Posts Tagged ‘William Shakespeare’

Twelfth Night, or Ain’t Karma a Bitch?

Sunday, January 5th, 2014
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Henry IV Part 1

Age to youth: “Listen up.” Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston

 

We don’t know quite what went wrong with Henry IV – scholars have suggested a skin leprosy, or epilepsy, or congenital syphilis, or a series of strokes – but it begins at the end of Henry IV, Part I, in the recent BBC production of William Shakespeare‘s Henriad tetralogy, The Hollow Crown, and continues through all of Henry IV, part 2.  He was 46 at his death.

We discussed this and other subjects, en famille, during our Twelfth Night celebrations last night, which included viewings of Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1.  Then Shakespeare exhaustion set in before we could soldier on to Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V.

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Kinnear as the brash young Henry

I still cling to my original judgments about Ben Whishaw‘s interpretation of Richard II as a whiny, self-indulgent drama queen.  As a result, he’s a bore when he should soar. All the critics disagreed with me, but fortunately my family didn’t. That’s what family is for, after all.  As I’ve written before, I think both the Henry IVs – Rory Kinnear in Richard II, and Jeremy Irons in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 – turn in masterful, unforgettable, and  largely underrated performances.  Someone on my Facebook page today described Irons’s Henry IV as “world weary,” but that’s only a small part of it; he’s haunted, and trying desperately to rectify the terrible mistakes he’s made as health and force seep from him, as the dynamism and initiative is inevitably passing to younger, more able players, who are destined to make many of the same blind mistakes. Honestly, when you run down the annals of English history – any history, really – it’s amazing how short a span some of the great kings and conquerors held sway.  Whether terrifying tyrants or benign despots, they come, they conquer, and then hold power for maybe a decade or two before they are buried; they spend most of their active years defending their turf. In the meantime, by middle age, all of us have seen the Hotspurs who have burst forth, and burned brightly before they exploded, leaving only a brief trace in the sky.  It all repeats.

When I studied Carl Jung decades ago, I remember reading something to the effect that the first half of life is action and ego, the second half is reflection and digestion. It sounded like middle age would be awfully dull at the time I was reading – not so much now. The quest for understanding, reconciliation, and mercy are largely second-half endeavors, when one begins to grasp the heartbreaking fragility of the whole human enterprise. (I know, I know… it’s not hard to find exceptions. But it’s hard to envision a middle-aged Hotspur.) The paradigm plays out in these dramas, where the men who wield the swords and make the calls spend their later lives in remorse, trying to remedy what they did when their blood ran hot and consequences seemed far away.  The patterns of fate and choice are sealed and the rest is detail – impossible to wholly rescind the terrible chain of causes and effects already unleashed.  For Henry IV, his destruction of an anointed king opens a floodgate of dynastic challengers and new wars invited by his choices. In a pre-democratic age, he’s ushered in a parody of democracy: whoever has the most votes wins the crown, but the figurative votes are cast by a small claque of nobles with clubs.  The losers meet the ax or exile.  Hence, the ageing king is desperate to convince his young son, Prince Hal, of the potential consequences of folly and dereliction – not only for him personally, but for the lives of his family, the stability of the country, and hundreds of nobodies who will be buried in battlefields during unpleasant uprisings.

It’s a shame that this magnificent production passes over the  Jerusalem theme. Henry IV plans a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as penance for the death of Richard II, but it’s akin to those New Year resolutions that one keeps putting off until, in this case, age and death stake their claims. A prophecy says Henry IV will die in Jerusalem, and he longs for the journey east – instead, he dies in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster.  And so the torch passes, to the seventh son of the seventh son. The night before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V prays (and I believe this, too, was cut from the new production, though I’ll have to doublecheck):

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“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”: Champers and gâteau des Rois for 12th Night.

… Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither’d hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon.

In other words, is it “real” repentance if you get to keep the stuff?  Good intentions don’t seem to count for much.  I like T.S. Eliot‘s lines in “Little Gidding”:

the rending pain of re-enactment
.  Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
.  Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
.  Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

Henry IV knows this in his bones. As he slides towards the grave he reaches back with increasing anger and urgency, trying to right the ship he himself has unsteadied with his actions.

I didn’t care all that much for Simon Russell Beale‘s Falstaff.  Mark Lawson at The Guardian called him “a portrait of ambition and intelligence chiselled away by appetite.” That sounds about right, but I have to agree with the anonymous comment over at The Telegraph: “The problem with this adaptation is that without a charismatic Falstaff, nothing in the rest of the cycle makes sense. You need to be able to see why Falstaff commands these ruffians as their magnetic centre, why Hal is drawn to him.” Otherwise, his fall from Hal’s grace is poignant but not profound.  In Tom Hiddleston‘s performance, I think the scales fall from Hal’s eyes after the death of Hotspur, when Falstaff’s lies take on a macabre, unsettling, and potentially perilous direction. By the end of Henry IV, Part 2, with the drawn-out death of his father, the new king Henry V “gets it.” But then, of course, he, too dies a few years later of dysentery after the Siege of Meaux. The Lancaster dynasty would end with the son he never saw, an infant when the new father died at 35.

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Defending the humanities: “Show, don’t tell.”

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013
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bauerlein

Take the “no-brainer option.” And hurry.

Earlier today, a friend brought my attention to Mark Bauerlein‘s defense of the humanities over at the New Criterion.  Like me, he is frustrated by the misguided arguments advanced to defend the humanities (I wrote about that recently, here and here and here).

His diagnosis of the disease:

In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted. No doubt, all of the defenders love particular novels and films, symphonies and paintings, but those objects play no role in their best defense. Ironically, the approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities.

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Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Pericles” in Washington D.C., supported by NEA

What an odd angle, and an ineffectual one. Think of it from the perspective of two individuals whose decisions directly affect the humanities, one of them a twenty-year-old sophomore picking classes for spring term, the other a sixty-year-old state legislator on a committee setting the year’s higher education budget. If the sophomore avoids humanities courses, she hurts enrollment numbers for the fields, a factor in how a dean allocates resources across departments. If the politician discerns no palpable gain from humanities instruction, he will steer funds to technical colleges and vocational programs. What will change their minds? …

The advantages they promise are too vague and deferred (“to know something of other civilizations,” “opportunities for integrative thinking,” “act adroitly,” “we’re human”), especially in contrast to other options (“major in speech therapy and become a speech therapist—there’s a shortage!”). Besides, social science fields claim the same insights, such as the anthropologist who rejoins, “And we don’t study what it means to be human?!” Hard scientists, too, might add, “You want critical thinking? Learn the scientific method!”

Tepid and half-credible, these fuzzy encouragements sound ever more vain and dispirited the more they circulate. They exhort the public to appreciate the humanities, but, with the grounds so abstract and promissory, the appeal falls flat. The failure comes down to bad marketing. The defenders misconstrue their audience. They think that support for the humanities will stand on the anticipation of a job skill, a civic sense, or moral self-improvement, but these future benefits are insufficient to youths worried about debt, politicians about revenue, and employers about workplace needs. No, students enroll and politicians fund and donors donate for a different reason, because they care about the humanities themselves, and they care about them because they’ve had a compelling exposure to a specific work. …

Then he brings up an interesting point.  Most of us were taught, somewhere in our zillion years of education, to “show, don’t tell” when writing. Have the folks in the humanities, of all places, forgotten that fundamental lesson? 

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Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s “Othello,” supported by NEA

My former boss Dana Gioia understood it well. As Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (2003–09), he was obligated to use the bully pulpit and summon local and national, public and private support for museums, orchestras, and after-school arts programs. It was a delicate task partly because of the suspicion conservatives retained for this agency at the center of the Culture Wars ten years earlier, and partly because saying the wrong thing could jeopardize the annual request for funding from Congress.

In the early 2000s, as No Child Left Behind pressed schools to cut arts, theater, dance, and music programs, organizations such as Americans for the Arts offered standard reasons for arts education including the commercial value of arts investments, better reading and math scores by kids in schools with music instruction, and behavioral improvements for kids in theater programs. Gioia recited them dutifully, but relied at critical times on another one: direct exposure. When he conceived a national initiative called Shakespeare in American Communities with a large in-school component, he might have presented it to Members of Congress in testimony backed by the usual moral and economic corollaries. But instead, he hosted an event on Capitol Hill for Members and invited 5th-graders from Rafe Esquith’s legendary Shakespeare program in Los Angeles to show up in Elizabethan garb and perform scenes and soliloquies for them.

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Shakespeare & Co.’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”

The event proved the point. The kids acted splendidly, and a few Members themselves grabbed a costume and declaimed lines, reenacting their own school days and drama club. The politicians had heard every rationale for cultural programs before, but the call of “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” they could not withstand. Gioia got the funding—and heaps of good will, too.

Exposure works better than explanation, participation better than entreaty. The humanities defenders, mistakenly, try to persuade and coerce when they should intrigue, excite, fascinate, and inspire. Why humanities defenders neglect this no-brainer option, why they lay down their strongest weapons, is a mystery only if we forget the turn from primary texts decades earlier.

Read the whole thing here.

The questionable utility of the dancing bear, or, the future of the humanities

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013
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dancing-bear

The role of the humanities in our society

The New York Times has run an article “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,” once again decrying declining enrollment.  I don’t understand why this should come as a surprise to anyone. The humanities are devalued everywhere you look in our society – so why should kids study them?  The humanities are prized only when we can hook them up to consumer interests, make them turn a coin, demand that they entertain us.  There’s always the implicit threat that if we can’t get the bear to dance, the poor old fellow will be put down.

In the world of education, we value humanities only if we can team people onto digital projects that make cool onscreen images or turn them into rap lyrics to make them palatable for the kids. I applaud a lot of these efforts, and appreciate their intent, but they’re rather beside the point.  Coolness and likeability aren’t the reason Ovid was exiled, why Osip Mandelstam died scavenging a rubbish heap in a transit camp, why Reinhold Schneider was slated for trial and probable execution had the Third Reich not fallen first, or why André Brink was banned in South Africa.  And it certainly wasn’t why Joseph Brodsky, when I studied with him, made us memorize hundreds of lines of Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Thomas Hardy, and others – in fact, it made him distinctly unfashionable; some kids fled the class rather than make the effort.  William Shakespeare can be mutilated, but he can’t be tamed.  As one teacher said, after a student had made a snarky, sophomoric comment about Hamlet:  “Mister, when you read Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s not on trial. You are.”  And that is the point.

André_Brink_Portrait

Censored in South Africa (Photo: Creative Commons)

The tacit, self-calming assumption behind our continual cuts in the arts and humanities has always been always that the eternal things are durable, and will survive our neglect.  However, these values must be inculcated and passed on – a baby isn’t born appreciating the subtleties of Piero della Francesco or Raoul Dufy, after all.  Anything that isn’t fed eventually withers.  (I know; I have a garden to prove it.)  I’m told by those who teach that we now have a generation of young people who, in large measure, no longer ponder the terms of their existence or question their reason for being.  Tomorrow is for another pizza, aceing the PSAT, or another video game.  The “Holocaust” is a description of a description of Black Friday sales; the Civil Rights movement has something to do with … what?  Will I be graded on it?  I know, I know – it’s the “same old,” isn’t it?  But a serious study of history, another one of the humanities, would show that civilization is a delicate, perishable thing, appearing and disappearing throughout the centuries, and we can never take its continuance for granted (read Constantine Cavafy, Zbigniew Herbert, or the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam). When we don’t pass it on, we break a fundamental chain of civilization. We’ll pay the price down the road … wait, we already are … but it’s not taking the form we had anticipated.

Reinhold-SchneiderI’m also tired of cheesy efforts to defend the humanities, which pander to the standards of our society, which are themselves a broken fence in need of repair. In any case, he fence is broken, in part, by the abandonment of literature, art, and music as the commitment of a civilized society, rather than a “frill.” I’m not saying a Haydn string quartet will save your life, but what often passes for music when I’m put on “hold” when calling my credit card company might be seen as the shocking invasion of psychological space that it is.  Sloppy thinking is everywhere, and not the province of one political party or the other – and the fact that it is inevitably attributed to the “other” in itself shows what a bad pass we’ve come to (it’s something that might have been corrected with an introductory study of Carl Jung, or René Girard, for that matter). Our political life is riddled with clichés that should be jeered offstage, because it’s a nasty way to use your Mother Tongue.  Technology, which has the power for good, has accelerated our race to the bottom, just as nuclear power, which could rescue nations, propels us toward annihilation.

Rant over.  Whew!  Not to worry!  I’m back on my medication now.  More on this subject in the coming days…from better minds than Humble Moi!  I’ll start with one of them, Michel Serres, of Stanford and the Académie Française.  I’ve featured it before, and recently, but if you haven’t seen it, please listen to his description of the fate of the humanities.  It’s not pretty.

 

The Hollow Crown – last chance to catch these four Shakespeare histories, for free

Saturday, October 12th, 2013
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bolingbroke

Rory Kinnear’s Bolingbroke should get more love.

The Shakespeare-deniers, of course, say the upstart from Stratford could not have written the plays, that it must have been some nobleman in Elizabeth’s court – how, they ask, would a glover’s son know the way courtiers and kings converse at court? The obvious answer, of course, is that he didn’t. He made it up out of his head. Historians agree that the royal interactions don’t ring true. Now, however, this is the way we imagine kings and queen should speak. William Shakespeare shaped our reality.  Check it out: the BBC is giving you an excellent opportunity to revel in the matchless histories of Shakespeare with The Hollow Crown, which includes Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V.  (Follow links I’ve provided.)

A lot of rubbish has been written about the series already.  Even esteemed places like the New York Times don’t seem to know how to write about Shakespeare anymore (here and here) – any moment I expect them to begin complaining about how hard the language is.  Pretty much all of them, however, agree that this is a terrific, must-see series. Ben Whishaw has been praised for his Richard II, though I find it over-the-top, and Rory Kinnear‘s Bolingbroke underrated (see Clip #2). David Suchet (a.k.a. Hercule Poirot) is at Bolingbroke’s left, by the way, another good performance. Clip #3 features Patrick Stewart‘s John of Gaunt. Clip #4 Jeremy Irons as Henry IV. Clip #5 features Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff. And the final clip is Tom Hiddleston‘s Henry V.

It’s been at least a year or two since I’ve seen Shakespeare performed. The ear craves it. Tease your own with the excerpts, below. The full videos are available for listening at www.pbs.org for a limited time only. Take advantage of the opportunity.  Please. You owe it to yourself.

Postscript on 1/13:  I broke down and bought the DVDs on Amazon. Under $30.  Free shipping with a Prime account.  How could I forbid myself this little indulgence?

1.  Trailer for the series.

2.   Richard II  (A few seconds of “Great Performances” la-di-da at the beginning. It’s only a few seconds, really…)

3.   Richard II

Henry IV, Part 1

Henry IV, Part 2

Henry V

René Girard and the verboten four-letter word

Saturday, May 12th, 2012
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What is the forbidden, unspeakable four-letter word in the English language?  René Girard has the answer:

“We often brag that no one can scandalize us anymore, but what about ‘envy’? Our supposedly insatiable appetite for the forbidden stops short of envy. Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it; we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant.  We no longer prohibit many actions that generate envy, but silently ostracize whatever can remind us of its presence in our midst. Psychic phenomena, we are told, are important in proportion to the resistance they generate toward revelation.  If we apply this yardstick to envy as well as to what psychoanalysis designates as repressed, which of the two will make the more plausible candidate for the role of best-defended secret?”

The words are from his 1991 book A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare – the only book he has written in English (fittingly, about William Shakespeare, who has been a lifelong passion for this devotee of French literature).  My copy of the book arrived a few days ago, and just in time.

He has a lot to answer for.

Coincidentally, I checked out Arcade a few days later and found that João Cezar de Castro Rocha of Rio de Janeiro is extending René’s argument about “mimetic envy” to include  colonialism and the notion of “Shakespearean countries”:

Perhaps the best way of outlining a brief definition of what I propose to call Shakespearean countries is resorting to V. S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, whose title already suggests a Girardian reading of the work of the Nobel Prize [writer]. Reflecting upon his life, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Ralph Singh, identifies a common feature between him and a “young English student”: “He was like me: he needed the guidance of other men’s eyes”. A little further, the narrator acknowledges the mimetic nature of his desire: “We became what we see of ourselves in the eyes of others”.

Whoever experiences this cultural circumstance lives a sort of “half a life”, always dependent upon someone else’s eyes and opinions – very much like Shakespearean characters, according to René Girard’s study William Shakespeare: A Theater of Envy. Indeed, Half a life is precisely the title-metaphor of another novel by the same writer. In it, Naipaul deals with the same fundamental issue expressed by a character [a Brahmin] who has casually met the English writer W. Somerset Maugham. Due to a series of revealing cultural misunderstandings, the writer considered the Brahmin a sacred and wise man, and wrote about him as a holy man in one of his novels. Then, the Brahmin immediately became “famous for having been written about by a foreigner”, as J. M. Coetzee aptly summarized the plot in an important review of Naipaul’s novel. However, to the Brahmin this fame did not come without its pitfalls: “It became hard for me to step out of the role”. The role created by someone else’s eyes, and as the character has to accept:  “I recognized that breaking out had become impossible, and I settled down to live the strange life that fate had bestowed on me”. In this case, fate has a proper name and refers to the foreigner’s gaze. And since the foreigner is seen as an undisputed model, he has the authority of defining what he looks at.

Naturally, the Brazilian scholar focuses more on Latin American literary and cultural history.  He’s made several posts already: “Mimetic Theory and Latin America” is here, “Mimetic Theory and Cannibalism” is here, and “Shakespearean Countries?” (cited above) is here.

Incidentally, W. Somerset Maugham inspired some mimesis of his own.  Leonard Nimoy has said that when he was creating a voice for Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, he listened to hours of recordings of the English writer reading his works.

 

Postscript on 5/13:  I thought the name João Cezar de Castro Rocha sounded familiar – he’s one of René Girard’s interlocutors for the book Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture.

By the way, René’s theories are getting some new traction not only from a mini-revival of Shirley Jackson, whose landmark short story, “The Lottery,” describes the “scapegoat mechanism,” but also from The Hunger Games, another exploration of societal scapegoating.

A priest’s explanation of The Hunger Games in light of René’s theories (below) has been making the rounds … but there’s a curious omission. He describes the need for scapegoating when tensions arise within societies, but he skips a huge chunk of René’s thinking when he overlooks the cause of that tension – that nasty four-letter word taboo again.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet: Shakespeare, Gioia, and a dash of Rimbaud

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012
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Greg Gioia can whip up one mean drink. Dana Gioia‘s new book, Pity the Beautiful, was fêted by a capacity crowd at Kepler’s last night.  One of the memorable highlights of the evening was Dana’s kid bro making a libation of his own invention, called “The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet.”

I watched him make it.  Parts of something that looked like Campari (but wasn’t Campari), then absinthe, and a few other ingredients, with a twist of orange for garnish.  “The lover,” Greg told me, was the quick spray of rosewater on top.  “The lunatic” was, obviously, the absinthe.

And “the poet”?  Greg told me the drink was a variation of one called “Arthur Rimbaud.”  But it also hearkens back to a line from William Shakespeares A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

It’s also – for a third association – the title of a love poem in Dana’s new collection. Muriel Rukeyser famously said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”  Dana agrees:  We live by the stories we tell about ourselves, he said.  People who are “stuck” in their lives are in fact enmeshed in a particular narrative about their lives.  Then he read the poem.

It’s so lovely I’ll quote it in full, taking full advantage of Dana’s kind permission to do so:

The tales we tell are either false or true,
But neither purpose is the point. We weave
The fabric of our own existence out of words,
And the right story tells us who we are.
Perhaps it is the words that summon us.
The tale is often wiser than the teller.
There is no naked truth but what we wear.

So let me bring this story to our bed.
The world, I say, depends upon a spell
Spoken each night by lovers unaware
Of their own sorcery. In innocence
Or agony the same words must be said,
Or the raging moon will darken in the sky.
The night grows still. The winds of dawn expire.

And if I’m wrong, it cannot be by much.
We know our own existence came from touch,
The new soul summoned into life by lust.
And love’s shy tongue awakens in such fire –
Flesh against flesh and midnight whispering –
As if the only purpose of desire
Were to express its infinite unfolding.

And so, my love, we are two lunatics,
Secretaries to the wordless moon,
Lying awake, together or apart,
Transcribing every touch or aching absence
Into our endless, intimate palaver,
Body to body, naked to the night,
Appareled only in our utterance.

I think it’s one of his finest (I love the turn in the second stanza) – though I must admit that at some point the liquid form of the “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet,” began to take hold, and everything in the room was illuminated in a sort of roseate glow.  It had been a long week, and I had been fighting off illness.  Before I had a chance to go up for a refill of Greg’s potion, the initial euphoria faded, and I realized that it had only been the tension of a tight schedule that had been holding me together.  Suddenly my bones ached and my head throbbed.

I took Dana’s advice. A dash out the back door into the silence of the cool twilight and then homeward – as Dana suggested, I brought this particular story to bed.

Postscript on 5/6:  If you want Greg’s recipe, it’s here, on “Sidecar Cocktail Blog,”  the blog he’s been running for nine years.  That’s six longer than the Book Haven – whew!  how does he do it?   It’s a pretty good blog, too – clearly, writing talent runs in the family.  Brother Ted Gioia, occasionally mentioned on this blog, is a noted jazz scholar (I’ve written about him here).  His The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire will be out with Oxford University Press next month.  Congratulations to all Gioias!

The word has a life of its own – “it lives in the kingdom of the mouth and the mind.”

Saturday, February 25th, 2012
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The author

When I visited Ann Pasternak Slater last fall, I asked if her husband, the writer Craig Raine, might have a copy of the famously blistering review he wrote of Joseph Brodsky‘s poetry. I say “famous,” but my efforts had failed to uncover any copy of the review in any library. He hadn’t, but some weeks later she wrote that he had suggested I look up the review in his 500+ page book of essays, In Defense of T.S. Eliot.  Feeling a little rebuffed, I nevertheless found a copy of the book in Stanford’s Green Library, and I must say that he’s rather won me over, on every subject except Brodsky.

This paragraph, in particular, from the essay “A Book that Changed My Life,” about finding Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita as a 14-year-old boarding school student in 1959:

“I settled to read this dirty book – undeceived by the international tributes to Nabokov’s art which were anthologized at the back – and was at once bouleversé by the first paragraph, which had, as it turned out, a particular personal message from Nabokov to me. It was this: the word has a life of its own, a sound of its own and a shape of its own. It isn’t simply a harmless drudge, it is also a monarch with a retinue of associations. It lives in the kingdom of the mouth and the mind. If it is to obey you, you must cherish it as an individual and respect its unique powers and properties. Every word is irreplaceable, as Roget paradoxically but invariably demonstrates.”

Coincidentally, today’s Washington Post announced the death of 77-year-old Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s son, whose position as heir inevitably meant much of his life was spent protecting his father’s literary legacy and translating and editing his father’s plays, poems, stories, including the novella The Enchanter and the Selected Letters.

“My father is gradually marching — with his two favorite writers, Pushkin and Joyce — arm in arm into the pantheon to join the greatest of all, Shakespeare, who is waiting for them,” Nabokov told The Associated Press in a 2009 interview. “I like to think that I did my bit to keep things on track.”

 

Antoine Jaccottet’s Le Bruit du Temps: Fresh air for French readers

Monday, February 13th, 2012
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Translation is the poor stepchild of literature – academics get more applause for producing their own books, not for translating the writing of others; for writers, it’s a distraction from their own work and not terribly well remunerated. Hence, a welter of books never appear on the international stage the way they deserve.

So it’s cheering to see a venture like the Paris-based Le Bruit du Temps, a publishing house crowded in one large room in one of the more picturesque neighborhoods in a city that has plenty of them.  Founder and director Antoine Jaccottet has a desk in one corner; his collaborator, Cécile Meissonnier, has a desk on the other side.  Pictures of Osip Mandelstam, Isaac Babel, and others are stuffed into the edges of a large mirror – they are the real masters here. The window next to it gives a clear view on a plaque indicates that James Joyce finished Ulysses across the street here, on rue du Cardinal Lemoine in the Latin Quarter.

Antoine Jaccottet, son of the poet and translator Philippe Jaccottet (who translated Goethe, Hölderlin, Mann, Mandelstam, Góngora, Leopardi, Musil, Rilke,  Ungaretti, and Homer into French), worked for 15 years at the famous French publisher Gallimard, publishing classics, before he broke out on his own for a shoestring enterprise in 2008. The tight-budge endeavor, however, produces elegantly designed, finely crafted volumes.

Masterpieces don’t die, he says, but they can get lost in the noise of time.  It’s the job of publishers to rediscover them for the public, and what better place than the small adventurous publishers who have a freedom and esprit not usually tapped by large publishing houses.

As I gaze over the offices teeming bookshelves, I notice an entire shelf of W.H. Auden in English.  He’s one of the house’s authors.  Le Mer et le Miroir … Auden in French? How does he come across?  It’s difficult, Antoine admits, for the French to “get” Auden’s sensibility.

He’s also published  Zbigniew Herbert in French, Lev Shestov‘s Athens and Jerusalem, the complete works of Isaac Babel, and Henry James‘s The Ambassadors.  Even Shakespeare‘s (cough, cough) Henry VIII.

Mandelstam is, in a sense, the reason for the place.  The title of the publishing house itself – “the noise of time” – is taken from the title of Mandelstam’s prose collection, which includes perhaps his most autobiographical writing.  Antoine had been taken with the Russian poet in the 90s, and the translations and biography by the eminent scholar Clarence Brown.  One of the first books the house published was Le Timbre égyptien (The Egyptian Stamp).  The Ralph Dutli biography will be published this month.  (The house published Dutli’s poems in 2009).

A piece of old France

Le Bruit du Temps’ books by and about Mandelstam illustrate an underlying principle at the house:  Antoine publishes works that develop and deepen recurrent themes like a symphony.  In 2009, he published published Browning’s L’Anneau et le Livre, republished G.K. Chesterton‘s out-of-print 1903 Robert Browning (Chesterton’s first book), Elizabeth Barrett Browning‘s Sonnets from the Portuguese and Henry James‘s Sur Robert Browning. That’s probably more Browning than Elizabeth Barrett ever saw.

Literary journalism, apparently, is as much in a crisis in France as it is here – the media often publishes book blurbs intact, and critics are famous for not reading the books they review.  So how do people hear about books?  Often, they don’t, he says.

As I leave, Antoine gives me a little souvenir of my visit, the publishing house’s brand new Le Bruit du Temps, a slim and elegant volume, fresh from the press.  What could be more fitting?

He also shows me a rarely seen landmark as he shows me the door – at the back of the courtyard, between the buildings, in the soft sunlight of the late afternoon, the ancient Paris city walls of  Philippe Auguste, the oldest surviving city walls, about the time of the poet Marie de France.

Postscript on 3/16:  Nice mention on the University of Rochester’s “Three Percent” blog over here.

 

Shakespeare around the world in 2012

Friday, February 3rd, 2012
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We meant to work this whimsical take on worldwide William Shakespeare celebrations into the next Book Haven post on the subject – but this one’s got a time peg, and we’re already nearly 10% through 2012.  As we are shoveling clothes and papers into a suitcase to head for Paris, here’s a few off-the-beaten track ways to celebrate the English language’s premiere Bard this year.

February:  Verona’s “Club di Giulietta” receives and apparently responds to hundreds of letters addressed to “Juliet” of  Shakespeare’s  famous love story.  On Valentine’s Day, the club awards the Cara Giuletta (“Dear Juliet”) prize to the writers of the “most compelling letters” received the previous year.  (See photo at right for Juliet’s balcony.)

March/April:  More locally, San Francisco’s African American Shakespeare Company  (“Envisioning the classics with color.”) finishes its 2011-12 season with a March-April production of Julius Caesar.  According to the website, “this political thriller about life and death political struggles tells us not only about the dead leaders we see etched in stone or live on TV each night, but also about the people who put them in power in the first place.” We wrote about the founding director of company, L. Peter Callender, during a Homeric venture at Stanford.  (In fact, if I’m not mistaken that rather looks like him in the Julius Caesar photo at left.)

April:  Prior to going to Chicago’s “Talk Like Shakespeare Day” on the Bard’s putative birthday on April 23, you might want to check out our post “The Archaeology of Sound” here.

Check the others at the Online Degree website here.

 

Writing is a life of poverty? Not.

Friday, January 27th, 2012
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Waugh's digs at Piers Court, near Stinchcombe

For those of you entering this or that writing competition or perhaps applying for a grant, hoping to scrape together a few shekels so you can buy kitty litter – behold and weep!

Writing does not have to be a monastic dedication to a life of poverty – here are a few dwellings where famous writers had their desks and pencils.  Probably lots of other stuff as well – including maids, gardeners, and butlers.

Obviously, they mostly did not begin poor.  If one wants an independent income and a room of one’s own, it’s best to acquire them at birth.  (The old joke:  What does it take to make a small fortune as a writer?  Answer:  A large fortune.)

Vidal's domicile in Ravello, Italy

I’ve selected a few from Flavorwire’s 15 – based strictly on personal taste, the houses I would most love to live in.

Not surprisingly, Evelyn Waugh comes out tops with his home in Goucestershire.  Given my love of the English countryside and its stately homes – is this any surprise?

And for the winter break, I’ll take Gore Vidal‘s home on the Amalfi coast, just for the landscaping. It’s also known for handmade paper and plenty of limoncello. Pray for no earthquakes.

Where he lived in exile: Hugo

Perhaps it’s only a lifelong and slightly cheesy love for Jean Valjean that makes me hanker for Victor Hugo‘s “Hauteville House,” at 38 Rue Hauteville in St. Peter Port in Guernsey, where he lived during his exile from 1856 to 1870.  Hard to beat Guernsey for beautiful climate, and probably an improvement on Paris. This is the view from the garden, not the busy street. Thanks to the mild climate, the jardin is filled with trees and flowers.  Well, rather like Palo Alto.

We can’t leave without citing the ur-house, and the only one of the bunch that I’ve seen face to face:  William Shakespeare‘s house in Stratford.  Shakespeare, to his credit, did make his own money, in sometimes less-than-savory ways (he was accused of hoarding).

The Bard's stomping grounds

I’ve seen lots of writers’ homes – Constantine Cavafy in Alexandria, Elizabeth Bishop in Samambaia, Mikhail Bulgakov in Kiev, Emily Dickinson in Amherst, C.S. Lewis in Oxford, Robinson Jeffers in Carmel, Alexander Pushkin in Moscow and Odessa,Winston Churchill at Blenheim and Chartwell, Czeslaw Milosz in Kraków and Berkeley and Lithuania, even John Milton‘s humble digs in Chalfont St. Giles, a couple miles from where I lived on the border of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

Can’t say these top the preferred list – but they certainly stack up very well.  See the rest here.