Posts Tagged ‘Robert Conquest’

Helen Pinkerton names “possibly the greatest novel I have ever read.”

Thursday, August 28th, 2014
Helen, me, and the late, great Turner Cassity

Helen, me, and the late, great Turner Cassity

We’ve known poet and historian Helen Pinkerton for ohhh, a zillion or two zillion years. We’ve written about her on the Book Haven here and here – and also for a Stanford Magazine article here. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and just received this email this week. We thought it was worth a share with you. You will recognize the book she mentions from our plug for the NYRB Classics’ “Classics and Coffee Club” here.  We showed the book. We showed our cup of coffee. We even had a nice quote from the book: “Life’s grace and charm can never be erased by the powers of destruction…” But alas, we actually haven’t had the time to actually read the book. Not yet. But soon.

Meanwhile, here’s Helen’s mini-review, and more:

“About a year ago Steven Shankman recommended to me Vassily Grossman‘s novel, Life and Fate, and had sent me several essays he has written on it. I finished it recently and found it possibly the greatest novel I have ever read. He creates a world – actually, two worlds, the Russian and the German – of believable human characters, who try to live worthy lives under a totalitarian government that is structured to destroy their humanity by bringing out the worst in each of them. Chapter after chapter unfolds individual dramas, wherein moral choices are made that are lived with and often died by.

nyrb“Meanwhile, spurred by Grossman’s vision, I have been catching up on the history of the period 1917-1945 in Russia, Poland, and other Eastern European countries. I haven’t read Robert Conquest‘s great work, but I know what he has revealed about those years. And I have read some Solzhenitzyn, Winston Churchill‘s history of that period, and others, in a search into what actually took place during the years that I was growing up in Montana, sheltered from those far-off terrors. Now, in my old age, at least I’ve become sharply aware of a potential repeat in our time of the great evil that human beings can inflict on one another, when driven by a false and monstrous ideology. We are this very week presently confronted with the apparition of an Islamic Caliphate, announced by Bakr al-Baghdadi, which is appallingly similar to the rise of Hitler in 1933. I congratulate you on your perception and your ability to write with such good judgment about what is going on. And I agree that ‘nihilism’ is a most appropriate word for the intellectual root of it all. Keep it up!”

The Islamic Caliphate?  That is sooooo last week!  Helen is referring to my discussions of the parsimonious, reluctant, and even timid use of the word “genocide” in the last month here and here, and the grisly slaughter of American journalist James Foley. (Believe me, they’re off to a much faster start than the Nazis were. The Nazis weren’t sending off snuff videos and films of mass executions as part of their world debut.) As for “nihilism” … more on that in the next day or so.

Meanwhile, “Life’s grace and charm can never be erased by the powers of destruction…” But they’re trying. Really they are.

The Many Masks of Conquest

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Hat tip to the incomparable tipster Dave Lull for letting the us know about Robert Conquest‘s newest poems in the March issue of The New Criterion … or rather, the poems of poems of “one Fred Faraday (1917–1979),” in a volume Blokelore and Blokesongs, forthcoming later this year from Waywiser Press.

David Yezzi‘s introductory note is coy:

Readers will be forgiven for divining a greater involvement on Conquest’s part than mere amanuensis. Conquest has worn such masks before. In Kingsley Amis’s New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978), Conquest’s poems appear under four names: his own, as well as the pseudonyms Ted Pauker, Victor Gray, and Stuart Howard-Jones. To these we must add the limerick writer Jeff Chaucer, whose Garden of Erses (2010) includes poems attributed elsewhere to some of these other fellows.

Old Fred, which is Faraday’s pseudonym de plume, may be Conquest’s liveliest poetic invention to date.

When I asked Bob his advice to young poets in 2010, he replied in a beat: “Write under a pseudonym, and pretend it’s a translation from the Portuguese.” Clearly, he takes his own advice to heart.

Other matters of the heart are included in the poems here and here and here.  A sample:

Was she a rose without a thorn?
Fred asks as one of those
Who’s more than once been scratched and torn
By thorns without a rose.

Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A far cry from Bob’s landmark works, which made him one of our greatest living historians. With The Great Terror, published in 1968, he became the conscience of an era, a historian denouncing Stalinism when communism was trendy with the left in the West.

But maybe it’s not so far a cry, after all.  Said Editor Yezzi, “One cannot read ‘Fred on Fascism’ without recalling Conquest’s great limerick on Communism called ‘Progress,’ which John Gross included in his Oxford Book of Comic Verse (1994)”:

There was a great Marxist named Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
—That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

New poems, old stories: Robert Conquest balances “the inhuman reign of the lie” with naughty verse

Monday, December 26th, 2011

Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

When Christopher Hitchens died this month, I thought immediately of Robert Conquest and his wife, Elizabeth, who were close friends of the renowned journalist and author. Believe it or not, Hitchens used to spend a good deal of time in Palo Alto – his wife’s family, as I recall.

No, Bob did not have anything he wanted to share publicly in memoriam; he is not of the “sharing” generation who tweets his thoughts.  But there’s plenty else that is public.

Britain’s Standpoint is printing ten poems from Bob’s new book of light verse: Blokesongs and Blokelore from Old Fred, which will be out from the U.K.’s Waywiser Press in May.  You can read them here.

Here’s the nasty truth: I’ve never been attracted to “light verse.” Limericks are lost on me.  I’ve never, really, seen the point.  But Bob Conquest has devoted years to them, and it occurred to me that the silly poems are a necessary release from his groundbreaking historical work on the effects of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe – the work that earned him an Order of Merit from Poland in 2009.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, at almost the same moment Standpoint published the new poems, the Daily Beast published Bob’s analysis of the current crisis with the Russian anti-Putin protests following the Dec. 4 elections.

The upshot of the article: “The present regime may have abandoned the compulsive economic ideologies of the Communist past, but it has not developed anything like an open society.”  It comes down to a peculiar relationship to truth:

Honored in 2009

After the disaster of collectivization [1929–33], the leadership had two options: either to admit failure and change policy—perhaps even to relinquish total power—or to pretend that success had been achieved. Falsification took place on a barely credible scale, in every sphere. Real facts, honest statistics, disappeared. History, especially that of the Communist Party, was rewritten. Unpersons vanished from the official record. A spurious past and a fictitious present were imposed on the captive minds of the Soviet people. To focus solely on the physical manifestations of the Communist terror—the killings, the deportations, the people who were driven to suicide—would be to overlook the larger context: what Boris Pasternak called “the inhuman reign of the lie.” Until Gorbachev came to power, the country lived a double existence—an official world of fantasy, grand achievements, wonderful statistics, liberty, democracy, all juxtaposed with a reality of gloom, suffering, terror, denunciation, and apparatchik degeneration.

When lies become part of the national fabric, the result was a thoroughly corrupted society:

Sakharov nailed it. (Photo: RIA Novosti)

Sakharov described the problem in the late 1970s: “A deeply cynical caste has come into being, one which I consider dangerous (to itself as well as to all mankind)—a sick society ruled by two principles: blat [a little slang word meaning ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’], and the popular saw: ‘No use banging your head against the wall.’ But beneath the petrified surface of our society exist cruelty on a mass scale, lawlessness, the absence of civil rights protecting the average man against the authorities, and the latter’s total unaccountability toward their own people or the whole world.”

The Soviet bureaucracy’s reaction to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster demonstrated what Sakharov had been talking about. As David Remnick later noted in The New Yorker, it was typical of the regime that plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, on being told that the reactor’s radiation was millions of times higher than normal, replied that the meter was obviously defective and must be thrown away. Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina rejected a suggestion to order a mass evacuation. “Panic is worse than radiation,” he said.

So what’s changed in 2011?  As everywhere, technology makes certain lies untenable:

Russians are used to electoral fraud. There were never any expectations that the Dec. 4 elections would be carried out with complete honesty, any more than Russia’s past votes were. But this time, instances of ballot irregularity were recorded by mobile devices and then posted on the Internet, to which more than 40 percent of Russians now have access. Outrage—and calls to protest—flashed from computer to computer. Political discourse is thriving in blogs, tweets, posts to Facebook, uploads to YouTube—challenging the regime’s old-media monopoly on news and opinion.

Read it all here.


Getting ready for Halloween: Dana Gioia’s ghost story

Monday, October 25th, 2010

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said, “such nonsense.
But years ago I actually saw one.”
He seemed quite serious, and so I asked.

That time of year...

So opens Dana Gioia‘s new ghost story. A fitting topic as we draw closer to Halloween.  (And to All Saints’.  And to All Souls’.)

I wrote earlier about visiting Dana in Santa Rosa last August, when he read his then-unpublished poems to me, which included the “Haunted,”  a short story in verse.  It’s unpublished no more: so I was delighted  when the Hudson Review arrived in my mailbox, courtesy of Dana.  The Hudson Review comes with a CD, including an introduction, a reading, and a short interview.  Dana refrained from publishing new literary work during his six years as NEA chairman — so this publication marks a comeback after long absence.

The 200-line poem (the same length as Robert Conquest‘s “Getting On”) is in blank verse, but with so much chiming — internal rhyming, assonance, and other tricks of the trade — that there were times I would have sworn it was rhymed verse.

Dana tells a short story in verse (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Dana is a strong advocate for narrative poetry.  “There was a time when you wanted to tell a story, you told it in verse,” said Dana.  Look at Homer.  Or Shakespeare.  Poetry is now mostly confined to short, lyric utterances.  People who want stories turn to novels and drama instead.  “When poetry lost that audience, it lost something that was absolutely essential to its vitality.”

That said, “It’s really hard to write a good narrative poem,” said Dana, adding that he has abandoned a number of efforts over the years.  “You have to have a compelling story, a narrative that moves forward,” all the while “condensing this into essentially lyric medium.” A ghost story requires even more:   Atmosphere is imperative for ghost story, said Dana, noting that Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Raven” is composed almost entirely of atmospheric effects.  Dana said he had to “build the setting room by room.”

When a narrative poem fails, it’s because “either the story is just not good, they cannot create forward momentum” or else “the language is not good, it’s prosaic.”

Dana says “Haunted”  is somewhat “Jamesian,” and that may be something of a weakness.  His plots, like Henry James’s, consist largely of the states of mind of the characters, rather than in dialogue or a series of events.  This was true also in “Counting the Children,” one of Dana’s best-known poems from Gods of  Winter — another narrative poem.  Of the two, I prefer this new poem, certainly because it reflects (oddly enough) a more familiar range of experiences and states of mind — from the experience of evil (a more intense brush than the one Dana describes, I’m afraid), to the experiences of ghosts, to the illusion that “We thought we could/create a life made only of peak moments” (did anyone not think that at 25?)

The poem’s antagonist is Mara, launching the poem’s curious series of reversals, the equation of light with darkness:

Do you know what it’s like to be in love
with someone bad?  Not simply bad for you,
but slightly evil?  You have to decide
either to be the victim or accomplice.
I’m not the victim type. That’s what she liked.

Young Marian Seldes would have been "magnificent" as ghost, said Dana

Yet, the unnamed protagonist said, “She seemed to shine/as movie stars shine, made only of light.”

And later, of his ghost, he recalled:  “She seemed at once herself and her own reflection/shimmering on the surface of clear water/where fleeting shadows twisted in the depths.” and “Her pale skin shined like a window catching sunlight,/both bright and clear, but chilling to the touch.”

Is the poem autobiographical? “These things did not happen to me autobiographically,” he said, “a bit of this, a bit of that happened, a person I met a house I saw, all worked its way into the story” — even the ghost, though Dana said he doesn’t believe in them.

A suitable theme for Halloween.  But a day after the arrival of the Hudson Review in my mailbox, I received an American Opera Classics CD of Paul Salerni‘s Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast — called “Opera in ten short scenes on a libretto by Dana Gioia.”  I haven’t listened to it yet.

Dana has been busy indeed.  But then, he always is.

Robert Conquest is “Getting On”: A great poem after a century of living

Friday, October 1st, 2010


One of life’s unforgettable moments: a great poet hands you a typescript copy of an unpublished poem.  Its strike-outs and marginalia still mark the page.  It hasn’t found its readers yet, and there is no body of opinion about it to influence your own.

So, sitting in an immaculate Stanford condo on a balmy August afternoon, with the his forebears’ books and maritime paintings as a backdrop (the family goes back pretty much to the Conquest), I felt a quiet thrill when Robert Conquest handed me his latest poem, “Getting On,” which opens:

Into one’s ninetieth year.
Memory? Yes, but the sheer
Seethe as the half-woken brain’s
Great gray search-engine gains
Traction on all one’s dreamt, seen, felt, read,
Loathed, loved…
.              .              And on one’s dead.
-Which makes one’s World, one’s Age, appear
Faint wrinkles on the biosphere
Itself the merest speck in some
Corner of the continuum.

“Great poet and even greater historian" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

It won’t be quite the same thrill for you, but you can now read the whole poem online — Dave Lull, patron saint of bloggers, tipped me off that it’s finally been published in the October 2nd edition of the British magazine Standpointhere.  “I don’t think any poet has written as well about aging as he has,” said R. S. Gwynn, Bob Conquest‘s friend and fellow poet.

The 93-year-old poet is also the courageous historian who wrote  the landmark books that exposed Soviet Communism in the years when too many were defending it — The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrows.  He published his seventh collection of poems last year and a book of limericks this year. He and his absolutely charmer of a wife Liddie were fretting about the health of their close friend Christopher Hitchens when I dropped by; Hitchens had just been diagnosed with esophogeal cancer, and cancelled his usual visit in for Bob’s birthday on July 15.  Hitchens wrote in his new memoir, Hitch-22, that Conquest is “great poet and even greater historian.”

Bob finished his 200-line poetic summa about the same time he handed it to me.  I wrote then that this poem might prove to be among his greatest.  See if you agree (though I could have done without the Goldie Hawn reference.)

Not into great poems?  Try a few of his limericks here.

Robert Conquest: Still going strong

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

His advice to young poets: “Write under a pseudonym, and pretend it’s a translation from the Portuguese.”

Many people were intrigued when I said I was writing an article about Robert Conquest – well here is my piece on Robert Conquest, the poet who doubles as a groundbreaking historian of the Soviet era.  His close friend Christopher Hitchens said his was “the softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny.”

He’s just completed a powerful poem, “Getting On.”  The 200-line reflection, forthcoming this fall in the British magazine Standpoint, opens:

Into one’s ninetieth year.
Memory? Yes, but the sheer
Seethe as the half-woken brain’s
Great gray search-engine gains
Traction on all one’s dreamt, seen, felt read,
Loathed, loved …
.                              And on one’s dead.
– Which makes one’s World, one’s Age, appear
Faint wrinkles on the biosphere
Itself the merest speck in some
Corner of the continuum.

As the years spin by, the more I appreciate those who, as life is ebbing (and it is ebbing for all of us), in the face of inevitable mortality and uncertainty, won’t let go of the rock.  There is a certain grace to persistence, when it passes beyond foolishness and becomes a principled position — a way to resolve the mismatch between the unimpeded intellect and the diminished will.  (In which case, I suppose, it becomes will.)  And to accomplish all this with panache … kudos, Mr. Conquest, for not sitting on your considerable laurels.

And yes, Elena, you are right (she commented on an earlier post, “I think he qualifies as one of the underrated writers. He was labeled as anti-Soviet and was lumped with political hacks.”)  Perhaps the training he got in telling the truth when everyone else was lying helped hone his poetic skills — or maybe it was the other way around.

Not that there weren’t a few factoids floating around the Conquest story as well — I use the term “factoid” as Norman Mailer, who invented it, meant it to be used: a lie that is repeated so often it becomes the unchallenged truth.

A couple bits that didn’t make it into the final piece:

1)  From Hitchens:  “A few years ago he said to me that the old distinctions between left and right had become irrelevant to him, adding very mildly that fools and knaves of all kinds needed to be opposed and that was really needed was a ‘United Front Against Bullshit.’”  Expletives were deleted.

2)  When his American publisher asked for the new title for the republication of The Great Terror, he came up with, “I told you so, you fucking f0ols.” The story, Bob Conquest told me, was entirely made up by Kingsley Amis — hence its omission.  I have to quote Ken Kesey on that — “It’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”

San Francisco’s “finger man”: Zborowski revisited

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Michelangelo painted the original "finger man"

I’m preparing for an interview with nonagenarian historian and poet Robert Conquest on Monday.  To that end, I purchased a battered $2.44 copy of his classic work, The Great Terror, from amazon.  I expected it to be a dry exhalation of facts and statistics.

Not a chance.  It’s rather a 500-page thriller.  Naturally, given my post of a few days ago about San Francisco’s Mark Zborowski, a medical anthropologist at Mt. Zion Hospital, I checked for Zborowski’s name in the index.

Conquest didn’t fail me.  Far from “colorless,” Zborowski sounds positively Shakespearean.  Here’s Conquest on the murder of Trotsky’s son, Lev Sedov:

The next NKVD agent to penetrate Trotsky’s political family was the extraordinary Mark Zborowski, of whom it has been said that he everywhere “left behind a trail of duplicity and blood worthy of a Shakespearean villain,” and who, after establishing himself in the United States as a respectable anthropologist at Columbia and Harvard, was finally exposed and convicted on charges of perjury in December 1958, getting a five- to seven-year term.

Zborowski had managed to become Sedov’s right-hand man, and had access to all the secrets of the Trotskyites. He was responsible for the robbery of the Trotsky archives in Paris in November 1936. Although he never committed any murders himself, remaining a finger man, he seems to have played some role in the killing of Ignace Reiss. He also nearly procured the death of Walter Krivitsky in Spain. The young German Rudolf Clement, secretary of Trotsky’s Fourth International, seems also to have been conveyed into his murderer’s hand by Zborowski, in 1938.  A headless body found floating in the Seine in Paris was tentatively identified as Clement’s; in any case, he has not been seen since.  On 14 February 1938 Trotsky’s son Lev Sedov died in suspicious circumstances in a Paris hospital. Since Zborowski was the man who rushed him there, there is a very strong presumption that he informed the NKVD killer organization of the opportunity which now presented itself.

Just the man you want working in a hospital. One pressing question remains: Qu’est-ce que c’est un finger man?  That’s what google is for.

From FINGER MAN: – noun Slang.  a person who points out someone to be murdered, robbed, etc.  Origin: 1925–30, Americanism

How did a Oxford-educated Englishman run across 1920s American gangsta lingo?