Posts Tagged ‘Ovid’

Quoting Diane Middlebrook

Saturday, February 7th, 2015
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Quotable (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Brendan Boyle has written a review of Diane Middlebrook’s posthumous Young Ovid for the Wall Street Journal here, in a piece titled “Love and Other Crimes.” (And I’ve written about the book here and here.) My attention was immediately drawn to it because it leads with a line from my obituary for the celebrated biographer – here. The quote was taken from the unpublished bits of an interview I did with her in 2003, for my Stanford Magazine interview here.  Since obituaries typically aren’t chatty and first person-y, I didn’t mention my 2003 interview, and simply quoted her.

Here is the whole passage:

When asked several years ago why she picked Ovid as her subject, she responded with characteristic breeziness, “No estates, no psychotherapy, no interviews, no history—I just make it up.” She frequently pointed out that there is no historical record of Ovid’s life; all we know is in his poetry. In other words, the biographer is forced to rely on the text itself. Can literature be primary source? Her answer was always a resounding yes—especially evident in her biography of Hughes and Plath, a book that was called the “gold standard” on a contentious theme.

But later, Middlebrook would add that she was also attracted to “the remarkable confidence that Ovid had in his own survival.” At a Stanford address last January, Middlebrook noted, “The evidence inside his poetry is the key to this longevity. His voice comes to us like a plucked string, immediate and recognizable across two millennia…”

Why is there no attribution? Presumably Boyle picked it up from Wikipedia, which didn’t attribute the source, either. Nor did it credit me with this quotation from her obituary: “One of the reasons I like working on biographies is that it takes a long time,” she said. “You don’t have to work quickly. People are going to stay dead.”

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Redundant?

In my ham-fisted way, I’ve corrected the Wikipedia listings. Honestly, what is the point of doing interviews, trying hard to make the quotations accurate, transcribing recordings, which takes hours and hours … if people are going to treat what you’ve written as if it popped out of thin air? Boyle writes, “It’s the second half of the response that’s worrisome and surely can’t have been meant in earnest.” Well, of course it wasn’t. If he had gone to the article that included it, he would have seen that it was said with “characteristic breeziness.” She was being flippant. But he couldn’t. Because he was using Wikipedia, which didn’t list a source.

In any case, Boyle didn’t think much of the book, apparently, and what she said to me about “making it up” sealed her doom in his eyes, since he refers to that remark a lot. “The fictionalized interludes that Middlebrook herself writes do not add much and often have that florid, overripe air that descends upon so much writing about the ancient world.” He repeatedly makes it clear that “there is already a very fine account of Ovid’s life in Peter Green’s 1982 introduction to the Penguin edition of Ovid’s erotic poems.”  After recounting its virtues, he concludes, “All of this, and far more, is available in Mr. Green’s introduction, and no one looking for a sophisticated, compendious account of the poet’s life should search elsewhere.” Then why review this book at all?

“I am dying, and that’s a helluva way of introducing the book of my greatest love”: Middlebrook’s posthumous Young Ovid; Djerassi’s last public appearance

Saturday, January 31st, 2015
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Last wishes fulfilled. (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Carl Djerassi had a way of stealing the show, and last week may prove, in retrospect, to have been no exception. The January 22 occasion was the launch of biographer Diane Middlebrook‘s posthumous book, Young Ovid: A Life Recreated (Counterpoint Press) a book that has taken seven years since the author’s death to find its way into book form. Last week’s event, at the fabulous Djerassi digs atop Russian Hill, will be known equally as Carl’s last public appearance. The eminent chemist who has been called “father of the pill” (surely a contradiction in terms) – and also an author, playwright, and founder of an artists’ colony – died yesterday of cancer at 91. It’s certainly appropriate that his final public appearance was a last salute to his late wife, who died of cancer in 2007.

According to Diane’s daughter, Leah Middlebrook, the posthumous book would not have come out with him. “He kept her alive and kept her distracted,” she recalled. She had reached a lowpoint in her long illness when she realized she would not be able to finish her book. Carl suggested a “Young Ovid” biography, and that gave her new life. She discussed the manuscript with Carl to the last days of her life. A pleasure as well as a duty, for Ovid was her lifelong passion. “Reading a page and a half will convince you her voice is still present with us,” said her daughter.

I bought a copy, available at the event courtesy Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and though I’ve only had a chance to cast a casual eye over it, it’s impressive, perhaps some of her best work. “It is Diane’s prose. It is Diane’s writing,” said Leah. It wasn’t easy. Middlebrook had continued writing until a month before her death. She conveyed to a circle of insiders her plans and intentions for the finished book. The execution finally rested in the hands of others – and the search of a publisher was a labor of its own. The New Yorker has already named it as one of their “Books to Watch Out For” here.

At the event last week, however, tribulations were forgotten amid plenty of champagne, plenty of brie, plenty of dolmas, and plenty of little bits of goat cheese wrapped in strips of fried zucchini, against the backdrop of what must be one of the most stunning views in a city full of them. I described it a dozen years ago (here) this way:

“The couple’s art interests are evident in their home, surely one of the most fabulous apartments in San Francisco. It occupies the entire 15th floor (they gradually absorbed four apartments) of an art-deco building on Green Street, atop Russian Hill. The elevator from the lobby opens onto blue walls meant to suggest a night sky, with poetry by Ovid, Paul Klee, Wallace Stevens, Basho, Hughes and others written across it in different scripts and languages and illustrated with zodiacal signs. To the left are living quarters; to the right, offices and the salon area, where the couple entertains. They enjoy a 360-degree view of the city.

(Photo: Isabella Gregor)

He liked this one. (Photo: I. Gregor)

“Middlebrook’s office features Eurodesign cabinets and built-in bookcases, with a computer desk and round work table. As in the hotel room, all is very neat, very well-organized—a Middlebrook cardinal virtue. A painted baroque ceiling, with blue, gray and plum-colored swirls, gives the impression the sky is right above you.

“Works of art by Klee, usually on the walls in the salon area, are currently on loan to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, keeping company with the permanent Klee collection Djerassi donated. The couple has one of the world’s most significant private Klee collections.”

Much of the evening buzz over hors d’oeuvres was about Carl’s health – whispers that this would be his last public appearance, and so it was. (I still can’t believe that he won’t email me tomorrow with the photo he’d rather have me use for this farewell post – but the one I’m including is the one he preferred last time, so here it is again.) When Carl finally appeared and was helped to a chair at the front of the gathering he was startlingly thin, exceedingly frail, but erect and dignified, surprisingly present, altogether there. “Can you hear me back there? All of you back there?” he called. “I’m losing my voice, and I am losing my voice because I am dying, and that’s a helluva way of introducing the book of my greatest love.”

He had a slender, old-fashioned paperback – 1930s, Europe – on the small table next to his side as he spoke, and told his story about fleeing Austria with his mother in 1938 to escape the Nazis. “What would you take as a refugee? No furniture of any size, nothing heavy,” he recalled. Just clothing, pictures, and some books – and one of the books was this one – naturally, a book of Ovid. Heavy going for a teenager who had only four years of Latin, he admitted, but the relic from his past traveled with him to New York; Newark, New Jersey; the Midwest; Mexico; and California. It’s still with him. If he were writing a book, it would be framed as a prefiguration of the woman he would find towards the end of a journey – a woman whose lifelong passion was Ovid – and the book that would connect them at the end of both their lives.

middlebrook1“Diane, I want to tell you how important that book was to me that you finally finished,” he said.

Let the last words be hers, however. Her close friend Marilyn Yalom read, if not a page and a half, at least this part from the introduction to the book, turning on Ovid’s own words: “Throughout all ages,/if poets have vision to prophesy truth, I shall live.”

“To a biographer, Ovid’s declaration ‘I shall live’ can feel like a glove slapping a cheek across twenty centuries. Quite aside from its embarrassingly self-promotional aspect, the phrase can be dismissed as empty convention: Ovid’s most celebrated contemporaries incorporated lines like this in work of their own they most admired. But what if Ovid meant it? What could support a writer’s belief that works of poetry could be immortal and that his own was destined for this rare elevation?

“Biography is a medium for working out solutions to such puzzles. Yet Ovid is not an obvious candidate for biography; there is almost no documentation of Ovid’s life outside his poetry. The evidence inside his poetry is all we have to go on. But it is enough, for Ovid was an unusually autobiographical writer for his time. His voice comes toward us like a plucked string, immediate and recognizable across two millenia, partly because he made frequent use of an effective rhetorical strategy: accosting us readers as if we were present in the room with him. At one point he even calls us, his heirs, by name: ‘Who is this I you read … ?/You want to know, posterity? Then attend” (Tristia 4.10.1-2).

 

Ovid: Middlebrook’s last passion comes to light

Monday, November 26th, 2012
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Mama’s boy.

When the legendary biographer Diane Middlebrook died of cancer in 2007, she left behind an unfinished manuscript about the Roman poet who had been her lifelong passion. Had death not halted her progress, Ovid: A Biography would almost certainly be in print by now.

In her last months, she tried to radically revamp her book into a study of Ovid’s early years, Young Ovid. Finally she had to abandon the project altogether, leaving as her completed legacy Anne Sexton: A Biography (1992), Suits Me: The Double Life of Billie Tipton (1999), and Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, A Marriage (2003).

Her executors, her daughter Leah Middlebrook and literary scholar Nancy K. Miller, are working to publish the completed sections of the book. The first of their efforts has been published in the current edition of Feminist Studies as “20 March, 43 BCE: Ovid is Born.”

Her work cut short.

The piece describes childbirth practices in ancient Rome as well as the role of Ovid’s family – particularly his mother – in his writing and his life.

“Was it in childhood that Ovid’s imagination was captivated by what went on among women sitting together over their spindles and their looms?” Middlebrook asks. “If Ovid’s poetry is original in its treatment of fathers, it is unique in ancient literature in its representation of the social world that women created for themselves within the household, a world largely concealed from the attention of men. Women of all ages and kinds appear and interact with one another in Ovid’s tales, enriching the world of the poem and broadening its emotional and social reach. If an unwelcome man should arrive on the scene, interrupting the women, this world would immediately fold itself up and away out of sight. A male child of less than 7 years, however, might have been a tolerated exception.”

Stanford colleague and friend Terry Castle said of the article (which can be ordered online here), “It’s a lovely memorial to Diane, but also a marvelously interesting essay on Ovid and the nature of childbirth in ancient Rome: a feminist topic if ever there were one.”

(By the by, I just discovered Diane Middlebrook’s 1998 lecture on Ovid online here.)

Voilà! Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence

Saturday, August 27th, 2011
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Voilà!  The Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence has been launched.  I attended the dedication ceremony this afternoon, way up in  forested hills around LaHonda, Skyline, and Woodside.  (I wrote about the venture earlier, here.)  Got mightily lost, too.

"Above all, radiant" (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Renowned chemist, novelist, and playwright Carl Djerassi, Diane Middlebrook‘s husband, assured the 50 or 60 gathered in the brilliant August day about the “green” nature of the four new domiciles built in memory of the gifted and groundbreaking biographer, who died in 2007.  The Djerassi Resident Artists Program currently hosts about 60 artists a year.  The spare new residences, overlooking the hills, will add a few more.

The 87-year-old Djerassi read a poem written by the person who had been the second oldest resident ever – Janet Lewis, the wife (and by then widow) of legendary Yvor Winters.  She was 90 at the time – two years younger than the composer who holds the record in the program. The poem Carl read,  “Landscape near Bear Gulch Road,” had been written during her residency.

Carl recalled his wife worked only on ambitious projects.  When her cancer diagnosis gave her only months to live, she turned to her personal brand of therapy, he said – that is, “to immerse yourself totally in intellectual work.”  Middlebrook tackled a biography of Ovid,  which, “though unfinished, has been published posthumously in portions as ‘A Roman in his Prime’ in the Norton Critical edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and as ‘Ovid Is Born,’ in Feminist Studies,” according to the program’s website. I had wondered what happened to it.

Until today, I wasn’t aware that Dana Gioia, Diane’s student, had published the author’s only collection of poems, Gin Considered as a Demon, in 1983, when he was editing a series of chapbooks for Elysian Press.  He waved the volume at the gathering.  He also waved the battered paperback of Wallace Stevens‘s poems that he had studied with Diane way back in 1971.

He described Diane Middlebrook as “above all, radiant.”  Such people are rare, he said: “in the warmth, enlightenment, and clarity of their presence we discover ourselves.”

Dana read Stevens’s “Final Soliloquy.”  But Diane’s daughter, Leah Middlebrook, read a rapt and haunting poem that Dana had composed at the Djerassi home-in-the-hills, “Becoming a Redwood.”  It concludes:

Something moves nearby. Coyotes hunt
these hills and packs of feral dogs.
But standing here at night accepts all that.

You are your own pale shadow in the quarter moon,
moving more slowly than the crippled stars,
part of the moonlight as the moonlight falls,

Part of the grass that answers the wind,
part of the midnight’s watchfulness that knows
there is no silence but when danger comes.