Archive for November, 2009

A new leaf

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Has Robert Pogue Harrison turned over a new leaf?  The author whose professorial terroir is the Italian lyric, Renaissance Humanism, Dante, Pirandello, Vico, and the Baroque,  has written two pieces for New York Review of Books this year, but the topics are rather a surprise:  “The Ecstasy of John Muir” (March 12, 2009) and “A Great Conservationist, by Jingo” (November 5, 2009).  Blustering Teddy Roosevelt and the Sierra Nevada’s conservationist Muir?

It’s not as far-fetched as one might think, Harrison says, noting he is the author of Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, The Dominion of the Dead, and last year’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition.

“The fact is that my work – Forests, Dominion of the Dead, Gardens – is a trilogy united around theme of earth, humus, nature and culture,” he said.

“Thoreau actually figures quite prominently in Forests and Dominion of the Dead.  My interest in the  American

Harrison as DJ (Photo by L.A. Cicero)

idea of nature was well-known to them” — that is, to the editors at the NYRB.  “It’s not completely out of the blue.”

In any case, Harrison thinks scholars in the humanities should have more than one string in their lute: “I know a lot more than Italian literature.  We have to know whole story – we’re not scientists with just a sliver of knowledge.  If you know Dante, you know the whole damn story.”

From his November 5 piece:  “…how long it took for many Americans to consider America’s nature as their own, to see it as a gift to be received and not as a wilderness to be feared or a resource to be plundered. One of the hardest lessons for Americans to learn is how to receive, perhaps because we believe so fervently in earning, or perhaps because we have a long history of merely taking, if not grabbing. Perhaps Robert Frost had it wrong in his poem, ‘The Gift Outright’ when he wrote: ‘the land was ours before we were the land’s.’ What if you first have to feel that you belong to the land before you can feel that the land belongs to you?”

(By the by, Harrison has launched a new season of his weekly radio talk show, Entitled Opinions, on Stanford’s radio station KZSU FM 90.1.  All the programs are available on the website. You can listen online at noon on Tuesdays by going to the KZSU website and following the link to “listen live.”)

Naughty nonagenarian

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Robert Conquest has had a distinguished career – and the honors aren’t ending for the British historian, who turned 92 in July.  He’s already a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (as well as receiving the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1997), a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.  Then, on a sunny morning last August, he got one more feather.

In my work on the forthcoming An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, I had noted that several of my contributors had received Order of Merit – including the NYC Polish poet Anna Fralich, the former diplomat John Foster Leich.  So, curious about the honor, I accepted the invitation to see the Hoover Institution ceremony in which John Raisian, director of the Hoover Institution, and the writer Robert Conquest were to be lauded — though I had not read Conquest’s books about the murderous terror of life under totalitarianism.

Conquest gets standing ovation (Photo courtesy Stanford Visual Arts)

Conquest was in delicate health, and did not stand to receive his award from Poland’s up-and-coming foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski. (Audio recording of the event available here.)

Sikorski and Conquest meet after the ceremony. (Photo courtesy Stanford Visual Arts)

In presenting the award, Sikorski said that as a Solidarność activist in his youth, Poles knew they were not alone, “because we had at least one great teacher”:

“At a very young age, Mr. Robert Conquest saw through that riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Winston Churchill characterized the Soviets. And once he had understood it, he dedicated his life to revealing the diabolic logic hidden under the facade of propaganda and deception. His works, especially his monumental books, The Great Terror and The Harvest of Sorrow, brought to light a whole host of unimaginable tales of human suffering. He told the story that many did not want to hear, and stood for truth when it was not easy and fashionable. He gave a compelling testimony about the atrocities committed by the Soviets, which undermined the legitimacy of the Soviet rule and its ideology alike.

His books made a huge impact on the debate about the Soviet Union, both in the West and in the East. In the West, people had always had access to the information about Communism but were not always ready to believe in it. In the East, most of us did not harbor illusions about the utopian ideology under which we lived. We knew that the design – not only its execution – was flawed. Nevertheless, we longed for confirmation that the West knew what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. Robert Conquest’s books gave us such a conformation. They also transmitted a message of solidarity with the oppressed and gave us hope that the truth would prevail.”

Sikorski concluded by noting that Conquest was born in the year of Russia’s October Revolution: “he has outlived the Evil Empire and continues his mission of telling the true story about it.”

It’s not the only story he’s telling.  A few weeks later in London, I was visiting with my publisher Philip Hoy of Waywiser/Between the Lines.  As I was leaving, Phil handed me Waywiser’s newest book of poems:  Penultimata.  Phil advised me they were written by a nonagenarian, and that they are rather sexy.

The volume got quite a bit of praise:  Clive James said “In poems about love, the subversive, lyrical proof that desire goes on into old age is alive in every conquestcadence and perception. As ever, he makes many a younger writer look short of energy.” My own editor at the Times Literary Supplement, poet Alan Jenkins wrote: “the whole of Penultimata is about what’s left of love and beauty, after a long life and 3,000 or more years of western civilization: to be recovered in memory, in a Roman figurine, in sharp sensuous delight, or in speculation on that nature of the universe.”

The sexy nonagenarian poet is Robert Conquest.  Here are two of his offerings, chosen not for prurience, but for their wit.

The first is “Philosophy Department,” from a series called “All Things Considered”:

Such knotty problems! Check your lists:
How come the universe exists?
How does consciousness, free will,
Match up with brain cells? – Harder still:

Employing what we use for peeing
To penetrate another’s being,
And in her complementary hole
Surrendering one’s self, one’s soul.

Yes, the eternal paradox
Of hearts and minds and cunts and cocks.
That solved, it will be time enough
To tackle all the cosmic stuff.

Then there’s “This Be the Worse” — the poem, of course, is a take-off on friend and colleague Philip Larkin’s poem of the same name (find Larkin’s version here):

They fuck you up, the chaps you choose
To do your Letters and your Life.
They wait till all that’s left of you’s
A corpse in which to shove a knife.

How ghoulishly they grub among
Your years for stuff to shame and shock:
The times you didn’t hold your tongue,
The times you failed to curb your cock.

To each of those who’ve processed me
Into their scrap of fame or pelf:
You think in marks for decency
I’d lose to you? Don’t kid yourself.

Yalom's book is the talk of Vienna…literally

Friday, November 20th, 2009

“History is fiction that did happen. Whereas fiction is history that might have happened.”

André Gide‘s comment describes how Irv Yalom approached his acclaimed When Nietzsche Wept. But maybe it goes a little way to explaining the last few weeks, too. His triumphant month as a guest of honor in Vienna sounds like a dream come true for the Stanford psychotherapist-turned-novelist.  Certainly a work of fiction became part of the city’s history.

With Vienna's mayor Michael Häupl and books

The occasion was indeed a remarkable one: Eine Stadt. Ein Buch in Vienna. Every year, the city picks a book and distributes 100,000 free copies to its citizens, via bookstores, libraries, schools, the book fair, and elsewhere. Vienna becomes a “reading club” for the book. For the city that is the home of Freud and the birthplace of psychoanalysis, Yalom’s book was a natural choice: it takes place in 1882, when Yalom envisions Sigmund Freud’s prominent colleague Josef Breuer agreeing to use his experimental “talking cure” to treat Friedrich Nietzsche, who is on the brink of suicidal despair as he ends his liaison with the ubiquitous Lou Andreas-Salomé (best known for her affair with Rainer Maria Rilke).  For Yalom, it was a chance to study “how a therapy based on an existential philosophy might differ from the psychosexually based foundations of psychoanalysis.”

“Irv was really the toast of the city, starting with a stampede at the Book Fair for the first copies of When Nietzsche Wept and ending Sunday night with a gala dinner at City Hall for 700 people, which was grand beyond belief,” Marilyn Yalom wrote to the Book Haven from Moscow earlier this week.  And the hoopla, she said, was overwhelming:  You can read about it (in German) here and here and here.

Since 2002, the chosen books have included: The Forever Street by Frederic Morton, Fatelessness by the Nobel Prizewinner Imre Kertész, Das geheime Brot by Johannes Mario Simmel, Setting Free The Bears by John Irving, The Bluest Eye by the Nobel Prizewinner Toni Morrison, Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby and last year Still Alive by Ruth Klüger.


The Yaloms at Vienna's Freud Museum

Marilyn Yalom shared some of the glory this fall: In addition to speaking alongside Irv to an assembly of psychologists in Moscow, she spoke at the Excelsior branch of the San Francisco Public Library on Oct. 28 with her photographer son Reid Yalom, and was “very surprised” when a representative of the California State Assembly presented her with a fancy Certificate of Recognition “honoring extraordinary leadership in the literary arts and continued commitment to ensuring the quality of reading” through her book The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History through our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds, “thereby benefiting the people of the City and County of San Francisco and the State of California.”

"Venerable Bede"…and the man who studies him

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

I recognized Stanford English Prof. George Hardin Brown years before I knew who he was. I would run across the dapper, bearded scholar in the bowels of Stanford’s Green Library, while I was doing my own research.  I assumed he was someone on the library staff — until someone finally introduced him to me as one of the world’s preeminent scholars on the Anglo-Saxon monk-scholar, the Venerable Bede, “teacher of the whole Middle Ages.”

George Brown, perusing an antiquarian edition of Bede — a gift from his wife, Prof. Phyllis Brown of Santa Clara University (and also a medievalist).  Photo by L.A. Cicero

My story about Bede and George, author of the newly published Companion to Bede, on today’s Stanford News website is here. Like Bede himself, George is “a creature of the library.”

A creature of the library — and a gentleman. Take, for example, this temperate reaction in 1996, after John L’Heureux published his Handmaid of Desire, parodying his colleagues in the Stanford English Department:

STANFORD — So how are his faculty colleagues responding to John L’Heureux‘s fictional depiction of an unnamed university that is a $41.11 cab ride from SFO, set in lion-colored foothills and approached by a long avenue of palm trees?

“It’s a little curious,” George Brown, professor of English, said after L’Heureux read from his new novel, The Handmaid of Desire, at the Stanford Bookstore on Oct. 8.

“There are people in the department who read the book and say to me, ‘I’m glad I’m not in there.’

“And I say, ‘You’re not?’

“And I, of course, recognize myself among the ‘fools’ who teach literature.”

Brown has known L’Heureux since they were in graduate school together at Harvard University in the late 1960s.

“When he was a Jesuit, and when he was writing for the Atlantic, John always wrote with a satiric voice,” Brown said. “His view of life is a bit sharp.”