I never met Zbigniew Herbert, but I did stroke his cat. I snapped this photo of the occasion in 2008. Szu-szu is on the right. On the left is Mouszka, an important acquisition by Madame Herbert sometime after the death of her husband. I wonder if Szu-szu is still alive…
Meanwhile, among my own posts on Herbert are: “The Worst Dinner Party Ever, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and the Lady Who Watched the Fight” here; and “When Zbyszek Met Kasia” here; and “Notting Hill Editions: Irish Saints, Dutch Executioners, and “a Crumb of Helpless Goodness” here.
Light a candle in his memory. And meanwhile, I must find a larger photo of these cats somewhere. (Postscript: Found a bigger copy of the photo. The Herbert pussycats deserve no less.)
Alas, the books pile up faster than I have time to read them – or, in some cases, even look at them.
Some months ago, I received an unbidden package from the U.K., and I’ve only just now broken the cellophane on the two books that were enclosed. Notting Hill Editions is “devoted to the best in essayistic nonfiction writing.” It’s an excellent series, sized for the “Tube-bound intellectual,” according to the very thorough website, which includes Harry Mount‘s weekly journal. Beyond their portability, the superb cloth-covered books in a rich spectrum of colors are classy and very affordable at £ 10.00 each.
The two that arrived in my mailbox are the orange-bound edition of Zbigniew Herbert‘s classic Still Life with a Bridle (translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter) and Hubert Butler‘s The Eggman and the Fairies, Irish Essays (edited by John Banville), in a suitably Irish green.
In gratitude for the gift, I can do no better than site a few passages from both. I have not chosen these passages entirely at random; they are neither the most representative nor the most elegant passages of the books, but instead I was drawn by two eloquent passages about mysterious nature of mercy and charity.
Butler’s discussion of “the movement for the rehabilitation of Celtic saints, which had begun in chivalry, [and] had ended in sterility.” The author, who died at 90 in 1991, writes in “Saints, Scholars and Civil Servants”:
Ailbe in infancy: he worked his way up to lions
But why should it be undermining to our morals or bruising to our national pride if one were to argue that the Irish saints were many of them the tribal gods of a gentle and intelligent people, whose racial origins retreat so far into history that to use the national terms for them, Celt, Iberian, Gaulish, would not be easy? I was brought up in the diocese of St. Canice, but the less I believed in him, the more I was fascinated by him. He covered five Irish counties and as many Scottish and Welsh ones with his churches and miracles. He left his crozier in Iona, the little toe of his right foot in northern Italy, and, standing on one leg, was fed by seagulls in the Gower Peninsula. He is a link between the medieval world and one that is immemorially old. Those who treat him as a monastic fiction are as wrong as Cardinal Moran, who saw him in his own image as a busy Irish prelate with widespread diocesan responsibilities. The lives of the Irish saints reflect an ingenious innocence, a primaeval charity, that links them with Greek legend and the beginnings of poetry. For example, when St. Ailbe, travelling in Italy, resurrected two horses and their groom, who had been killed by lions, he took pity on the hungry, disappointed carnivores and arranged for a suitable meal (an aptum prandium) to come down Heaven for them on a cloud.
Of course we’ve always loved Herbert – Seamus Heaney says, “He shoulders the whole sky and scope of human dignity and responsibility.” Herbert’s essay, “The Mercy of the Executioner,” describes the execution of the statesman Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, who had “defended his honor rather than his life” at trial:
Defended his honor more than his life
When they brought in the condemned man, the crowd fell silent. Van Oldenbarnevelt was hurrying toward death: ‘What you must do, do it fast,’ he urged the executors of the verdict.
The something happened that went far beyond the ritual of execution, beyond the procedure of any known execution. The executioner led the condemned man to a spot where the sunlight was falling and said, ‘Here, Your Honour, you will have sun on your face.’ …
Van Oldenbarnevelt’s executioner broke the rules of the game, left his role, and, what is more, violated the principles of professional ethics. Why did he do it? Certainly it was an impulse of the heart. But didn’t the condemned man, who was stripped of all earthly glory, perceive derision in it? After all, it is indifferent to those who are leaving for ever whether they die in the sun, in shadow, or the darkness of night. The executioner, artisan of death, became an ambiguous figure filled with potential meaning when to the condemned man – in his last moment – he threw a crumb of helpless goodness.
Some of you may recall my visit to the innovative Parisian publishing house of Le Bruit du Temps and it’s founder, Antoine Jaccottet, during my recent visit to Paris, during the cold, cold, cold snap of last February. I also spoke at the American University in Paris, and visited friend and colleague Daniel Medin.
Here’s a podcast that entwines them both: Daniel interviews Antoine Jaccottet at “That Other Word,” a series of podcasts on literature and translation, the result of a collaboration between the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and San Francisco’s Center for the Art of Translation.
...and his admirer
Said Daniel: ”It surprised me to learn that it was a small press in France doing the complete works of Zbigniew Herbert … that it was a small press in France doing the completeIsaac Babel, a volume even larger than the [Peter] Constantine one that appeared a decade ago in English , and that it was a small French press discovering books like the Julius Margolin‘s gulag memoir, and bringing them to life. And I wanted to meet this editor, because of the interesting books he was selecting, because of the variety.” Now you will have a chance to meet him, too.
But first, you’ll get Daniel’s quick overview of this month’s Book Expo America in New York City, where “Russia was the country of honor this year,” he said. He and Scott Esposito discuss a range of contemporary authors and books, including Mikhail Shishkin‘s Maidenhair, which will appear in English this October; Polish author Marek Bieńczyk’s Transparency; Julius Margolin’s gulag memoir, Voyage au pays des Ze-Ka; and Dalkey Archive Press’ Contemporary Georgian Fiction.
Their interests do not lie entirely east of the Vienna: they also discuss Éric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times and his Demolishing Nisard.
Then, on to Antoine Jacottet. On the perils of translation, the French publisher said: ”You do well what you know a little. I worked myself as a translator. I might mention my father [Philippe Jaccottet] was – is still – a well known translator. For me, it has always been very important to be attentive to the quality of translations. When we began the press, my idea was: if you are a very small press and if you want to publish works that you think are masterpieces, one way of doing it is to order a new translation, and then you have to find a good translator for it. It’s not always easy, but I think it’s the part of my job that fascinates me most.”
My friend Mike Ross immediately thought of me when he read today’s post from “The Rice History Corner” blog at his alma mater, Rice University in Houston. (I’m flattered.) It features a Czesław Miłosz having lunch at the university’s faculty club with Prof. Ewa Thompson. The Nobel poet recorded a program for KUHT-TV with Thompson and other Houston writers and scholars, and also gave a talk at the University of Houston.
The connection between Miłosz and Houston rang a bell in other ways. Adam Zagajewski arrived on the campus of the University of Houston in 1988, and later launched a program connecting the students in Texas with Miłosz in Kraków. So the link between Miłosz and Houston is stronger than might be supposed.
Meanwhile, in my perambulations around the web, I found Christopher Hitchens‘s “The Captive Mind Now,” words written on Miłosz’s death in 2004, in which he revisits the landmark Captive Mind and “ketman,” and somehow brings Azar Nafisi‘s Reading Lolita in Tehran into the mix, with its dedication from the Polish poet’s “Annalena”:
To whom do we tell what happened on the
Earth, for whom do we place everywhere huge
Mirrors in the hope that they will be filled up
And will stay so?
“The Hitch” concludes: “The long-term achievement of Milosz was to have scrutinized, not just in between but clean through, and well beyond, the party ‘lines’ that claim for themselves exclusive truth. In doing so he shamed the so-called intellectuals who managed the ugly trick of denying freedom to their own minds, the better to visit the same deprivation upon others.”
In a world where everything is becoming faster, cheesier, and more functional – when books are no longer tactile, sensual objects, but characters on Kindle – it’s cheering to see anything swimming upstream. Bonus points if it extols that most underrated of literary trades, translation.
The prose of Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai is full of menace, but it would be a mistake to read the menace either as political or as coming from nowhere. In novels such as The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War, his imagination feeds on real fear and real violence; he has a way of making fear and violence seem all the more real and present, however, by removing them from a familiar context.
Daniel, now an associate professor at the American University (after teaching at Stanford a year or two back), said this:
The allegorical tissue in that text [i.e., Animalinside] is very thick, the “animal inside” a literal and metaphorical thing at the same time – think Herbert‘s Report from the Besieged City, where “a rat became the unit of currency.” We’re in the realm of Kafka and Beckett here, and not just in approach: I believe that Krasznahorkai is a writer of nearly the same magnitude who has the mixed fortune of having been born Hungarian – mixed because of that country’s embarrassment of (literary, cultural) riches on one hand and its linguistic isolation on the other.
Quite a coup for a small series that lives more or less hand to mouth, on uncertain funding. Part of the problem is shipping, which makes U.S. distribution difficult, even for a downright modest price of, say, $15. Distribution in France is a little problematic, too, since the language is English. “Every penny goes toward quality of production and keeping down the price,” Daniel writes.
Via the Cahiers Series subscription page you can buy a boxed set of volumes 1-6 (or a boxed set of volumes 7-12) for £51 – “which is approximately $4,000, but like I said, these are really, really beautiful. (Kidding—£51 is only $75 and these are worth every dime),” according to the Three Percent blog. (Sorry, the blogger got me going for a moment – so I had to try it on you.)
[New updated deal: In addition to having the option of ordering cahiers individually, readers can now select any 6 cahiers for £55 in Europe/£59.50 everywhere else. Check it out here.]
Last year Daniel told the Three Percent blog: “There are two main justifications for the Cahiers Series. The first is that we publish material that cannot easily be published anywhere else; we can play with form in a way that commercial publishers cannot. The second justification is to make something where the parts, through their relation to each other, add up to more than just that.”
Much more. Clearly, the project is gaining momentum and some very high-profile attention – for example, from James Wood in the New Yorkerhere.
Daniel – handsomer than this, really
Daniel also sent me a copy of George Craig‘s Writing Beckett’s Letters. Craig spent 15 years translating the thousands of letters Beckett wrote in French. It’s chock full of impressive insights, and handsomely produced – hand-stitched, even. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Rhys Tranter did, and said this in the Spectator Book Blog (it’s here and here):
Whilst George Craig’s book is neatly timed to anticipate the next volume of Beckett’s Letters, it is more than just a preview of things to come. To Beckett scholars and enthusiasts, the appeal of this book is obvious, tightly-woven with rare insight and beautiful reproductions. But it is also thoughtful and engaging introduction to the problems of translation, and a testament to the status of correspondence as a kind of art-form. To paraphrase Craig’s description of Beckett and Duthuit’s correspondence, this is a work that abounds in strange, unexpected things.
Prescient words. Daniel has been promoting literary translations in other ways: He’s proud that the first invitation he issued at the American University was to Adam Zagajewski, who read from his latest collection and chatted with his students about his first encounter with Kafka. “An incredibly lucky bunch, they were: Tomas Venclova dropped by the next week and shared his own stories about discovering The Metamorphosis – in Polish!”
We’ll be writing more on the exceptional Cahiers series in posts-to-come.
V.S. Naipaul has offered definitive proof against the adage that to be a good writer, you must be a good reader.
First, the happy news: Naipaul has ended his 30-year feud-over-nothing with Paul Theroux. The root of the matter seems to be that Naipaul thought Theroux was horsing around with his first wife. From the Telegraph:
A furious Naipaul retaliated by trying to sell one of Theroux’s books, inscribed to Naipaul and his first wife, online for $1,500. When Theroux found out, Naipaul told him to “take it on the chin and move on.” Naturally Theroux didn’t, and went on to write a book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which he’s said to detail Naipaul’s “elevated crankishness”. The fracas went on until last weekend when – in what is surely Hay [Festival]’s biggest literary coup to date – they made up, “corralled” into a handshake by Ian McEwan in the festival’s green room.
Perhaps Hallmark ought to create a card for the occasion. The forgettable feud and its resolution is recounted here and here.
The episode has brought to mind other great literary feud of our times, recounted here:
We all love a good literary feud, not least because they are much more amusing and erudite than a spat between, say, a footballer and a reality television star. Of Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, Norman Mailer wrote: “Reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a 300lb woman. Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.” Wolfe retaliated in his essay “My Three Stooges,” casting Mailer alongside his other critics, John Irving and John Updike.
Mad men: Mailer, Gore
Revenge can take many forms. Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal. “As usual, words failed him,” said Vidal. Evelyn Waugh used the name of his tutor at Oxford for such diverse characters as a quack doctor and a psychopathic burglar. Salman Rushdieand John le Carré had a row over who had suffered more at the hands of religious fanatics, which ended in Rushdie calling le Carré “an illiterate pompous ass”.
Rushdie not above the fray (Photo: Mae Ryan)
In 2006, Salman Rushdie also fell out with John Updike after the latter panned Shalimar the Clown, in particular Rushdie’s choice of names. “A name is just a name,” Rushdie retorted. “Somewhere in Las Vegas, there’s probably a male prostitute called John Updike.” The same year Bevis Hillier duped A.N. Wilson, the writer of a rival biography of John Betjeman, into publishing a spoof love letter; the first letter of each sentence spelt out: “A N Wilson is a —-.”
Which all goes to show that maturity or character, also, isn’t a prerequisite for being a writer, either.
But in the Telegraphhere you can also read about the feuds between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman (that one will not be resolved; the principals are dead) and Harold Bloom and J.K. Rowling.
And I thought the Poles were bad with their acrimonious literary feuds – I’ve recounted the one between Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herberthere, in “The Worst Dinner Party Ever.”
Naipaul must be anxious to promote himself, because he made these cranky comments to the press. From the Guardian:
In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of [Jane] Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.
Queen of literary mathematics
He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”
The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.
He added: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”
Of course that dropped the cat among the pigeons. Why? Why would one expect Sir Vidia to say something sensible on the subject? He’s obviously not a careful reader of Austen.
As for women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world,” I have only two words to say: Simone Weil.
“He is such a kook. It makes me laugh because he sounds like such a cranky old man. It’s the classic case of how prejudice works – you feel like you see it confirmed all over the world but the prejudice is tainting your perception everywhere you look.”
“I would put money on the fact that he has not read Jane Austen in 10 years. She’s the most cool, mathematical writer to come along, male or female. It’s a word no one who’s familiar with her work would call her. The nature of the comments read as so silly that it’s hard to see it spurring a gigantic turmoil. They’re not remarks that lead to a deeply-engaged conversation because they’re just so easily dismissible, largely because of what he says about Austen. He raises questions about his authority by calling her sentimental. Only a person with an idea of what Austen is — and not actual familiarity with her work – would say that. She’s not a melodramatic writer.”
Meanwhile, the Guardian has published “The Naipaul Test: Can You Tell an Author’s Sex?” – it’s here.
Naipaul is said to be a great writer (I haven’t read him, so I’m taking that on authority), but a crappy human being. So why do we take any of his opinions seriously?
If you’ve a taste for this sort of thing, Vidal and Mailer wrangle on fuzzy clip from The Dick Cavett Showbelow – journalist Janet Flanner takes the better part.
se più avvien che fortuna t’accoglia
dove sien genti in simigliante piato:
Zbigniew and Katarzyna Herbert ... the happy times (Photo: The Herbert Estate)
In December 2008, I penned these words in the Times Literary Supplement:
Katarzyna Dzieduszycka was sitting at her desk at Warsaw’s Association of Polish Writers and Artists in 1956 when a quiet, unassuming young man sat down in a nearby chair, waiting for an appointment. She noticed that he seemed as shy as she was. When he was finally called into his interview, the twenty seven-year-old secretary whispered to her co-worker. “Who was that?” “He’s going to be our new director!”, the colleague replied.
Zbigniew Herbert, the young man, was not, in fact, particularly young – he was thirty-two years old. Nor was he a composer. But he definitely needed a job; and he got it. The poet was made the head of the Association of Polish Composers. Katarzyna Dzieduszycka, who eventually became Mrs Herbert, now lives in a pleasant, light-filled apartment in Warsaw, next to the verdant enclave of Morskie Park. (It wasn’t posh when the Herberts moved in, but the post-Communist years have been kind to it.) …
The relationship evolved in a cafeteria, Mrs Herbert remembered. As Herbert spoke about poetry and recited poems to her, they drank Egmi Bikower, a ubiquitous Hungarian white wine, the only wine readily available in postwar Poland. To the Polish Galatea, it might as well have been the nectar of the gods. “I wasn’t the first or last one who fell in love with him”, she admitted. “Courtship is nice, but it didn’t last forever, because Herbert treated his life seriously. The time of reciting poetry and flirting soon finished. His first priority was writing.”
Horror! The column inspired this reply a few days later, which was forwarded to me by my editor:
This may appear a piddling point, but the name of “Egmi Bikower”, the “ubiquitous Hungarian white wine” which Zbigniew Herbert and Katarzyna Dzieduszycka drank during their courtship (Commentary, 12th December), bears a more than passing phonetic resemblance to Egri Bikaver, the famous and delicious “Bulls’ Blood from Eger”. Legend has it that the Turks withdrew from a siege of Eger when they heard that the red stains on the beards of the inhabitants were the result of bulls’blood being their favourite tipple – an effect hardly likely to be produced by white wine.
Yours faithfully, Anthony Ridge
Importing the good stuff (Photo: My Droid)
I had made every effort to make sure that spelling of the wine was correct – I had Madame Herbert write it in my notebook with her own hand. Somewhere, I still have the notebook with her carefully printed words. Moreover, I have her words on a digital recording.
But I should have known better – I, the daughter of the Magyars, who had sipped bull’s blood at my grandfather’s knee. The Polish “w” is pronounced as “v.” And the rest was either pure error or a Polish variant I hadn’t recognized in time. Imagine the shame.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with the attractive man in the photo at left?
Ted Gioia had sent me these wise words on my Facebook page: “Try to find time to visit Wierzynek Restaurant while in Kraków. It’s been providing fine cuisine since 1364, and is one of my favorite European eateries.”
I made the trek to the restaurant (the fare was somewhat more limited for vegetarians … well, not just “somewhat”) and instead I found Davide, who gave me a tour of the historic restaurant, and a tour of its gift shop as well.
And what should he show me? That’s right. A bottle of Egri Bikaver. In Poland. Which makes it even more likely it was in the company cafeteria in 1956.
Feeding folks since 1364
Poland recognizes its limitations, the connoisseur told me – and one of them is that it doesn’t produce great wine. So they are happy to import the good stuff from their neighbors. Hungarians and Poles have always enjoyed an especial affinity – Czesław Miłoszthought so as well.
The wine he showed me, however, is not cheap plonk from a company cafeteria, nor is it white wine. And it was, alas, too expensive, and too heavy, to haul back in my bulging suitcases.
She ought to know. She was not only there, she and her husband and fellow translator John Carpenter hosted the dinner, which included poets Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert.
She said distorted versions of the event that have left the Polish intelligentsia bickering ever since.
“It started out happy and gay,” she recalled of the evening — a pleasant, spicy meal with plenty of wine.
After dinner, Herbert’s tone became “harsher and harsher,” Bogdana recalled. “When he was drunk he tended to be aggressive – and this time it was too late.” Herbert’s thoughts turned to Poland’s German occupation during World War II.
“He viciously attacked Miłosz – he reproached him for his lack of participation in the Polish resistance,” said Bogdana. The evening was so acrimonious that Janina Miłosz forbade Herbert ever to enter the Miłosz abode again.
Correcting the record
However, “it’s become known in a distorted version,” Bogdana said of the story. Typically, it is claimed that Miłosz provoked the incident by suggesting that Poland be added to the Soviet Empire as the 17th republic.
Bogdana said this comment never happened. The provocation was invented by Herbert twenty years after the event, she said.
For Miłosz, questions of patriotism were always sensitive – both because of his position with the Communist government as a cultural attaché, and after his 1951 defection in Paris, which meant he was barred from Poland till the 1980s.
The basis of the dispute, said Bogdana, was the two poets’ notion of homeland, and what it required from them.
Herbert believed one should be willing to “sacrifice one’s own happiness and life,” she said. While some have attributed Herbert’s position to the “Polish Romantic paradigm,” Carpenter said its roots are “further back – in the Hellenistic tradition.”
“Miłosz differed diametrically.” For Miłosz, loyalty had its limits — “when the price was other people,” she said, he could be “scathingly critical.”
His position was that “loyalty is not enough – one seeks logical justification” for self-immolation.
Miłosz’s defined his “homeland” as the Polish language. “Miłosz’s chosen weapon was the word, not the sword,” said Bogdana. “Language defined him.”
Bogdana Carpenter pointed out that “Herbert was not in Warsaw in 1939, 1942, or 1944.” Milosz witnessed the destruction of Warsaw firsthand.
Patriotism was not the question. She pointed out that during Nazi occupation, Miłosz compiled an anthology of anti-Nazi poetry – An Invincible Song (1942) — “for which he easily could have lost his life.”
This week in New York City has been drenched in Polish literature (see posts here and here) – so my visit with poet Philip Fried, founding editor of the 30-year-old Manhattan Review, may at first seem like something of an anomaly.
Until, that is, you realize that the quiet Manhattan Review was the first American journal to publish an interview with Polish poet and dissident Stanisław Barańczak in 1981. The review began to publish the work of Chinese dissident poet Bei Dao as early as 1990. And, according to its website, in 1994 it launched an unprecedented nationwide campaign that increased the number of poetry reviews in The New York Times.
I discovered the review when I was unearthing a rare, early interview with Zbigniew Herbert, by his translators John and Bogdana Carpenter. The Manhattan Review was among the first reviews to devote a whole issue to the renowned poetin the mid-1980s – and I initially contacted Philip to get more than the snippets I found online. (I also, on this visit, received a copy of his Early/Late: New and Selected Poems, published last month by Salmon Poetry.)
One would think that the Manhattan Review, which has two new poems by Les Murray in its current issue, would be better known. But Philip and the Manhattan Review are as quiet as it namesake island is named is noisy. We nevertheless had a pleasant and talkative lunch at Le Monde, an amiable bistro that “celebrates the cuisine of the Loire Valley” near Columbia University. Besides Polish poetry, we discussed the upheaval in the book industry and the dwindling presence of poetry on the American scene. What, after all, is a poet to do? The attempts to “reach out” to the public via April Poetry Month are usually farcical. Poet celebrities are often, well… not really poets at all. Pulling up the drawbridge and sticking to one’s own tiny audience has resulted in a situation Philip compared to polar bears on ever-shrinking ice floes – an image that will stay with me for some time to come.
This skillful and memorable first selection can seem like the work of three or four different poets, though wit and civility hold it together. First comes a bevy of poems about God, often comic, and often spoken in His assumed voice: often in stand-alone prose sentences (like the Book of Proverbs) they mix the language of elevated salvation with the debased terms of business and politics: “I regret to inform you that, in the purview of immutable discretion, it has now become necessary to downsize the elect.” Verse from Fried’s Mutual Trespasses (1988) also looks at–or speaks for–a divine Creator, wittily juxtaposing His omnipotence with human foibles and emotions: “He seemed to sink/ into Himself, a collapsing/ mountain.” Big Men Speaking to Little Men (2006), making up most of the last half of this collection, casts aside divinity for carefully ironized versions of family history: nostalgic at times, more outwardly conventional, these pages may nonetheless hold his strongest work. The New York-based Fried (who edits the Manhattan Review) closes with supple, formally acrobatic excerpts from a recent set of sonnets: “I’ve cornered the market on me, but I’ll sell you the shimmer./ When the bubble has burst, volatility is tender.” (Apr.)