquake kicked off last weekend, and one of the opening events took place close to home – at the deathless (literally, so far) Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park.  In all likelihood, I won’t be able to attend any other events this year, but there was no excuse for not toddling over to Menlo Park, especially since a friend, Marilyn Yalomwas one of the writers scheduled for the reading.

A pleasant but exhausted woman named Jane Ganahl, one of the Litquake co-founders (download the schedule here), told the audience that the place to be this weekend is Lit Crawl, Litquake’s signature event.  Participants are asked to dress for the night in a classic literature T-shirt, for sale at the Lit Crawl headquarters at 518 Valencia Street, purchase a cocktail, and tip the bartender.

chessmanAt the event, the organizers threaten us with “30 bearded men singing at a barbershop, a post-mastectomy stripper, a Twitter novelist, a Holocaust survivor, award-winning TV writers, a professional hair model, and the executive director of NaNoWriMo.” There’s more: readings inside a botanical brewery, a consignment store, and a rug retailer.  Plus an open mic.  I won’t be going. The idea of staggering about the noisy streets of the Mission District with a stack of books in one hand and a martini in the other leaves me cold – and at this time of year, this will be a literal, not figurative, cold.  Another reason to show up at Kepler’s … if one needed a reason.

raffelAt Kepler’s, Harriet Scott Chessman read from her new book, The Beauty of Ordinary Things, a novel in two voices, one a Vietnam vet and the other a novice at a Benedictine abbey in rural New Hampshire.  Meg Waite Clayton read from The Wednesday Daughters, a sequel to the Wednesday Sisters, focusing on a group of women combing through a tangled family history in England’s Lake District.  The only male in the group, Keith Raffel, read A Fine and Dangerous Season, a thriller spun from the “what ifs” that flow from John F. Kennedy‘s fall quarter at Stanford in 1940.  Michelle Richmond read from her forthcoming novel, Golden State, which takes place on a single day when California votes for secession. It’s due out in February. Ellen Sussman read from her novel, The Paradise Guest House, which explores one survivor’s coming to grips with the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali.  You’ll notice I’ve listed everyone alphabetically?  That’s the order in which they read.

Marilyn’s last name begins with a “Y.”  She finished the reading with this, from How the French Invented Love:

how-the-french-invented-loveDuring the summer of the [Dominique] Strauss-Kahn affair, I found myself walking behind the Cathedral of Notre Dame and wondering how I could finish this book. Had love in France become little more than a myth?  Were the French abandoning the ideal of “the great love” in favor of serial affairs?  Had seduction won out over sentiment? And then my eye was drawn to a strange sight. I saw, attached to the grille on the Pont de l”Archevêché crossing the Seine, a forest of glittering objects, small padlocks with initials or names on them, sometimes with dates or hearts: C and K, Agnes & René, Barbara & Christian, Luni & Leo, Paul & Laura, 16–6–10. There must be at least two or three thousand. And already, on the other side of the bridge, a few similar locks were clinging to the grille.  How long before that side would also be completely covered?

I hung around, enchanted by the spectacle, and was rewarded by the sight of two youthful lovers, who came across the bridge arm in arm, affixed a lock to the grille, drank from each other’s lips, and threw the key into the Seine.


Marilyn Yalom is having a good year – and so is How the French Invented Love

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

yalomMarilyn Yalom, author of How the French Invented Love, dropped me a line to tell me her book has been noticed in high places (read more about it here and here and here).

She’s just been nominated for a Phi Beta Kappa Society Christian Gauss Award, which carries a $10,000 prize.  The prize is offered for literary scholarship or criticism.

The other nominated books are are:  Charles Dickens and ‘Boz’: The Birth of the Industrial-Age Author, by Robert L. Patten; Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson; The Long and Short of it: From Aphorism to Novel, by Gary Saul Morson; and The Worlds of Langston Hughes: Modernism and the Translation in the Americas, by Vera M. Kutzinski.

how-the-french-invented-lovePrevious award winners have included books written by eminent authors such as Harold Bloom, Christopher Benfey, and Marjorie Garber.

That’s in addition to the earlier news that she’s been nominated for the American Library in Paris Book Award, given to the best book of the year in English about France or the French-American encounter.  The 2013 book award jury is high-powered:  Diane Johnson, Adam Gopnik, and Julian Barnes.

The winner of the award receives a prize of $5,000. But this may be the best part: the winner is invited to Paris, with air travel and accommodation at the Library’s expense, for an award ceremony on and a public reading.

Both awards will be announced in October.  It will be an interesting month.  Stay tuned.

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

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

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.

Marilyn Yalom’s How the French Invented Love in the New Yorker!

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

Marilyn Yalom in The New Yorker! Okay, okay, it was in “Briefly Noted.”  Still, although I wouldn’t exactly kill for the spot, I’d do a great deal for it.  It’s great news for Marilyn and her book, How the French Invented Love.  According to the review:

“This amiable tour through changing French attitudes toward love during the past millennium begins in the twelfth century, when – according to Yalom, a former professor of French – troubadours granted the female objects of their songs an unprecedented power and status. Various manifestations of courtly love followed, and then a centuries-long oscillation between romanticism and cynicism, as exemplified in the first case by Rousseau and George Sand, and in the second by Molière and Flaubert.”

The rest is at the New Yorker here.”

Congratulations, Marilyn!

How the French invented love: Renate Stendhal weighs in

Friday, December 28th, 2012

Renate Stendhal takes a long, thoughtful look at Marilyn Yalom‘s How the French Invented Love over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. (The Book Haven discussed Marilyn’s new book earlier here.)

Ms. Stendhal writes:

“Did the French invent love? Or would it be more true to say that love is endlessly reinvented every moment, in every culture, every epoch? What the French did is what Arabian and Persian cultures had done before them: invite the beastly, sexual part of human nature into culture. The French cultured and cultivated love from the Middle Ages onward until it became l’amour à la française — a reason for national pride. The clichés of French sexiness, French charm, French people’s ease about their own and their presidents’ affairs are hard to dispute; they go together with the well known sensuous importance in France of food and flirtation, verbal brilliance and fashion. There has been a recent flurry of books by Americans attempting to decode the better sex lives of the French and the enduring mystery of French women. (Among them, What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind; Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide for Finding Her Inner French Girl; All You Need to Be Impossibly French: A Witty Investigation into the Lives, and Little Secrets of French Women; French Women Don’t Sleep Alone; The Skinny, Sexy Mind: The Ultimate French Secret; and La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life.) Marilyn Yalom’s new study, How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance, reaches beyond the stereotypes by focusing on literature, making an erudite, elegant, and charming case for France’s love ‘invention.’”

I’m not sure that the idea that the French are the world experts in love isn’t itself a kind of invention.  It often goes at odds with my own observations of my French friends.  The sting of betrayal and the ugliness of lies hurt them just as much, and there, as everywhere, families are rent by the suppressed hostilities and the unspoken tensions.  (Look at all the lives that get ripped apart in Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, for pity sake!)  Maybe the idea that somewhere, somehow, sex doesn’t carry psychological price tags is one of our most pervasive myths. But that may be a minority opinion.

Marilyn certainly knows her stuff, whether giving her own opinion on Dominique Strauss-Kahn or then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, who made the unfortunate comment that it was ridiculous for civil service exams to include questions about the 1678 classic La Princesse de Clèves: “As president Sarkozy’s popularity declined among the French, sales of La Princesse de Clèves soared,” Marilyn Yalom observed.  As Stendhal writes, “Yalom’s literary examples of French passion and naughtiness are told in a relaxed, conversational tone that mixes her analyses of books and history with anecdotes about her own experience living and teaching in France.”

The relaxed, conversational tone – bien sûr!  Check out the LARB review here.

How the French invented love… and a few dating tips from the experts

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

A confessed Proustian

I had a pleasant visit with Marilyn Yalom the other day, on the sun-drenched patio of her Palo Alto home.  According to the Publishers Weekly, the “avowed feminist, confessed Proustian, admitted Simone de Beauvoir groupie, the erudite and charming Yalom is the perfect companion.”  And so she is.  She talked about French literature, she talked about her time as a doctoral student under René Girard, and she talked about love.

Her new book, How the French Invented Love, will be out this fall.  From a June Q&A interview in Publishers Weekly:  “The French believe that love is embedded in the flesh. They have little tolerance for ethereal ideas of nonconsummated love.”  But… but… but… what about all those troubadours?  Isn’t France the home of amour lointain?

Too much time on their hands

She talks about that, too.  From her book:

In the north, minstrels known as trouvères took up troubadour themes, though the music itself was heavily influenced by the Parisian school of Notre Dame, which was devoted to the cult of the Virgin Mary.  When you listen to this music from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, you discover that sacred and profane songs sound much alike, even if the words are different.  Enough manuscripts still exist to give us a sense of the music, which was sung to the accompaniment of a small harp. Love in the north of France appears to have become more and more idealized, and the beloved lady more and more inaccessible, with the poet-minstrel downplaying his expectation of a physical reward.  Unlike their southern counterparts, northern minstrels emphasized a love of longing rather than fulfillment.

Clearly, however, consummated love is more to her liking. In a frivolous mood, I recently sent her a link to an article on  “How to Love Like a French Woman.”  Did she agree with statements like this?

American women (and Americans in general) tend to be very goal-oriented when it comes to love, sex, and dating. Rather than setting things in motion and embracing the unknown, Americans generally prefer to set things in stone with a list of clear objectives, goals and outcomes: Is he/she my soul mate or my future spouse? Where, exactly, is this relationship going? Does he/she love me, or not? From the time we’re little girls, we grow up thinking about love in terms of total love or absolute rejection — unlike the French.  …

When relationships don’t pan out, we tend to interpret that as the failure of the whole experience instead of doing what the French do — which is to say, they consider that the emotional integrity of a relationship might lie solely in the experience of it and not necessarily in its outcome or ultimate resolution.

Or this:

The American woman’s approach to dating is heavily influenced by the extent to which sex has either been sensationalized or pathologized in her mind. People are either having mind-blowing encounters — and women’s magazines are cluttered with tips/techniques on how to achieve it — or their libidos have gone into permanent retirement and need to be “fixed.” There’s always a notion that things can be bigger or better. Ditto for whom we are in general, given our culture that expects constant self-improvement and self-transformation.

” I agree with her on almost everything she says,” Marilyn dashed back in a emailed note.  Almost? I forgot to ask her about her reservations.

Here’s mine: Why are these columns almost always directed to women?  I don’t see men curling themselves into pretzels trying to analyze their women or shopping for exotic underwear.


Maxine Hong Kingston: Not scared of poetry

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

But does she understand men? (Photo: David Shankbone)

Maxine Hong Kingston decided a few years back that she preferred writing poetry to prose.  “No more big, full dramatic scenes,” she explained to a Middlebrook Salon gathering on Sunday in Palo Alto.

The most recent result is “a book-length book about me” – I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, published in March.  There are downsides to doing poetry, she said.  Publishers don’t like it.

“They’re scared of poetry.  Poetry doesn’t sell.”

“They insisted on calling it a memoir,” she said.  “But I don’t think that’s right.  A memoir remembers the past. I am remembering the future.”  Her book discusses “how we accumulate and lose time.”

The silver-haired author was competing with sunlight.  The conversation and reading took place on Marilyn and Irv Yalom‘s lawn, a lush green setting for the drone of the hummingbirds and the plashing of an unseen fountain on the beautiful August late afternoon.  (I wrote about the dedication of the Diane Middlebrook Memorial Residence here.)

Clearly, times have changed. Maxine recalled the days when finishing a manuscript meant hopping on a plane to New York, and meeting her publisher face-to-face to hand it over.  After some time he would finish reading it.  She would hope on a plane back to New York.  The publisher would have marked the manuscript with scores of post-its.  They would go through the manuscript page by page.

Then there was the terrible day in 1979 when her publisher met her and said, “Well, my dear, I’m afraid this book is a failure.”

“You don’t understand men,” he told her.

By bus, she returned back to the friends’ apartment where she was staying. They had arranged a party to celebrate the new book with champagne.  Instead, she sat down to her IBM Selectric as the others partied.  She wrote a new scene for her revised book.

One of the people at that party – an actor named Earl – was on hand to read the chapter with her that night.

The book, China Men, was published in 1980.

Maxine said the New York Times called it a “virtually perfect book.”

Diane Middlebrook: “It’s all been delicious. Every minute.”

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Salonnière Diane (Photo: Amanda Lane)

“You felt smarter and more talented and more capable in her presence.”

Such was Kate Moses’s summary of the late biographer Diane Middlebrook’s “genius for friendship” – or at least, that was part of it.

Salonnière Kate read from her “Chocolate Cake for Diane” — featured right now, here, at the online Narrative Magazine — to a roomful of women assembled in her memory last August.  Diane organized several literary salons for women: first in London and San Francisco, and later in New York.  According to Moses, “she admitted without apology that she wouldn’t schedule a salon event in one city while she was in the other because she didn’t want to miss anything.”  The Middlebrook salons continue – a place for women to gather, celebrate their achievements, discuss their work, and network.

In Irv and Marilyn Yalom‘s Palo Alto home tucked away in wooded seclusion off the main streets, one wondered if perhaps the spirit of Diane is contagious.  We were all feeling smarter and more capable in the Bay Area writer’s salon – and boy, there are times we need to.

Kate’s “fertile creative partnership” with Diane flourished as Kate was writing her fictional story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Wintering, while Middlebrook was working on her biographical account, Her Husband. “By sharing all of our research, we made twice as much progress in half the time.”

I wrote Diane Middlebrook’s obituary here.  At the time, I found the most arresting part of Diane’s story to be her absolute determination to finish her biography of Ovid, even in the face of a rare and ultimately deadly liposarcoma.

Diane had been reading and studying Ovid since graduate school, and later taught him and lectured on him.

“‘I am not ready to die,’ she said again and again, her voice brisk and emphatic, that elegant index finger aloft,” Kate recalled.  “From the last days of January 2004, when Diane learned that her tumor had returned with a vengeance, she never took her eyes off Ovid.  Through those surreal years her book was her anchor, as the life of her elegant mind had always been.  She was single-minded in her concentration, hoarding away time from successive chemotherapies and monthly dendritic cell treatments and surgeries and the repetitive struggle to recover from every onslaught her body had to withstand.”

She returned to San Francisco to dazzle the salon with a reading from her Ovid manuscript “and an animated talk on the challenge of writing a biography without primary sources.”

Moses recalled the last visit in London:  “We left the Athenaeum arm in arm, descending into the Tube together and kissing goodbye at Leicester Square, Diane calling ’till December!’ as her train pulled away.”

“Nothing, after that, happened the way any of us had planned or hoped or thought possible.” By September, she could no longer keep down solid food.  The doctors turned to palliative care, and she could no longer continue the book on her own.

Salonnière Kate Moses (Photo: Ramona Pedersen)

“She was so weak and in such constant pain she was sometimes not able to hold a pencil, and her pain medications were disorienting: timed-release doses that periodically submerged her mind like a carnival dunking machine.  But she might, with great concentration and will, be able to talk about Ovid, to dictate the blueprint for her book’s final form, and she wanted to try…”

The experiment involved Kate making digital recordings of Middlebrook’s ideas for the books, interviewing her, teasing out ideas and taking notes, with hopes of assembling the book later.

To that end, “Diane asked her doctor to adjust her medications, so that she would have more control over her thoughts and her ability to articulate them.  This meant, in practice, that she would have to withstand more pain in order to work on Ovid, a price she was willing to pay for as long as she could stand it. … it was downright superhuman most of the time, a heroic and determined effort on her part to stay focused and acute when her body was impatiently tugging her in the other direction.  It was often like watching a great, dignified actor remain in character and deliver his staggering final soliloquy as the theater is being dismantled board by board all around him.”

Eventually, Kate was joined by a few other insiders, including Diane’s daughter Leah Middlebrook, to work as a team to shape the manuscript with the notes, recordings, outlines, and Diane’s help.  “Diane was in noticeable pain, but when [we] would ask if she wanted to stop, Diane would grimace, shaking her head no.  ‘Let’s keep going,’ she’d say.  Eventually, they covered it all.  “‘Good,” Middlebrook said, holding her daughter’s hand.  “Because the rest is unthought.” Kate meant to come back for more sorting out, but that was the last time she was able to speak to Diane, who died a week later.

Listening to Kate read in front of a large picture window glowing with the late-afternoon, late-summer sun, its remarkable how many women (and, for the annual August event, men were invited too) were touched by Diane’s life – enough so that a memorial residence for writers is planned by the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.

Salonnière Kate described a more personal goodbye had happened a week earlier, at the hospital, when Kate suddenly felt Diane’s hand on her wrist:

“Every minute has been delicious,” she said dreamily, not knowing if she was truly dreaming or tumbling in the surf of her mind, her focus turned inward. “Every minute with you, Kate,” she said then, holding my gaze, squeezing my wrist.  “It’s all been delicious.  Every minute.  How many relationships can we say that about?”