Posts Tagged ‘Marina Tsvetaeva’

Defending the “Eros of difficulty”

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015
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Sor_Juana_Inés_de_la_Cruz_(Miguel_Cabrera)

Every schoolkid in Mexico knows her poems.

One of the grace notes in my long career was writing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review when Steve Wasserman was its editor (I’ve written about him before here and here and here and here.) It was, at that time, the best book review in the country – the one that consistently offered the greatest number of “must-read” articles every single week. Here’s one of the things that made it terrific, in Steve’s own words:

In 1997, Penguin announced that it would publish a volume of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s selected writings. Years ago, Carlos Fuentes had told me of this remarkable 17th-century Mexican nun and poet. I had never heard of her. Nor was I alone. Much of her work had yet to be translated into English, even some 300 years after her death. It was, Fuentes said, a scandal, as if Shakespeare had still to be translated into Spanish. The whole of Spanish literature owed a debt to her genius. Thus I decided that an anthology of her writings, newly translated by the excellent Margaret Sayers Peden and published under the imprimatur of Penguin Classics, ought to be treated as news. After all, about a quarter of the readers of the Los Angeles Times had Latino roots.

I asked Octavio Paz, Mexico’s greatest living poet and critic, to contribute a lengthy essay on Sor Juana. When he agreed, I felt I had gotten something worth playing big on the front page of the Book Review. But when I showed my superiors the color proof of the cover, I was met with incomprehension. Sor Juana who? A nun who’d been dead for almost half a millennium? Had I taken complete leave of my senses? Couldn’t I find something by someone living who might be better known to our many subscribers, say, the latest thriller from James Patterson?

Dispirited, I trundled up to the paper’s executive dining room to brood upon the wisdom of my decision. When Alberto Gonzalez, the paper’s longtime Mexican-American waiter, appeared to take my order, seeing the proof before me, he exhaled audibly and exclaimed: “Sor Juana!” “You’ve heard of her?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “Every school child in Mexico knows her poems. I still remember my parents taking me as a boy to visit her convent, now a museum. I know many of her poems by heart.” At which point, in a mellifluous Spanish, he began to recite several verses. So much for my minders, I thought; I’m going to trust Alberto on this one.

After Paz’s paean appeared in the Sunday edition, many people wrote to praise the Book Review for at last recognizing the cultural heritage of a substantial segment of the paper’s readers. Their response suggested, at least to me, that the best way to connect with readers was to give them the news that stays news. In the end, it hardly mattered. In the summer of 2009, four years after I left, the Tribune Company, which had bought the Times for more than $8 billion, shuttered the Review. The staff was mostly sacked.

Well, this is just one of the many reasons I loved the late, lamented L.A. Times Book Review. Steve also had the courage to publish my piece on Irma Kudrova‘s remarkable work on Marina Tsvetaeva, Death of a Poet, which had not yet been published in English (my long ago piece is here). The book was published by Overlook Press as a result of the interest. Kudrova, one of those lifelong devotees every Russian poet of any stature attracts, had access to Lubyanka prison interrogation records during the brief period they were made available to the public in pre-Putin Russia, which makes her record even more imperative.

The excerpt above is from Steve’s essay, “In Defense of Difficulty,” appearing in the The American Conservative, a notable departure for this staunchly left-wing writer who contributes regularly to Truthdig – I applaud his attempt to fight our current  ideological segregation; it’s high time people learn to actually talk to one another again, especially on issues that should concern us all. Although he has described a telling incident from his L.A. Times days, the subject of his article is not self-promotion (I can do that for him) but rather the disappearance of serious criticism in our culture: “the ideal of serious enjoyment of what isn’t instantly understood is rare in American life. It is under constant siege. It is the object of scorn from both the left and the right. The pleasures of critical thinking ought not to be seen as belonging to the province of an elite. They are the birthright of every citizen. For such pleasures are at the very heart of literacy, without which democracy itself is dulled. More than ever, we need a defense of the Eros of difficulty.” (Cough, cough, Geoffrey Hill, cough, cough.)

wasserman2

Preach it, Steve.

I know, I know… don’t the old ‘uns always crab about the times? Yes and no. There are periods where this is not true, and everyone knows it – I think people do tend to know when they’re living in a golden age. In any case, shouldn’t an argument be evaluated on its own merits, and not whether or not others have said it before? Prima facie evidence is the disappearance of the book review section he once edited. Steve gets some reinforcement from such critics as Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier, who worried that “whatever advantages might accrue to consumers and the culture at large from the emergence of such behemoths as Amazon, not only would proven methods of cultural production and distribution be made obsolete, but we were in danger of being enrolled, whether we liked it or not, in an overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture that, as numerous studies have shown, renders serious reading and cultural criticism increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and sustained argument.” As Leon Wieseltier, of the recently trashed New Republic, wrote, “Writing is not typed talking.” I think, as Steve rightly points out, “A culture filled with smooth and familiar consumptions produces in people rigid mental habits and stultified conceptions.”

I have often rebelled against editors who have insistently tried to excise exotic words and phrases from my copy, in favor of the well-worn, the over-familiar, even the clichéd – so Steve, who is now editor at large for Yale University Press, has me in his pocket with this one: “Sometimes it feels as if the world is divided into two classes: one very large class spurns difficulty, while the other very much smaller delights in it. There are readers who, when encountering an unfamiliar word, instead of reaching for a dictionary, choose to regard it as a sign of the author’s contempt or pretension, a deliberate refusal to speak in a language ordinary people can understand. Others, encountering the same word, happily seize on it as a chance to learn something new, to broaden their horizons. They eagerly seek a literature that upends assumptions, challenges prejudices, turns them inside out and forces them to see the world through new eyes. The second group is an endangered species … The exercise of cultural authority and artistic or literary or aesthetic discrimination is seen as evidence of snobbery, entitlement and privilege lording it over ordinary folks.”

He also describes Theodor Adorno‘s reaction to receiving his good friend Gershom Sholom‘s translation of the Zohar. (I wrote about the current effort to get that dense and esoteric masterwork into English here.)  Adorno wrote that the casual reader will only discern the general schema, “which is truly revealed only at the price of a lifetime’s commitment – nothing less.”

“The price of a lifetime’s commitment.” Nothing less. I like that. Read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, I think I’ll go find that Penguin paperback on Sor Juana.

 

“It matters to hear speech on the streetcar”: a new interview with Joseph Brodsky

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013
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No principles, just nerves.

A few days ago, all the social media were atwitter with a newly published 1987 interview with Joseph Brodsky.  The piece opened with a comment on his leaving the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1972, to protest of the organization’s induction of the Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko as an honorary member.  Hmmmm???

Nyet!  Something was wrong. A Soviet poet who had already endured KGB interrogations and arrests, a famous trial, and a long stretch to cool his heels in the far North was not  going to be joining elite American literary organizations – not in 1972.  His departure from the organization was in fact in 1987.  I wrote a comment. I got an emailed reply from the beleaguered blogger and journalist, Marcia DeSanctis.  She’s a very experienced and knowledgeable reporter of all things Russian, and suffered a mortifying slip of the pen in the course of tweeking a phrase.  Well, who among us bloggers could not confess to one or two of those?  In fact, I consoled her with the story of a monstrous gaffe of my own that happened the same way, which I’ll save for another time. Unless Richard Kaluzynski outs me first.

A poet, too?

But I gave a closer look to Marcia’s online oeuvre as a result – and I was impressed.

Over the days since, the former ABC news journalist has shared her transcripts and letters from Vladimir Voinovich and Yuz Aleshkovsky from the summer of 1987 over at Tin House.  All three interviews were incorporated in an article she wrote for the The Christian Science Monitor.

Here’s the one with J.B., and it’s got some pretty good stuff:

MD: Then who do you consider the most significant writers in the Russian language?

JB:  The Possessed by Dostoevsky is still the best and most accurate example of the Russian psyche in literature. Platonov is one of the greatest Russian poet, absolutely singular. And Tsvetaeva. These are huge and significant writers. For Russians, Tsvetaeva might be the most important of all. In general, the tenor of Russian literature is consolation – the justification of the existential order on the highest plane of regard. Justification for the Russian nation. Tsvetaeva is a departure from that – her voice doesn’t offer that. She was a writer who regarded reality as unjustifiable – controlled, in a sense, by arbitrary force – the philosophy of discomfort in negative human potential. Her spirit and the spirit of her writing is totally non-orthodox, Calvinist, provides you with discomfort. What distinguishes a writer is the spiritual information the writer offers. Nabokov doesn’t offer that. For all his elegance and precision, he’s a soothing author but Tsvetaeva is of more consequence.

Who knew the author of The Foundation Pit was a poet, too, let alone a great one?  I didn’t.  Either Brodsky misspoke and meant to say prose, or else somebody better get busy with translations.

MD: How important is it to you whether or not you are published in the USSR?

Reality is unjustifiable.

JB: I have no principles, I have only nerves. I’ve never cared very much about what’s happening with my work. I was lucky to have people in Russia interested in me, without having been published. I don’t give a damn whether I am or am not published there. I know that one day, I’ll die and will be published.

I write little poems when I feel like it. Over the years it became my profession. What started out as a deviation became my occupation, and from there came discipline and routine. I trust inertia more than the creative impulse. Stravinsky said, “I do it for myself and my probable alter ego.” I think that every writing career starts as a personal quest for personal betterment. To achieve some kind of sainthood, to make yourself better than you are. You quickly notice that the pen operates more efficiently than the soul. More success as a writer means the loss, somewhat, of the soul. You get on a collision course, and away from your original goal. This results in a terrific personal crisis. Take Gogol, who threw the manuscript of Dead Souls into the fireplace. To bring the work together with the soul as much as possible takes extraordinary effort. It’s no different today than when I was 24.

MD:  You speak English quite well but you write in Russian. Is it problematic as a writer to be exiled from your mother tongue?

JB:   The only problem with writing in Russian is that it matters to hear speech on the streetcar. Those things set you up to find the words in your gut. Elsewhere, you’re bound to become idiosyncratic, hermetic, self-sufficient. You derive pride from being self-reliant. You become an autonomous system, a spacecraft, and it depends on how strong your batteries are. But in the long run, you’re an autonomous entity anyway, one way or another. The less you deceive yourself, the better. Otherwise, the result is a tragic worldview.

George Kline: scholar, translator, and chronicler of Soviet bugaboos

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
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In 1974…

George L. Kline is someone you’ve likely never heard of, unless you have an interest in Russian philosophy,” writes Michael McIntyre over at “Extravagant Creation.”

Well, that’s not quite true.  Those of us who know Russian poetry will know his translations of Joseph Brodsky, and perhaps also of Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, and others.  The Eric Voegelin scholar Paul Caringella alerted me to McIntyre’s 2010 post, which celebrates my Bryn Mawr friend and correspondent:

What’s so great about reading Kline is that you are not only learning at the hands of someone who has thoroughly mastered his field, you are doing so via writing that is at once scholarly and accessible, that doesn’t take ten pages to explain what only needs one page.  Kline’s monographs are few in number – he seems to prefer writing articles and book chapters – and relatively brief in length.

In the academic world of publish-or-perish overproduction, that comes as a splash of sanity.  McIntyre is attuned to a side of my scholarly  friend that I had overlooked – for example, his 1968 book Religious and Anti-Religious Thought in Russia (University of Chicago Press).  To my shame, I didn’t know George had written such a book, but I immediately made amends by ordering it for $5.60 on Abebooks.

A “chamber of horrors”?

The history George describes is a fascinating one:

Some former churches – notably the former Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad – were turned into anti-religious museums that included “chambers of horrors” exhibits that graphically portrayed torture practices used during the Spanish Inquisition.  In 1960 alone, half a million people visited the anti-religious museum in Leningrad; many groups of children were sent there by their schools and they were treated to guided tours by museum staff who provided them with extensive anti-religious commentary.  Religious instruction for children was restricted to private homes only, in groups of three or less.  Since 1962, children could be baptized only if both parents applied for it, and both parents supplied a certificate from their workplace or place of residence (the issuers of these certificates were expected to do all they could to try to dissuade the “misguided” parents).

From the posts of some of my more virulently anti-religious Facebook friends, one would think that the “chamber of horrors” is overdue for revival.  In any case, one could see why Joseph Brodsky’s “Elegy to John Donne” was such a knock-out punch in the U.S.S.R., and why George was so swept away by it, as the Book Haven explained yesterday.  Take, for example, the concluding lines of the poem:

Man’s garment gapes with holes. It can be torn,
… And only the far sky,
in darkness, brings the healing needle home.
Sleep, John Donne, sleep. 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.

I’ve benefited greatly over the years from George’s tireless generosity, scholarly precision, and remarkable experiences.  So have others.  From “George L. Kline: An Appreciation,” included in the 1994 book Russian Thought After Communism : The Recovery of a Philosophical Heritage (edited by James P. Scanlan):

In many ways as important as Kline’s formal teaching is the informal help he has provided to a multitude of students and colleagues in the field, not only in the United States but throughout the world.  Anyone who has sought George Kline’s advice or assistance on some matter relating to Russian philosophy is fully aware of his remarkable readiness to share information from his vast store of knowledge, go over a translation, review a paper, or comment on a research project – all with the most careful and patient attention, the highest scholarly standards, and the most humane sensitivity to the needs and interests of others.

It’s a joy to discover people like George L. Kline!

Couldn’t agree more.

Brodsky and Donne in the Arctic: “the image of a body in space.”

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013
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At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1972.

In the mid-1960s, a colleague asked George Kline  what he thought of the young, little-known poet Joseph Brodsky.  George replied that hadn’t seen enough of his work, only the odd bit of verse here and there in translation.  Then the colleague pulled out the samizdat “Elegy for John Donne from mid-way through a large stack of papers on his desk.  The poem, written when the Leningrad poet was 23, was unlike anything else coming out of Russia.

Roommates.

At least, this is the story that George told me in a recent conversation. George, of course, went on to play a pivotal role in the poet’s life, and he in his.  He translated the poems that made the future Nobel laureate’s reputation in the West with the Penguin Selected.

I was thinking of his anecdote today.  Then I ran across this article on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website. I had saved the link in my electronic bookmarks for future readings – but then never returned to it.  How did I miss it, probably for a couple years?  The fascinating 1981 interview with Igor Pomeranzev suffered from multiple layers of neglect – mine the most recent.  The radio interview aired only recently, because Pomeranzev hadn’t yet learned the joys of sound editing.

Here are a few excerpts:

Igor Pomerantsev: Your poem “Great Elegy to John Donne” began circulating in samizdat in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s. Donne was virtually unknown in the Soviet Union at that time. How did you discover him?

Joseph Brodsky: I stumbled across him the same way most people did: in the epigraph of the [Hemingway] novel For Whom The Bell Tolls. [The epigraph is taken from Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” – Eds]. For some reason I felt this came from a line of verse and so I tried to find a translation of Donne. It was futile. Only later did I guess it was a fragment from a sermon. In some sense, Donne began for me the same way as he did for his English contemporaries. He was much better known in his day as a preacher than a poet.

The most interesting aspect was how I obtained a book of his. I had searched through the anthologies. In 1964 I was given five years [sentence for social parasitism], arrested, and sent to Arkhangelsk Oblast [near the Arctic Circle – CH], and for my birthday Lidiya Korneyevna Chukovskaya sent me, probably from her father’s library, a “Modern Library” edition of Donne. This was when I first read all of Donne’s poetry, read it seriously. …  I wrote it, I think, in ’62, when I knew remarkably little about Donne — in other words practically nothing, except a few fragments from his sermons and poems that I had found in anthologies. The main circumstance that moved me to undertake this poem was the possibility that it seemed to me existed at that period, the possibility of the centrifugal movement of a poem…well, not so much centrifugal… like a stone falling into a pond… and the gradual ripple outwards… a device more from cinematography, yes, when the camera moves back from the center.

So, in answer to your question, I would say it was more the image of the poet. Not so much the image even as the image of a body in space. Donne is English, he lives on an island. And starting with his bedroom, the perspective steadily widens. First the room, then his neighborhood, then London, the whole island, the sea, then his place in the world. At that time, this didn’t so much, I would say, interest me as gripped me at the moment when I was composing it.

Pomerantsev: My next question is more to you as a translator than a poet. You’ve translated several of Donne’s poems. They say a translator is always in competition with the author he translates. How did you feel translating Donne — like a competitor, ally, pupil, or colleague?

Brodsky:  Well, absolutely not as a competitor. Competition with Donne is absolutely out of the question thanks to Donne’s qualities as a poet. He is one of the greatest figures in world literature…A translator, simply a translator, not an ally…Perhaps more of an ally, since a translator is always to some extent an ally. A pupil, yes, because I learned an awful lot by translating him.

The thing is that Russian poetry is overwhelmingly strophic; that is, it operates through extraordinarily simple strophic units – four-line stanzas. While in Donne’s verse I encountered a much more interesting and thrilling structure. He creates extraordinarily complex strophic constructions. I found it very interesting, and very instructive. So, consciously or unconsciously, I began doing the same but not as a competitor – as a pupil. That was probably the main lesson. And then again, when you read or translate Donne you learn from his view of things. What I really liked about Donne was the translation of the heavenly to the earthly – i.e., the translation of the eternal to the transient… Is this too long?

Pomerantsev: No.

Brodsky:  It’s quite interesting, because there’s an awful lot to be said about this. In fact, it’s like Tsvetaeva said: “The voice of heavenly truth against earthly truth.” Except it isn’t so much “against” as the translation of heavenly truth into the language of earthly truth, i.e. of eternal phenomena into transient language. And both win as a result. It is merely the bringing nearer…how to put it…the expression of the seraphic order. Once it is spoken of, the seraphic order becomes more real. And this wonderful interaction is actually the essence, the bread of poetry. …

 And for him there was no such thing as antagonism. I mean that antagonism for him existed as an expression of antagonism generally, in the world, in nature, but not as a specific antagonism…There’s so much that could be said about him. As a poet, he was fairly uneven stylistically. Coleridge said something remarkable about him. He said that when you read Donne’s successors, the poets of around a century later, Dryden, Pope and so on, everything comes down to counting syllables and feet, while reading Donne you measure not the number of syllables but time. That’s exactly what Donne was doing in his verse. It’s akin to Mandelstam’s drawing out the caesura, yes, holding back an instant, stopping…for something which seems wonderful to the poet for one or another reason. Or the other way around, like in his Voronezh Notebooks, there you have unevenness, jumps, and truncated feet, truncated meter, feverish haste – so as to hasten or eliminate the instant which seems terrible. …

Pomerantsev: And yet the poets of the ’20s and ’30s, like Eliot, managed to see in Donne…

Brodsky:  Yes?

Pomerantsev: … the spirit of their time.

Brodsky:  Certainly. Because Donne, with the themes that he raised, with his uncertainty, with the fragmentation or duality of his consciousness is, of course, a poet of our times. The problems he raises are those of mankind as a whole, and especially of man living at a time of excess information, population…

Read the rest here.  It’s never too late, apparently.

 

Who knew that Stalin was a lit critic?

Monday, June 25th, 2012
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Everything you wanted to know and lots, lots more. (1902 photo)

Just can’t get enough of Jozef Stalin?  Yale University Press is putting lots more online.  Two decades ago, who would have thought that visitors to a public library could  pore over Stalin’s marginalia and notes? Thanks to an effort by the press and the Russian State Archive for Social and Political History,  Stalin’s personal archive has been digitized, including of thousands of documents, letters, and books. You can read about it here.

According to Vadim Staklo, who heads the project, the Stalin archives are the latest in a research and publishing program that has its roots in the Annals of Communism series that Yale started in the early ’90s, which has already unearthed rich material from the Communist Party archives. Said Staklo:

“The popular perception of Soviet leaders mainly comes from the movies – you know, sclerotic stodgy men with thick eyebrows and golden stars on the lapel,” says Staklo. “In real life however many early Bolshevik leaders were very active, lively unorthodox people from very different walks of life. Some were refined intellectuals, others came from humbler origins, some were good writers… and some knew how to draw. These are the images people drew in the margins during the long hours of party meetings. There are caricatures, and also satirical depictions of current events and issues. They went unseen for decades as most of the artists fell victim to repression. They’re not just pictures however – they tell a story about early Soviet politics and personal relations on the Bolshevik Olympus, and the problems they had to deal with on the daily basis.”

There was, for example, the man Lenin called “The Golden Boy of the Revolution” – Nikolai Bukharin.  We wrote about him here. He probably had lots of marginalia, too.  That might be why Stalin had him executed in 1938.

“The common perception is that Stalin was brutal, paranoiac and senseless. But if you read the notes he was making you can see that, yes he may have been brutal and paranoiac – but he was not stupid. For example, he was very keen on the arts as the most important vehicle for propaganda and he read every important play or screenplay offered by a theater or screenwriter. He read them carefully, and wrote long letters to the authors or producers with his comments. He also personally supervised and heavily revised the Short Course In The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was one of the most important books in the USSR, and you can see that it went through many drafts and that Stalin essentially rewrote the entire volume completely.”

One rather wishes, in fact, that he had been less attentive.  His interest in Osip Mandelstam and his poems – in particular, some verse ridiculing the Soviet chieftain – proved fatal.   (Mandelstam wrote that the words and influence of this “Kremlin crag-dweller” and “peasant-slayer” on literature were “leaden,” his “fat fingers … greasy as maggots.”)  Mandelstam died in a transit camp in the same momentous year that killed Bukharin – 1938.

In a recent interview with Chris Wiman, who recently published some “versions” of Mandelstam’s poems, the editor of Poetry Magazine was asked: “Was there a sense in which the horrors of the Stalinist era ‘made’ Mandelstam as a poet?”  Wiman replied:

Honestly, I don’t think so, though they certainly made that one poem. The horrors have made the legend of Mandelstam and are inevitably the lens through which we read his work and life. But if there had been no Stalin and no purge, Mandelstam still would have been a poet of severe emotional and existential extremity.

"The Sun!"

Then there’s this: Mandelstam was an artistic genius, the sort that any century produces only a handful of. If he hadn’t been driven mad and killed by Stalin, he might have managed to write something of Dantean proportions, that sort of huge unity and music. Dante, after all, was one of his literary gods: one of Mandelstam’s best pieces of prose is also one of the best essays on Dante ever written.

Joseph Brodsky would have agreed: ‘It’s an abominable fallacy that suffering makes for greater art. Suffering blinds, deafens, ruins, and often kills.  Osip Mandelstam was a great poet before the revolution. So was Anna Akhmatova, so was Marina Tsvetaeva. They would have become what they became even if none of the historical events that befell Russia in this century had taken place: because they were gifted.  Basically, talent doesn’t need history.”

In any case, Mandelstam had the last word after all.  Poets always do.

The ranks of human heads dwindle: they’re far away.
I vanish there, one more forgotten one.
But in loving words, in childrens’ play,
I shall rise again, to say – the Sun!

Another souvenir from Paris…

Thursday, March 15th, 2012
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My charming host

I’ve received another souvenir from Paris, following last month’s talk at the American University on “Old Wine in New Bottles: Literary Journalism as Cultural Translation.” This time the ever-gracious Center for Writers and Translators has added a few sound clips from the workshop session.

They described them this way:

She joined us to discuss the changing face of cultural and literary journalism, touching on Twitter, Polish poets Czesław Miłosz and Adam Zagajewski, her memories of studying with Joseph Brodsky at the University of Michigan, the unexpected heroism of Marina Tsvetayeva‘s husband, and how to review books that don’t exist.

The sound clips are on the CWT website here. I share the new site with translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky discussing Nikolai Leskov. (I’ve written about the translating duo here.)

Dynamic duo

Meanwhile, my correspondence with my charming host for the visit, Daniel Medin, yielded this photo, more flattering (and more true-to-life) than the one I’ve used in earlier posts.

Daniel, by the way, is associate professor of comparative literature at the American University, associate editor of the Cahiers Series (we’ve written about that here), and the European editor of Quarterly Conversation (which I discussed here).

(Special thanks to Madeleine LaRue for coordinating the website effort!)

Pablo Neruda: Greatest pick-up artist evah?

Thursday, January 12th, 2012
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The conversation erupted on my Facebook page, debating the eternally recurring subject of unjust Nobel awards. It’s recently been revealed that J.R.R. Tolkien had been snubbed by the Nobel committee because his writing wasn’t up to snuff.

Other poor Nobel choices came to mind among my FB friends – the 1971 Nobel to Pablo Neruda over Tolkien?  Or over W.H. Auden, for that matter?  Or Jorge Luis Borges?  Or Vladimir Nabokov?

Another Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz called Neruda “the greatest bad poet of the century,” a much-repeated soundbite that sticks.  Yet Nobelist Gabriel García Márquez called him “the greatest poet of the twentieth century – in any language.” To which one can only reply Osip Mandelstam, W.H. Auden, Marina Tsvetaeva, T.S. Eliot, Czeslaw Milosz.

Our view of Neruda is now inevitably colored by his Stalinist politics.

Apologists say the Stalinists couldn’t possibly have known about the murderous excesses of the U.S.S.R.  Couldn’t possibly have known?  Despite a generation of slaughtered, imprisoned and exiled writers from Russia?  Despite a man-made famine that starved millions?  Despite the writings of Robert Conquest?  If Neruda had any questions, all he had to do was ask Czeslaw Milosz, who defected in 1950.  Instead, he infamously penned a denunciation of Milosz as “The Man Who Ran Away.”

There is nothing so dangerous to us as the thing we do not want to be true, the thing we turn our backs to.

Not bad for a dumpy-looking guy

In time for the 2004 Neruda centenary, Stephen Schwartz (not a literary critic, but a conservative political commentator), wrote in a seminal article that has been cited all over the internet:

There is probably no more chance of halting this current binge of Neruda worship than there is of banishing the cicadas, but, still, the truth does need to be said: Pablo Neruda was a bad writer and a bad man. His main public is located not in the Spanish-speaking nations but in the Anglo-European countries, and his reputation derives almost entirely from the iconic place he once occupied in politics – which is to say, he’s “the greatest poet of the twentieth century” because he was a Stalinist at exactly the right moment, and not because of his poetry, which is doggerel.

So does Neruda’s poetry have a future?

Eternally.  On Facebook, my friend Kevin assured me that Pablo Neruda has enduring market value in the Spanish-speaking world for his … pick-up lines. Not bad for a dumpy-looking guy (see right).

Hard to argue that point – an award-winning film was made on precisely that subject, Il Postino/The Postman.  The plot: nerdy Italian postman wants to pick up pretty girl.  He befriends the exiled Neruda and voilà!  Plagiarism is born in a small Italian village.

As Schwartz himself admitted:

Yes, his work is still plagiarized by teenage boys in Latin America, who see his Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song and figure there is nothing wrong with borrowing from it–just as one poem in the book is itself stolen from Rabindranath Tagore – and presenting its overwrought lines to their girlfriends. But if those boys grow up to be serious writers, they leave Neruda behind.

No luck with the line

But Kevin had a story of his own.  During a summer studying at the London School of Economics, an attractive young Spanish woman caught his eye.  How to attract her attention? His friend Pedro (there were a lot of Spaniards around that summer)  said it was very important to open with a sure-fire line.  Neruda was the ticket.

A dormitory lunchroom discussion of Neruda and the art of line-by-line seduction followed.  The young woman demanded an example of a florid Iberian pick-up line: “Let me hear it.”

Kevin recalled the line Pedro had taught him:  “The sentence would be something like “Oh, cielito mío, que Dios me dió” [Oh, my little heaven, given to me by God].

“It’s the cheesiest thing in the world.  And she said, ‘Wow, that’s really good.’”

Did he get the date?  No.  But he learned his lesson: “That’s how it’s done in España.”