Posts Tagged ‘Robert Pogue Harrison’

Robert Pogue Harrison on Shirley Hazzard, and the “preposterous puzzles” of our lives

Tuesday, March 30th, 2021
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She’s not just distinguished, but major.
(Photo: Christopher Peterson)

Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison has an excellent retrospective of Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard over at the current issue of the Sydney Review of Books. We featured his recent conversation on the author here. Don’t know her work? This is a matchless introduction. No surprise it’s generating enthusiasm on the social media.

It begins:

The only time I heard Shirley Hazzard use the word ‘hate’ during the thirteen years I knew her was one night in Rome when I walked her back to the Hassler Hotel after a dinner at Otello on Via della Croce. (For half a century, both with and without her husband Francis Steegmuller, she stayed in the same room at the Hassler Hotel whenever she was in Rome, and only occasionally did she and I ever dine at a restaurant other than Otello when we got together in Rome). I mentioned something about a place that had changed. She stopped in her tracks, put her hand on my arm, and declared: ‘I hate change.’

Given how many tumultuous and destructive transformations the world underwent during her lifetime, one can understand Hazzard’s aversion to change. That aversion also accounts for her attachment to the city of Naples, about which she wrote so eloquently and where she owned a home. What she prized above all about Naples was its unaltered landscape. As she once remarked to me, were Virgil to sail into its bay today, he would recognize all the lineaments of his adoptive city.

During her lifetime Shirley Hazzard published four novels, two collections of short stories, and six non-fiction books. One of the novels – The Transit of Venus (1980) – is a masterpiece that has earned her the status of a major writer rather than merely a distinguished one. The enduring devotion Hazzard has inspired in her readers – a devotion that comes through in the many high-profile reviews that the recently published Collected Stories elicited in the United States and England – is due mostly to the lasting impression this novel made on us. As the centre of Hazzard’s corpus, The Transit of Venus now shapes our perception of the books that preceded and followed it.

A quotation to remember:

Hazzard’s evaluation of Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm applies to her own fiction as well: “The matter in hand here is no less than existence: our brief incarnation in a human experience, our efforts to make a coherence of, or retreat from, the improbable combinations of flesh, feeling, vanity, virtue, and reason laid upon us like preposterous puzzles.”

Read the whole thing here.

At last! At last! Stanford spotlights William Kennedy’s “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game” on Feb. 26!

Friday, January 29th, 2021
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The Bard of Albany, Irish-American author William Kennedy

It’s happening! It’s finally happening! At 3 p.m. (PST) on Friday, February 26, Stanford’s Another Look book club hold its long-postponed Another Look discussion honoring author William Kennedy, a Pulitzer-prizewinning, MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. Our event for the 1978 book was one of the early COVID casualties at Stanford last spring. Now it will be rescheduled as a Zoom event (isn’t everything nowadays)?

From our announcement:

Pulitzer prizewinning novelist William Kennedy has been called the Bard of Albany, but he began his career as a reporter. After a stint in the military and in Puerto Rico, he returned to his hometown, and saw the city of his birth with new eyes: “Without a sense of place, you don’t, as a writer, have very much. Place is all those forces of a given society impinging upon and determining character. Without it, a book becomes bloodless.”

According to Stanford’s Tobias Wolff, who will lead the discussion: Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game belongs to William Kennedy’s celebrated Albany sequence of novels. Set during the Depression, it concerns a young gambler and bookie, the Billy of the title, who suffers a setback that compels him to embark on an odyssey – and I use that word advisedly – through the demimonde of his city, during which he encounters temptations and dangers that test his resolve to the limit. There are gangsters, there is a kidnapping, but at its core this novel is about character, and what this man will do and endure to preserve his honor.”

The discussion will be led by National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, with panelists Carol Edgarian, novelist and founding editor of Narrative Magazine, and Another Look Director Robert Pogue Harrisonan acclaimed author and host for the popular radio series, Entitled Opinions

Like all our events, it is free and available to the public. Register here.

And check out my Los Angeles Review of Books interview with Bill Kennedy, discussing his life and, in particular, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. An excerpt:

CYNTHIA HAVEN: Hemingway wrote: “Everything changes as it moves. That is what makes the movement which makes the story. Sometimes the movement is so slow it does not seem to be moving. But there is always change and always movement.” It’s a thought you echo more than once in Billy Phelan, for example, when you write: “We are only as possible as what happened to us yesterday. We all change as we move.” You’ve said, “The movement is what creates the action, and the action is what creates the story” — which in turn creates more movement. Clearly, you’ve thought about this a lot. Could you share a few more thoughts?

WILLIAM KENNEDY: I must’ve been deeply persuaded by Hemingway’s lines to have lifted them without crediting him; but I always listened to what he said about writing. In The Angels and the Sparrows, I created Francis Phelan, a wino in his 30s, a clever, obnoxious loner returning home for his mother’s funeral (she kicked him out), who stops at a neighborhood bar for a beer and is hostile to the bartender. It was a good scene. He was a sad, broken young guy, but I disliked him seriously, even as I was creating him, and didn’t want to carry him forward.

Then, maybe 15 years later I started to write Billy Phelan and I reinvented the Phelan family. I had to get rid of Francis as that antipathetic young wino. He still had to be a bum, but I aged him into a tortured figure at the bottom of the world who was Billy’s father, and his life immediately became an open-ended challenge to my imagination. It turned out that he had abandoned his family 22 years earlier after his 13-day-old son, Gerald, slipped out of a diaper while he was changing him, fell off a table, broke his neck and died. In the fall of 1938, Francis drifts back to Albany to vote in a Democratic primary election, knowing the machine will pay him $5 for this; so he votes 21 times, earning $105, and is put in jail. Billy, the gambler, hears he’s in town and bails him out. The new Francis, after living through 16 years of shame and guilt over dropping the infant and running off, became a pitiable but likable human being. I don’t know where Gerald came from. There was no such incident in my life, nor can I remember hearing of one; perhaps I forgot it. But years ago I decided it was a gift from my unconscious, a fruitful one. In Billy, Francis was so vitally real that he leaped onto my typewriter and demanded his own novel. So I wrote Ironweed for him.

Again, register for the event here.

“Exact and expansive”: Stanford’s Robert Harrison speaks as friend, fan of Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard at NYC’s McNally Jackson – November 12 on zoom!

Tuesday, November 10th, 2020
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“Relentless.” (Photo: Christopher Peterson)

Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard is considered one of the finest fiction writers of the postwar generation. She died in 2016.

Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrisona friend as well as fan, will be a featured speaker at a Zoom event to celebrate her just-published Collected Stories. The event happens on Thursday, November 12, at 7 p.m. EST (4 p.m. PST) hosted by New York City’s McNally Jackson bookstore. The McNally Jackson website is HERE with an RSVP link is at the top of the page.

From the McNally Jackson website:

“Shirley Hazzard’s Collected Stories is a work of staggering breadth and accomplishment. Taken together, these twenty-eight short stories are masterworks in telescoping focus, ranging from quotidian struggles between beauty and pragmatism to satirical send-ups of international bureaucracy, from the Italian countryside to suburban Connecticut. Hazzard’s heroes are high-minded romantics who attempt to fit their feelings into the twentieth-century world of office jobs and dreary marriages. After all, as she writes in ‘The Picnic,’ ‘It was tempting to confine oneself to what one could cope with. And one couldn’t cope with love.’ And yet it is the comedy, the tragedy, and the splendor of love, the pursuit and the absence of it, that animates Hazzard’s stories and provides the truth and beauty that her protagonists seek.”

Her friend at Stanford.

“Hazzard once said, ‘The idea that somebody has expressed something, in a supreme way, that it can be expressed; this is, I think, an enormous feature of literature.’ Her stories themselves are a supreme evocation of writing at its very best: probing, uncompromising, and deeply felt.”

According to Harrison, “Conrad once said that the written work of art must justify itself word by word, sentence by sentence. That justification is always at work in her prose. Her use of English is at once exact and expansive. She inhabits the language as only someone who was nourished on its very best literature at an early age could inhabit it.”

“She has a unique stylistic signature, one that combines extreme narrative discretion with probing psychological insight; a masterfully terse yet complex prose that always looks for and finds le mot juste; the most astonishing and expressive metaphors of any writer of her generation known to me.” (Robert Harrison also interviewed Hazzard in 2006 for Entitled Opinions here.) He adds that ” the commitment to description in her books is relentless.”

Hazzard’s biographer Brigitta Olubas and Australian novelist Michelle de Kretser will also be on hand to discuss the author’s legacy.

Postscript on 11/11 from Dana Gioia, former NEA chair and California poet laureate: How good to see Shirley Hazzard remembered! I second Robert Harrison’s praise of her style. She had an amazing ability to present the emotional reality of her characters and a genius for vividly depicting the most diverse settings. “The Transit of Venus” and “The Great Fire” are among my favorite contemporary novels–two very different books similar only in their elegant prose and deep humanity.

I wonder if part of her obscurity is that, like the equally superb Sibylle Bedford, Hazzard was so international. She lived in Australia, New Zealand, Italy, and the U.S. She doesn’t fall neatly into either Australian or American literature. Thanks for featuring her work.

Summer, the Hum of Poetry, and the Wild Accidents That Gave Us Life…

Saturday, August 29th, 2020
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Life is an excess – call it the self-ecstasy of matter.” Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Summer”

Labor Day traditionally marks the end of summer, and we have little over one week to go. Let us celebrate the time we have, marred, as it has been, by coronavirus and California wildfires. Over at Entitled Opinions, with a podcast up at The Los Angeles Review of BooksRobert Pogue Harrison puts a deliriously joyful spin on the season. “Life is an excess – call it the self-ecstasy of matter,” he says.

He recorded this monologue at the solstice. Now his reflections summarize the season that is coming to a close.

Čapek: Seriously into summer.

The reason for the solstice, he reminded us, is that the earth does not spin upright, but tilts at more than 23 degrees, and that obliquity is responsible for life on our planet. An upright planet like Mercury would lack seasons, and be so cold at the poles that it couldn’t foster greenhouse gases, hence, liquid water would never form. Uranus, with a tilt of more than 82 degrees, would be blazing hot for six months and intolerably cold for the others.

But there’s more to life than that. Harrison said that the Czech author Karel Čapek, who cultivated his garden plot in Prague, understood intuitively what science now accepts: in the beginning, the earth “aggressively resisted life’s colonizing adventures.” Harrison described “the animosity and callousness of dead and sterile matter,” resulting in “the terrible fight life must have undergone inch by inch to take root in the soil of the earth.”

It took the tremendous self-affirming struggles of life itself to transform the earth, sea, and air into elements hospitable to life. Life itself first brought about the conditions that favor life on the planet today,” he continued. “This is the great paradox and great miracle of life: it’s life itself that actually transformed the earth into a planet favorable for life.”

He closes with the literature of summer – the luncheons and garden parties in Virginia Woolfs novels, the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Christina Rossetti, and the “humming, inarticulate music that one can hear in one’s head that is in some kind of syntony with a season.”

Listen to the podcast here.

The larkspur listens, “I hear, I hear”;
And the lily whispers, “I wait.”

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers”: a story for the era of doxxing, “outing,” and our right to be left alone – Zoom discussion on Monday, August 24.

Monday, August 10th, 2020
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James: “the canals assume to the eye the importance of a stage…”

It’s two weeks to our special Zoom discussion of Henry James‘s short 1888 classic, The Aspern Papers. The Another Look book club will be hosting the event, in partnership with Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute, on Monday, August 24, 3-4:30 p.m. (Register for the event here.) If you haven’t read the short novel, you should – you really should. Those of you who associate Henry James with sentences that go on relentlessly for pages will be pleasantly surprised by this tight, yet psychologically insightful work.

The Aspern Papers was inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s correspondence with Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. (Shelley’s novel was featured in a January 2017 Another Look event.) Clairmont cherished the letters until her death. Of course, James transposes that into fiction – but it’s a lively and insightful read, and those daunted by James’s three-page-long sentences needn’t be afraid. The plot keeps a good pace in this psychologically insightful work, while treating us to the wonder that is Venice.

Himself

The story: an elderly invalid who once was the beloved of a renowned American poet, Jeffrey Aspern, lives in seclusion with her spinster niece in a Venetian palazzo. The unnamed narrator goes through elaborate machinations to gain access to her private papers and literary relics from the long-ago romance.

The story has new relevance for us today. “What James delivered, in 1888, was not some dusty antiquarian fable but a warning call against the cult of celebrity that was already on the rise, and against the modern insistence that artists and writers can – or should – be prized out of their work like cockles from a shell, for public consumption,” critic Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker. In the era of doxxing and “outing,” the story explores our right to be left alone, and our right to have secrets. At the heart of the book is the rapacious desire of one man to reach through time to possess another.

Tobias Wolff and Robert Pogue Harrison will lead the discussion. Acclaimed author Robert Harrison, professor of French and Italian, writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. Wolff, a Stanford professor emeritus of English, is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts.

Elena Danielson, director emerita of the Hoover Library & Archives, will offer a few remarks as the author of The Ethical Archivist. And yours truly will have a few words to say on the occasion, too, as the author of the biography, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

Again, register here. We’d love to see you!

Christopher Lydon, Robert Pogue Harrison discuss our “worldwide theater of imitated desire”

Thursday, July 2nd, 2020
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“HISTORY IS A TEST FOR MANKIND, BUT WE KNOW VERY WELL THAT MANKIND IS FAILING THAT TEST.” – RENÉ GIRARD

Is Geryon an image of our time?

The tables are turned on Entitled Opinions’ Robert Pogue Harrison: public radio show host Christopher Lydon recently interviewed the interviewer for Open Source in Boston. The wide-ranging conversation considered the French theorist René Girard’s mimetic theory, the nature of warfare, the dangers of biotechnology, and the social media.

A recording of the conversation is available at the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Entitled Opinion channel here.

Mankind is an imitative species “with a terrible envy built into it, a competitive desire to be like some ideal of the other person,” Harrison said, citing the work of Girard. Facebook is the “perfect mechanical vehicle” of such envy. Facebook services mimetic needs with “a prosthetic self and a prosthetic social life and prosthetic friends.”

“We have this illusion that there’s nothing more proper to my inner self than my own desires,” said Harrison – but Girard challenges that assumption, showing that our desires are the result of imitation. No coincidence, then, that Facebook was “a worldwide theater of imitated desire on people’s personal computers,” he said. Certainly his former Stanford pupil Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook, understood the importance of Girard’s legacy when he said: “I suspect that when the history of the 20th century is written circa 2100, he will be seen as truly one of the great intellectuals, but it may still be a long time till it’s fully understood.”

Radio host Lydon

Imitation leads to violence, and Harrison noted that Girard is “more compelling in his diagnosis of the problem of violence rather than what he offers as an alternative.” Girard’s solution? “The refusal to retaliate he believed was the only sane recommendation in the face of this vortex that international violence could create,” said Harrison.

Harrison also took on the gene-editing boom: “In the name of doing good, you can license a lot of harm,” he said. “Mengele in Auschwitz will eventually be recognized as a visionary of the 20th century, although his methods will be condemned and his Nazi affiliations never endorsed.”

Radio host Harrison

Harrison, a Dante scholar, pointed out that the Inferno’s portrayal of sea-faring Ulysses was the “archetype of scientific discovery,” always heading to new frontiers of exploration and knowledge, which ultimately led to his death. “The line that’s being crossed today is taking the role of creation into our own hands and presuming to know better than nature.” He asked what the motivations behind biotechnology are. Dante’s Geryon, the furry monster who represents fraud in the Inferno, “has the face of a gentle, kind, smiling man, and the tail of a scorpion,” he said. “I want to know where the scorpion tail is hiding in this new explosion of biotech.”

Listen to the whole thing at The Los Angeles Review of Books here.

“THE ONE WHO BELIEVES HE CAN CONTROL VIOLENCE BY SETTING UP DEFENSES IS IN FACT CONTROLLED BY VIOLENCE.” – ROBERT HARRISON