Posts Tagged ‘Tobias Wolff’

 A triumph for Sándor Márai’s little-known classic Embers

Monday, October 23rd, 2017
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Another Look director Robert Harrison, with founding director Tobias Wolff

If you felt a slight tremor in the earth on Wednesday, October 18, the epicenter was at Stanford’s Encina Hall. The Another Look book club took on Sándor Márai‘s Embers – and the whole room rocked!

The event was close to a record-breaker, with about two hundred participants – not bad for an off-the-beaten track Hungarian novel (and only equaled by Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God).

Sándor Márai’s taut and mesmerizing novel, published in 1942, opens in a secluded Hungarian castle, where an old general awaits a reunion with a friend. It is 1940, and he has not appeared in public for decades. The long-estranged companions talk all night – or rather, the general talks, as the evasive visitor listens to the general discuss love, intimacy, honor, betrayal, and a beautiful, long-dead wife.

The novel is set against the backdrop of the disintegrated Austro-Hungarian empire, and shares the melancholy wisdom of its narrator: “We not only act, talk, think, dream, we also hold our silence about something. All our lives we are silent about who we are, which only we know, and about which we can speak to no one. Yet we know that who we are and what we cannot speak about constitutes the ‘truth.’ We are that about which we hold our silence.”

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He was joined by renowned author and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English at Stanford, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s Dean for Religious Life at Stanford.

Toby Wolff, Another Look’s founding director, opened by praising the courage of author Márai to sit down and create a remarkable novel about an all-night conversation – two men meet, but only one of them talks, and they persevere till dawn. The end. A daunting creative challenge that Márai pulls off magificently.

We were happy to see a lively Hungarian contingent in the audience, too – including the Hungarian Consul General for the Bay Area. And boy, did the Hungarians have a different take on the book – they praised Carol Brown Janeway‘s translation, but said that the richness of their native tongue is AWOL. And while Márai is little known west of the Danube, they assured us his books are everywhere in Budapest.

The podcast is here. And all photos, as always, are by by loyal Another Look aficionado David Schwartz.

Last call for Sándor Márai’s Embers: We’ll explore lies, betrayals, secrets, and honor on Wednesday, Oct. 18!

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017
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Little-known Hungarian author

Last call for Sándor Márai‘s taut and mesmerizing Embers, published in 1942. The novel opens in a secluded Hungarian castle, where an old general awaits a reunion with a friend. It is 1940, and he has not appeared in public for decades. The long-estranged companions talk all night – or rather, the general talks, as the evasive visitor listens to the general discuss love, intimacy, honor, betrayal, and a beautiful, long-dead wife. “We are our secrets,” he says.

The autumn “Another Look” event at Stanford will discuss Márai’s superb novel. The discussion will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 18, at the Bechtel Conference Center.

Haven’t got the book? There’s still time: go to Stanford Bookstore on the Stanford campus, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, or Bell’s Books in Palo Alto. It’s a quick read, as are all the Another Look books.

The novel is set against the backdrop of the disintegrated Austro-Hungarian empire, and shares the melancholy wisdom of its narrator: “We not only act, talk, think, dream, we also hold our silence about something. All our lives we are silent about who we are, which only we know, and about which we can speak to no one. Yet we know that who we are and what we cannot speak about constitutes the ‘truth.’ We are that about which we hold our silence.”

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by renowned author and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English at Stanford, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s Dean for Religious Life at Stanford. Wolff is founding director of Another Look, and of course many of you will remember Jane Shaw from our discussion of J.L. Carr‘s  A Month in the Country.

For Another Look newcomers, a map for the Bechtel Conference Center is here. The nearby Knight parking structure, underneath the nearby Graduate School of Business, has plenty of room for free parking (see here for a map). In addition, parking is available on Serra Street and in front of Encina Hall itself.

The Another Look book club takes on books that have been forgotten, neglected, or simply haven’t received the attention we think they merit. Again, all books are short, so they can be read in a few sittings.

All our events are free and open to the public – and please bring your friends! Come early for best seating.

 

 

“We are our secrets”: Hungarian author Sándor Márai’s Embers at Stanford on Oct. 18

Monday, October 2nd, 2017
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Little-known Hungarian author

Sándor Márai‘s taut and mesmerizing Embers, published in 1942, opens in a secluded Hungarian castle, where an old general awaits a reunion with a friend. It is 1940, and he has not appeared in public for decades. The long-estranged companions talk all night – or rather, the general talks, as the evasive visitor listens to the general discuss love, intimacy, honor, betrayal, and a beautiful, long-dead wife. “We are our secrets,” he says.

The autumn “Another Look” event at Stanford will discuss Márai’s superb novel. The discussion will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 18, at the Bechtel Conference Center.

The novel is set against the backdrop of the disintegrated Austro-Hungarian empire, and shares the melancholy wisdom of its narrator: “We not only act, talk, think, dream, we also hold our silence about something. All our lives we are silent about who we are, which only we know, and about which we can speak to no one. Yet we know that who we are and what we cannot speak about constitutes the ‘truth.’ We are that about which we hold our silence.”

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by renowned author and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English at Stanford, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s Dean for Religious Life at Stanford. Wolff is founding director of Another Look, and of course many of you will remember Jane Shaw from our discussion of J.L. Carr‘s  A Month in the Country.

The Another Look book club takes on books that have been forgotten, neglected, or simply haven’t received the attention we think they merit. Here’s another draw: all books are short, so they can be read in a few sittings.

All our events are free and open to the public – and please bring your friends! Come early for best seating.

 

A glorious evening with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God!

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016
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dsc09023Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God made for an exuberant and provocative discussion on the evening of Monday, October 24 – and a record-breaking amount of audience participation. It was a full house, and it rocked. Couldn’t make it? The podcast is already available here.

Another Look’s director Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the lively discussion as best he could. Harrison is an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, “Entitled Opinions.”

theireyeswatchinggod-pb-cHe was joined by Aleta Hayes, Stanford dance lecturer and founder of the dance troupe Chocolate Heads, and Tobias Wolff, National Medal of Arts winner, who is one of America’s foremost writers, as well as an English professor emeritus at Stanford. And perhaps the spirit of Hurston as well. (Among the podcast highlights: Aleta sings the spiritual that’s in the book.)

Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected have been Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces you may not have read before.

Loyal Another Look fan and photographer David Schwartz recorded the caught the flavor of the discussion in the photos below.

 

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Join us on Monday, Oct. 24, for Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, an American masterpiece!

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016
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“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
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Almost forgotten, now a classic

Zora Neale Hurston was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Then she all but disappeared, finally working in obscurity as a substitute teacher and a maid before her 1960 death in a county welfare home. The folklorist, anthropologist, and writer left behind four novels as well as short stories, plays, and essays. Foremost among them is Their Eyes Were Watching God, the passionate, exuberant tale of a woman’s journey to reclaim herself. The book will be Another Look’s fall offering.

For thirty years after its 1937 publication, Their Eyes was out of print and attacked for its portrayal of black people, when it was remembered at all. By the 1970s, however, it had been rediscovered as a masterpiece. Pulitzer prizewinning author Alice Walker wrote, “There is no book more important to me than this one.”

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Aleta, a Stanford star

Join us for a discussion of this short, mesmerizing American classic at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, October 24, at Encina Hall’s Bechtel Conference Center on the Stanford campus.

Another Look’s director Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. Harrison is an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, “Entitled Opinions.” He will be joined by Aleta Hayes, Stanford dance lecturer and founder of the dance troupe Chocolate Heads, and Tobias Wolff, National Medal of Arts winner, who is one of America’s foremost writers, as well as an English professor emeritus at Stanford.

Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected have been Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces you may not have read before.

The event is free and open to the public. Come early for best seats. Books are available at the Stanford Bookstore on the Stanford campus, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.

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The Stanford book club that rocks the news

Friday, April 22nd, 2016
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Toby Wolff’s Another Look send-off last spring. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Author Peter Stansky‘s “A Company of Authors,” the annual event where Stanford authors present their books, had its best day ever last Saturday. As I told Stanford Report“The author presentations were eloquent and excellent, without exception, and the audience questions ensured the discussion was spirited and intelligent.” And longtime Hoover fellow Paul Caringella even gave an impromptu pitch for my forthcoming René Girard biography. What’s not to like?

“I always find these occasions extremely exhilarating,” Peter said. “The heart of the university is the life of the mind and you could not have a better example of that than in the books that their authors presented here today.”

Well, you can read the whole thing here. Nearly everyone stayed through all the presentations, and the excited and audible buzz in the lobby afterwards told the story.

And I told a story, too, during my ten-minute solo for “The Wonderful World of Books at Stanford.” Peter introduced me as “the leading figure at Stanford in keeping us involved in so many exciting ways in the world of books.” So I took up the cause of the Another Look book club it has been my privilege to manage for four years. Here’s what I said:

I’m here to tell you the Another Look story. It’s a good story, and I’ve been proud to be part of it. I think you’ll like it because it’s a story about books finding their people.

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Founder Tobias Wolff. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Four years ago, the distinguished author Tobias Wolff – who was recently named a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts – approached me with an idea: he wanted to create a forum where members of the community would interact with Stanford writers, scholars, and literary figures in the world beyond, to talk about the books they love. He wanted the first book to be a beloved favorite, William Maxwells So Long See You Tomorrow. He asked me if I could make all this happen. Frankly, I have to say, I was doubtful. The term “book club” did not have good associations for me. But as we hashed it out, I realized my issues were two-fold: first, I figured most people, like me, didn’t have the hours and hours to read long books of other people’s choosing; and second, the books tended to be mainstream, middlebrow, middle-of-the-road “safe” choices.

Inspired by Maxwell’s novel, we decided that we would focus on short books – short enough for Bay Area professionals who are pressed for time, and who may spend their days going through legal briefs or medical documents. Also, we would focus on books that were forgotten, overlooked, or simply haven’t received the audience they merit. We would call it “Another Look.” It would be for people who wanted to be part of the world of books and literature – a world they may have lost touch with once they left university. They would be connoisseurs’ choices for books you must read – discussed and even championed by the people who love them.

Not delusional. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Nobless oblige. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

We had a full house the first night, and our audiences have been steadily climbing upward ever since. One highpoint: for Philip Roth‘s The Ghost Writer, we were joined by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. It was the only time to date we have had a living author. And although he had become something of a recluse, I decided to see if I could interview him. The subsequent Q&A was published on The Book Haven and republished in La Repubblica, Le Monde, and Die Welt. It made the international press, and the high-profile Another Look was featured in The Guardian.

Toby retired … or said he was going to retire … last year (he was recalled for another year, but that’s another story). When we announced that Another Look was going to close shop a year ago, we got record numbers of people attending our event for Albert Camus‘s The Stranger – a book, Toby claimed, that was more honored than read. One member in the audience, the acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, stepped forward that night to offer to assume the directorship of the program. We’ve developed subscribers’ list pushing up to 1,400. Our February’s event with Werner Herzog at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, discussing J.A. Baker‘s The Peregrine, is now on youtube, in both highlights and full-length version. (The event was covered by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Caille Millner here.) The repercussions of that powerful book event will continue to unfold in the months to come.

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker’s book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

It’s been enormously gratifying for me personally to be the point of contact with all of you in our book-loving Bay Area community – and sometimes around the nation and world, too. We have one aficionado driving in from Carmel – others write from far-flung places to tell me they’re reading along with us. And Toby has talked about this program, during his speaking engagements around the country. He’s proud of his brainchild, too.

Why am I so keen on this program? Because it’s rocked my world. Those who know me as a literary journalist know that I’ve sunk my time into the world of Eastern European poets, particularly Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, and more recently, into the French theorist René Girard, a longtime Stanford faculty member, a dear friend, and the subject of my biography. Hence, there are huge holes in my knowledge of modern fiction, and particularly American fiction. Without too much investment of time, I’ve caught up with a lot of writers I’d somehow missed. No membership fees, no meetings with minutes, no commitments – just show up, please!

So please join us next month, on Tuesday, May 10, at the Bechtel Conference Center, when we discuss Joseph Conrads novella The Shadow-Line. The story will run in Stanford Report Monday and be on the Stanford news website – we have books in the lobby. Meanwhile, take some freshly minted bookmarks – and take a few for your friends who might be interested, too.

Tobias Wolff’s advice as a mentor: “Just don’t lose the magic.”

Thursday, February 25th, 2016
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Toby speaking at Stanford Libraries (photo: Sonia Lee)

Last fall, the New Yorker ran a story about author Tobias Wolff, recent recipient of a National Medal for the Arts. The article describes Stanford’s generous and gifted writer in his less celebrated role as a mentor. George Saunders, the author, makes a great witness; he is a recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships – Toby’s mentoring, in this case, was very successful. The New Yorker piece is taken from a new book, A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors (edited by Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker, University of Massachusetts Press). 

In case there are a few others who missed the story (as I had), I humbly offer this late post, with an arrow back to Saunders’s original story, “My Writing Education: A Timeline” here. Saunders’s charming mini-memoir goes some way to explaining why Toby is one of the most beloved faculty members at Stanford. And it’s a good thing it’s charming, because, as Saunders writes later: “Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing ones’ particular charms. To say that ‘a light goes on’ is not quite right—it’s more like: a fixture gets installed. Only many years later (see below) will the light go on.”

The friendship had its beginnings in February 1986, when Toby called the home of Saunders’s parents in Amarillo, Texas to tell him he had been admitted to the Syracuse Creative Writing Program, where Toby was teaching back in the 80s: “I call back, holding Back in the World in my hands. … He’s kind and patient and doesn’t make me feel like an idiot. I do that myself, once I hang up.”

Inauspicious beginnings…perhaps, but it got better:

“After the orientation meeting the program goes dancing. Afterward, Toby and I agree we are too drunk to let either him or me drive the car home, that car, which we are pretty sure is his car, if there is a sweater in the back. There is! We walk home, singing, probably, “Helplessly Hoping.” In his kitchen, we eat some chicken that his wife Catherine has prepared for something very important tomorrow, something for which there will be no time to make something else.

“I leave, happy to have made a new best friend.”

mannerofbeing Not so fast! The next day: “I wake, chagrined at my over-familiarity, and vow to thereafter keep a respectful distance from Professor Wolff and his refrigerator.”

Perhaps my favorite passage, which is very Toby, from later that semester:

At a party, I go up to Toby and assure him that I am no longer writing the silly humorous crap I applied to the program with, i.e., the stuff that had gotten me into the program in the first place. Now I am writing more seriously, more realistically, nothing made up, nothing silly, everything directly from life, no exaggeration or humor—you know: “real writing.”

Toby looks worried. But quickly recovers.

“Well, good!” he says. “Just don’t lose the magic.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. Why would I do that? That would be dumb.

I go forward and lose all of the magic, for the rest of my time in grad school and for several years thereafter.

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Gratitude. (Photo David Shankbone, Creative Commons)

Last anecdote, and you’re on your own (you’ll have to read the rest of the story here):”Toby has the grad students over to watch A Night at the Opera. Mostly I watch Toby, with his family. He clearly adores them, takes visible pleasure in them, dotes on them. I have always thought great writers had to be dysfunctional and difficult, incapable of truly loving anything, too insane and unpredictable and tortured to cherish anyone, or honor them, or find them beloved.” I’ve seen it, too. He’s a great all-round human being, and greatly adored. Perhaps he was a good role model for Saunders’s own long marriage with writer Paula Redick, a writer he met in those early days at Syracuse. They were engaged in three weeks, “a Syracuse Creative Writing Program record that, I believe, still stands.”

Oh, I know, you read all that stuff about Toby retiring last year. Yeah, I believed it, too. Read about him coming out of retirement, and much else, in a Q&A at the Stanford Daily here.

J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country on October 19! Here’s 10 things you didn’t know about the book and the author.

Saturday, October 17th, 2015
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Carr by a quince tree, 1969 (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)

Stanford’s Another Look book club spotlights masterpieces that have been forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise just haven’t received the audience they merit. J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Country fits the bill perfectly. Other than an excellent biography by Byron Rogers, The Last Englishman, you’ll find little on the pitch-perfect book or its idiosyncratic, stubborn, and deeply private author.

That’s another reason to come to the Another Look discussion of A Month in the Country will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, October 19, at the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall on Serra Street on the Stanford campus. The conversation will be moderated by Robert Pogue Harrison, Another Look’s new director, along with acclaimed author Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English, and Jane Shaw, dean of religious life at Stanford and author of several books.

Parking is readily available around Encina Hall’s Bechtel Conference Center – a map is here. The nearby Knight parking structure, underneath the nearby Graduate School of Business, has plenty of room for free parking (see here for a map). In addition, parking is available on Serra Street and in front of Encina Hall itself. Humble Moi will be at the front door by 6 p.m. for early arrivals, just to make sure you get in and save a seat.

Meanwhile, here’s ten things you probably didn’t know about the book or its author:

1. Carr’s book was born of a frustrating, decade-long endeavor to save a dilapidated 14th century Northamptonshire church. Read about it here.

2. “Splendid in their day – but not now.” Old English churches today are a staid affair, compared with their previous lives in the medieval centuries, where they were a riot of texture and color. Plus a short BBC film clip about how the stunning restoration of a Welsh church changed a village – which sheds some background on Tom Birkin’s labor to uncover a 14th century painting. Read about it here.

carrbook3. “He was my Dad, he wasn’t exceptional to me.'” J.L. Carr’s son doesn’t quite understand the fuss. “Carr was not an open man, neither was Bob, so theirs had been a perfectly friendly relationship with few confidences exchanged but no confrontations either,” wrote Carr’s biographer. “The result is that when you ask Bob Carr questions about his father, you sometimes feel you might just as well as be asking them of the lodger.” Read about it here.

4. “Thoo’s ga-ing ti git rare an’ soaaked reet doon ti thi skin, maister.” The Yorkshire accent was as mystifying to Tom Birkin as it is to Americans. Where did it come from? A short explanation, with a video clip on how the wrangling between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons can still be heard on the Yorkish tongue today. It’s here.

5. “This was the book nobody rejected, because they did not get the chance,” wrote Byron Rogers of A Month in the Country. But here are a few of the few words that have been said about this 1980 classic.

6. “’It was a sort of stage-magic’ : the Yorkshire countryside.” If you’ve never been to Yorkshire, here‘s your chance. A short video about the dales, rivers, and ethos of England’s enchanting county, a backdrop for Carr’s novel.

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The author in Wales. (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)

7. “Hell? Passchendaele had been hell.” In the terrible history of the 20th century, the horrors of World War I were quickly overwhelmed by a greater war, but Passchendaele was unforgettable for those who remember the fear and the mud. It also marked the Germans’ introduction of mustard gas. Read about it here.

8. Penelope Fitzgerald, J.L. Carr, and the “death of the spirit we must fear.” The Booker award-winning author discusses Carr’s “nostalgia for something we have never had.” Read it here.

9. “Apples are the only exam I could ever hope to pass.” Carr would have been aware of the invasion of commercial apples, which was beginning about the time he wrote A Month in the Country. Have English apple-eaters have been seduced by the shiny red skins of foreign rivals? Read about it here.

10. Why Sara van Fleet and Wensleydale? Why did Carr pluck the Sara van Fleet rose for Alice Keach? And what’s so special about Wensleydale? Find out here.

Stanford’s Another Look book club reborn with J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015
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The author next to a quince tree, 1969. (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)

The British novelist J.L. Carr had an implacable side. “Once he started something, he never let it drop,” his son recalled.

One example: Carr, a primary school headmaster, was wandering through a Northamptonshire village in 1964 when he ran across a dilapidated 14th-century church. Spending more than a decade in a tireless letter-writing campaign to restore the building, Carr battled bureaucrats, vandals, and a pilfering vicar. Eventually, the matter landed in the lap of the Queen of England.

From that infuriating experience was born a tender masterpiece: A Month in the Country, a late-life novel published in 1980, when Carr was well into his 60s. In the short book, two shell-shocked veterans of World War I look for healing and happiness in a Yorkshire village. One is restoring a medieval painting on the wall of the old church; the other is looking for a long-lost grave.

The Another Look book club will discuss the short novel at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19, at the Bechtel Conference Center in Stanford’s Encina Hall. Another Look events, which focus on off-the-beaten-track novels, are free and open to the public. (Stanford Bookstore and Kepler’s in Menlo Park are stocking Carr’s book.)

Another Look was founded by the distinguished author Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English. With his retirement this year, the book club was itself slated for demolition. The popular program has now been revived for its fourth season under the aegis of Stanford Continuing Studies, with Robert Pogue Harrison, a Stanford professor of Italian literature and an acclaimed author in his own right, as the new director. Harrison is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and host for the radio talk show Entitled Opinions.

For the Oct. 19 discussion, Harrison will be joined by Wolff, who received the National Medal of Arts this month, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s new dean for religious life at Stanford and author of several books.

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Silent, watchful. (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)

“When I attended the last meeting of Another Look this past spring, I knew that no one had offered to take over for Tobias,” said Harrison. “Seeing the crush of people at Levinthal Hall fifteen minutes before starting time, with standing room only, eager to hear a discussion of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, I realized how much this book series means to people at Stanford and in the surrounding community. I felt it would be a real shame to let it let it die, so I offered to take over the directorship. And here we are, ready to go.”

Carr’s pitch-perfect short novel earned a Guardian Fiction Prize and was short-listed for a prestigious Booker Prize when it was published. The book’s fame was briefly outstripped by the 1987 film version, which effectively marked the film debuts of Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, and Natasha Richardson. The highly praised film was neglected after its release and finally rescued from oblivion by determined fans in recent years. The book, however, has a brisker pace, a quiet wit, a charm of its own – and a more enduring life.

“I read A Month in the Country about 10 years ago and was enchanted by its style, landscapes and themes,” said Harrison. “If any book fits the bill of Another Look – namely, a short novel from the past that richly deserves another look – it is Carr’s gem of a narrative, which takes on all sorts of different sorts of hues, depending on how you view it.”

carrbookCarr was the son of a Yorkshire stationmaster who was also a Wesleyan lay preacher. He eventually moved to Northamptonshire, where he was a teacher and schoolmaster for decades. He had a reputation for eccentricity: on school sports days, for example, he would set up Arithmetic Races where students had to complete sums at trackside blackboards before running on.

He decided to chuck it and become a writer. His first novel was published when he was in his 50s. To make ends meet, he founded Quince Tree Press, a publishing house that offered hand-illustrated county maps, idiosyncratic dictionaries and small, 5″ X 3.5″ editions of great poets, for less than the cost of a greeting card. It published the works of J.L. Carr as well – and still does.

But it was hard for Carr to build a literary reputation when each of his books was entirely different, in style, subject and outlook. The Harpole Report, for example, is a novel mostly in the form of a teacher’s log; the comedy writer Frank Muir called it “the funniest and perhaps the truest story about running a school that I ever have read.” As a result, Carr had a cult following, but no mainstream success until A Month in the Country.

Fame didn’t change him. He remained in Kettering, Northamptonshire, publishing books at Quince Tree Press, which is now headed by his son, Bob Carr. The author died in 1994 of leukemia, at age 81.

His biographer Byron Rogers described his visit to Carr’s deathbed as “uneasy bonhomie on my part, and silence and watchfulness on his.” Then he adds, “Though the irony is that most conversations with Jim Carr had been like that.”

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The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the websiteanotherlook.stanford.edu is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events. The website also has additional articles about J.L. Carr and other information on the Oct. 19 discussion.

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Firth and Branagh in the celebrated and long-lost film.

Tobias Wolff at the White House for the National Medal of Arts!

Thursday, September 10th, 2015
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“A social act, in solitude.” (Screenshot from the White House)

“Time, which is your enemy in almost everything in this life, is your friend in writing,” Tobias Wolff once wrote. It certainly seems to be the case for him: he just bagged one of the top awards in America, a few short months after his formal retirement!

Toby was at the White House today, where President Obama awarded him the National Medal of the Arts, the nation’s highest honor for writers, artists, and art patrons.  Who could deserve it more? He has been a generous mentor and guiding spirit to so many at Stanford and beyond – and I, personally, am grateful for many kindnesses. And that’s before we’ve even gotten to his novels, memoirs, and collections of short stories! Oh, and the articles, most recently in The New Yorker – I wrote about one of them here. The Book Haven has written about him here and here and here and here. And he was on the Colbert Report here.

medal_big-revA video of the White House award is on youtube here. According to the citation, “With wit and compassion, Mr. Wolff’s work reflects the truths of our human experience.” Well, others have put it better. Wyatt Mason wrote in the London Review of Books, “Typically, his protagonists face an acute moral dilemma, unable to reconcile what they know to be true with what they feel to be true. Duplicity is their great failing, and Wolff’s main theme.”

Here’s what Toby himself said on the occasion of his glory: “Every award is special to me, as a reminder that the work you perform in solitude is also a social act – that you’re not just talking to yourself, that what you do can stir a response in others. It’s easy to forget that, when you spend your hours sweating over the choice of a word, taking semicolons out and putting them back in. But of course I’m not so jaded as not to feel particular gratitude at receiving this award from the hands of our president – a man I greatly admire.”

It’s not his first award by a longshot. By my reckoning, that would be way back in 1981, when Toby received the O. Henry Award for “In the Garden of North American Martyrs,” and the following year for “Next Door.” He won the same award a third time, in 1985, for “Sister.” The same year he won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for The Barracks Thief. 1989 brought two more awards: a Whiting Award for Fiction and Nonfiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Biography for This Boy’s Life. In 1989, was awarded the Rea Award for the Short Story. In 2006, he won the PEN/Malamud Award. In 2008, he was awarded The Story Prize for the Our Story Begins: New and Collected Stories. That’s a lot of awards. (And his film adaptations are another kind of accolade – This Boy’s Life became a feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Ellen Barkin; in 2001, his short story “Bullet in the Brain” was made into a short film.)

What can we say besides … Congratulations, Toby! So much has been said about him, and I’ve written about him so much myself – in addition to the links above, here and here and here and here. And on one of his birthdays, I reprinted some of his excellent words about being a writer – it’s here. But I never really thought of him as epigrammatic, until I found these passages in the course of an online search. So I share them, in the spirit of celebration:

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Presiding over Another Look book club last spring. (Photo: David Schwartz)

“The beauty of a fragment is that it still supports the hope of brilliant completeness.”

“Lose Faith. Pray anyway. Persist. We are made to persist, to complete the whole tour. That’s how we find out who we are.”

“Fearlessness in those without power is maddening to those who have it.”

“Knowing that everything comes to an end is a gift of experience, a consolation gift for knowing that we ourselves are coming to an end. Before we get it we live in a continuous present, and imagine the future as more of that present. Happiness is endless happiness, innocent of its own sure passing. Pain is endless pain.”

“When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters. We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever.”

“I have never been able to understand the complaint that a story is “depressing” because of its subject matter. What depresses me are stories that don’t seem to know these things go on, or hide them in resolute chipperness; “witty stories,” in which every problem is the occasion for a joke; “upbeat” stories that flog you with transcendence. Please. We’re grown ups now.”

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With Stanford Humanities Center Director Caroline Winterer for Another Look book club. (Photo: David Schwartz)

“In the very act of writing I felt pleased with what I did. There was the pleasure of having words come to me, and the pleasure of ordering them, re-ordering them, weighing one against another. Pleasure also in the imagination of the story, the feeling that it could mean something. Mostly I was glad to find out that I could write at all. In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming. It toughens you and clears your head. I could feel it happening. I was saving my life with every word I wrote, and I knew it.”

“I was giving up – being realistic, as people liked to say, meaning the same thing. Being realistic made me feel bitter.”

“When your power comes from others, on approval, you are their slave. Never sacrifice yourselves – never! Whoever urges you to self-sacrifice is worse than a common murderer, who at least cuts your throat himself, without persuading YOU to do it.”

“Reasons always came with a purpose, to give the appearance of a struggle between principle and desire. Principle had power only until you found what you had to have.”

“The very act of writing assumes, to begin with, that someone cares to hear what you have to say. It assumes that people share, that people can be reached, that people can be touched and even in some cases changed. So many of the things in our world lead us to despair. It seems to me that the final symptom of despair is silence, and that storytelling is one of the sustaining arts; it’s one of the affirming arts. A writer may have a certain pessimism in his outlook, but the very act of being a writer seems to me to be an optimistic act.”

“Want! You must want something. What do you want?”

“There’s no right way to tell all stories, only the right way to tell a particular story.”