Archive for September, 2011

Kudos to Ian Morris, Father Gregory Boyle, from P.E.N.

Friday, September 30th, 2011

We’ve written about Ian Morris‘s Why the West Rules – for Now (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) here and here and here.

Now he has a new honor:  he’s just bagged P.E.N. USA’s award for “research nonfiction.”  The Economist said  Why the West Rules – for Now is a “remarkable book” that “uses history and an overarching theory to address the anxieties of the present.” The New York Times called Morris “a lucid thinker and a fine writer,” covering disease, famine, migration, agriculture, industry, and climate change “with the humor and detail of a sportscaster.”

The “creative nonfiction” award went to Father Gregory Boyle for Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (Free Press) his recollection of his work, for over two decades, reforming gang youth in Los Angeles county. The Jesuit priest’s Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention program in the country, offering job training, tattoo removal, and employment to members of enemy gangs. The Los Angeles Times predicted the book is “destined to become a classic of both urban reportage and contemporary spirituality.”

Meanwhile, a video of Ian talking about his book below.


Let the Nobel Follies begin!

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Not obscure enough for the prize

Welcome to this year’s Nobel Literature Prize.  Pretty much like last year’s Nobel Literature Prize.

It’s hard to beat the Literary Saloon to the draw:  They led the guessing with a July 1 column, “Nobel Prize speculation (already?!?).”  The site admitted: “Not surprisingly, most of the odds resemble the closing odds for the 2010 prize, but there are big differences, so punters are advised to compare odds before placing their bets.”  Cormac McCarthy (9/2) was just ahead of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (11/2) at Ladbrokes.  Huffington Post picked up the cry here.

We can recycle last year’s reasons why McCarthy won’t get the prize.  Blogger John Matthew Fox thinks he won’t get it because he’s too popular: “The trend over the last few years from the academy is to choose authors that leave a great deal of the world scratching their head and saying “who?” Le Clézio? Please.”

Number Two

Apparently, The Guardian agrees: It has declared Adonis the frontrunner – wasn’t he the frontrunner for awhile last year?

Ladbrokes has made the 81-year-old – who has been described as “the most important Arab poet of our time” – its 4/1 favorite. “Adonis has been a permanent fixture on the shortlist in the past and the odds suggest this could be his year,” said spokesman Alex Donohue.

He’s just ahead of Tomas Tranströmer. “After hitting the woodwork last year we think Tranströmer has a superb chance of atoning for defeat,” said Donohue.  That would certainly be nice. But the Swedish judges seem reluctant to award one of their own.

Tomas Venclova anyone?  He hasn’t surfaced on Ladbrokes long list yet.

Yesterday’s post at the Literary Saloon has all the sites to check as the countdown begins here.  Ladbrokes’ betting is here.



The Cahiers Series: “really, really beautiful” – and hand-stitched, even

Monday, September 26th, 2011

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.

Applause keeps mounting for the Cahiers Series, published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. It’s hard to stay on top of it.  But Daniel Medin, one of my more charming correspondents, has been sending me updates from the American University.

The latest plug is in Friday’s New York Review of Books blog, where Colm Tóibín introduces László Krasznahorkai‘s Animalinside (with illustrations by Max Neumann):

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 Yorker here.

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.

Remembering Russian poet Alexei Parshchikov, and a meeting in Cologne

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

A gifted photographer as well (Photo: Eugene Ostashevsky)

I found out about the 2009 death of Russian poet Alexei Parshchikov accidentally.  At a meeting recently, someone casually mentioned that a memorial had been held for him at Stanford.

That comment was already some time ago. My memories and feelings piled up and became complicated, and so I postponed for months writing a few words about him.

In truth, he had scared the bejeebers out of me when we met in  Germany.  Here’s what happened.  We agreed to meet at the Cologne Cathedral, a good central spot where I wouldn’t have to wend my way through back roads of an unfamiliar city.  Friends dropped me off at the cathedral, and I thought I could trot over to his house with him.

Not so.  He lived some distance away.  We went on a metro for a seemingly interminable distance to the outskirts of the city – it must have been a half-an-hour’s ride at least.

He was acting in a manner that alarmed me – was he on drugs?  Had he been drinking?  Here I was, in a city I’d never been in before, trundling along to an unknown destination, with a stranger whose behavior struck me as oddly disconnected and lethargic.

It takes far, far less to spook me. I scare easy.  How would they ever find my body days later in “a built-up industrial area under the permanent curse of the deafening trains”?  I wrote later of our eventual destination:

“In a row of white buildings, Parshchikov’s flat is small, spare, clean, almost monastic. We sit in an austere kitchen with a white-painted table and two chairs. The only other room, the bedroom, is in bold, primary colors. A Macintosh sits on a desk in one corner. Photographs – 10-by-12 black-and-whites – are scattered here and there, for Parshchikovis a gifted amateur photographer. ‘Empty, empty space,’ he says, looking around. ‘My place in Moscow has more books.'”

He described to me the breakdown of his marriage.  “We quarreled,” he said, gazing at me and pausing for what seemed an impossibly long time.  “You understand?  We quarreled.”

I thought I could get the picture.  I wrote:

Some will find his literary style, well, odd. “As Russian poetry goes, he is difficult and more demanding on the average reader. But he’s worth the struggle,” says [Oxford’s G.S.] Smith. Publisher’s Weekly called his imagination “troubled and powerful” and noted, “The defining feature of Parshchikov’s poetry is its fantastical elaboration of metaphor, not as a decorative device or an occasion for clever display, but as a fundamental mode of apprehending and transforming the world.” Examples: “potato roots protrude from the earth like elbows from a fist fight”; a dying fish “[freezes] up, like a key growing thick in a lock”; “history is a sack, an abyss of money inside it.”

“Alyosha’s work has a quality at once ancient and entirely new,” says American poet Michael Palmer, Parshchikov’s friend and translator. “His poems present and project the turmoil of the present in a manner that is entirely his own, a tone of this particular fractured and diasporic moment, where the unsettled is the norm, and where all is in continuous flux.”


Marjorie Perloff befriended him at Stanford – I seem to remember interviewing her, but in the end did not quote her in my article.  He had fond memories of the university where he got a master’s degree, and of his “beautiful, more-or-less durable bike and the opulent libraries I’ve never seen again the world over.”

We discussed Allen Ginsberg, a sort of soulmate for him. Our meeting lasted for several hours.  My friends eventually found me after a confused and panicky rendezvous at the metro station – we were waiting on the wrong platform, and the “metarealist” poet was phlegmatic and not terribly well-oriented. One of my friends, a young Russian woman, began laughing uncontrollably when she began talking to him – a typical Russian type, she said.

I corresponded with Alyosha (as he signed his emails) for a time afterward – and a few other poets contacted me to find him, but  eventually the trail went cold.

In one email, he described his meeting with Joseph Brodsky (I quote it in full, with its idiosyncratic English, for any literary or historical value it might have):

"Opulent libraries I've never seen again the world over" (Photo: Wally Gobetz)

At the time I’ve met Brodsky at Stanford I was missing Europe, I meant Moscow and one abstract Europe on which I had only fuzzy ideas, the Europe to which belonged my Swiss wife. I’ve realized that there was nothing to do more in Stanford and my inner time has been expired. Just being in such a mood I met Joseph Alexandrovich [i.e., Brodsky – ED] while he had his lecture and readings in our University and in Palo Alto Jewish Center. After Brodsky’s lecture I handed out my Russian book to him and he asked me to call him next morning; then we appointed a place near coffee house and spoke about 3 hours. The common judgment about his arrogance has evaporated very soon: he was quite practical and knew about Moscow writing more then I’ve expected from him. We briefly skimmed contemporary poetry map, figured out “who is who” and switched to the topics concerned with the relevance of certain poetry devices and their imaginable opportunities in a given situation. He traced the plumb axis in whatever examples he had put. He was focused on how to bullish the value of the word (he used ironically the market notions sometimes) and spoke about ways to sublime the theme in our robustly reasonable world.

He told me that poetry is named a fine art just because the music is prevails in its tissue over the rational mind. “Poetry is a MELIC ART nevertheless,” – he wrote me later (“Music must be paramount… And everything else is mere literature,” – P. Verlaine), and advised me to expand my rhythmical repertoire. Whether he implied that I was too rational or it was only a premise for the further discussion, remained an enigma for me as he contradictorily told me about unpredictability and unpremeditated features of some of my images. Thus, I’ve got critical notes and encouragements simultaneously. He was enough sceptical, for instance, about the length of my subordinate clauses, although I used them not for drawing information or make the rhetorical figure, but for the further transformation of images which allowed me
to set the main event at the end of some respiratory phase (I enjoyed this Baroque style).

An artist argues if not with his opponent, then with himself. I was interested in him, he was interested in himself and it was entirely sufficient, for I realized that he was looking for another messages and triggers which affected him. While I listened him, it was important to prefigure the room, to define the vacancy for the new poetic applications. Just not in a rational way, but to imagine a space in which new experience would get a chance to be revealed.

Sorry, I have made a lot of notes on the margins of his books, and now it’s hard to arrange all of them.

You see why I postponed writing about him? This post is already long, and I’m left with a puzzle – the mystery of brief meetings that leave a lasting impression, and the memory of my misplaced fear of this oddly sweet and guileless man.

There was very little written about him a decade ago – now pages and pages are on google.  Here’s his poem, “Oil.”  And here is Ron Silliman‘s memoir of him, at an extraordinary moment of courage in a Moscow pub with a bunch of skinheads.

Alyosha died a month before his 55th birthday, of cancer, in Cologne.



W.H. Auden’s prose, and why art matters

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

If you haven’t already read it, I recommend Michael Wood‘s “I Really Mean Like” in one of last summer’s issues of the London Review of Books. He discusses The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose Vol. IV, 1956-62, edited by Edward Mendelson.

From Wood’s review:

Marianne Moore says of poetry that she too dislikes it; Eliot tells us that it doesn’t matter; Auden says it makes nothing happen. In fact, none of these propositions represents anything like the whole story for any of these poets, but there’s an element of affectation here all the same, an unseemly wooing of the philistine. Neither Mallarmé nor Valéry ever expressed any interest in a muse who didn’t bother to read poetry – they knew that the world was already full of people saying that it didn’t matter, and saw no reason to join the chorus, even out of strategy.

I wonder if it’s the difference between the French and the English – it’s so easy to sound hysterical in English. In French and Italian,  it doesn’t seem to matter.  Perhaps they are hysterical all the time, so it doesn’t count.

I like this:

… when Auden wants to evoke ‘a parable of agape’, or ‘Holy Love’, he talks about Bertie Wooster’s relation to Jeeves. Bertie in his blithering is a comic model of humility, and his reward is Jeeves’s immaculate and unfailing allegiance. There is also an appealing moment when Auden, suggesting that popular art is dead and that ‘the only art today is “highbrow”,’ suddenly remembers he has to make an exception: ‘aside from a few comedians’. He says he learned long ago that ‘poetry does not have to be great or even serious to be good, and that one does not have to be ashamed of moods in which one feels no desire whatsoever to read The Divine Comedy.’

Forget it.

Note to self:  Go back to The Dyer’s Hand, although Auden makes one weep with envy, not least of all for his aphorisms, like this one:

We enjoy caricatures of our friends because we do not want to think of their changing, above all, of their dying; we enjoy caricatures of our enemies because we do not want to consider the possibility of their having a change of heart so that we would have to forgive them.

Or these: “he says that ‘every good poem is very nearly a Utopia,’ and ‘every beautiful poem presents an analogy to the forgiveness of sins.’ And again, shifting to music but not exactly leaving the other arts behind: ‘Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.’”

Can poetry matter?  Wood answers:  “Art can’t redeem the world, and that is why we must be modest about it. But it can show us what redemption would look like, and this is why it matters.”

Jan. 31 deadline for Saroyan Contest. Go ahead. Try.

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Maybe he changed his mind. (Photo: Library of Congress)

“I didn’t earn one dollar by any means other than writing… I have never been subsidized.  I have never accepted money connected with a literary prize or award. Once I was urged by friends to file an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship … My application was turned down and I began to breathe freely again.”

The words come not from William Saroyan, but from his protagonist, a young, starving writer in his 1934 story, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.

Nonetheless,  it is a teensy bit ironic that a writing award has been established in Saroyan’s name, given these well-known lines.  But then, he bagged a Pulitzer and Oscar, too – so irony abounds.

Here are the details of the fifth biennial William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, sponsored by the Stanford University Libraries.  The libraries  house the William Saroyan Collection, which includes manuscripts, personal journals, correspondence, drawings and other Saroyiana.

The most important part:  deadline is Jan. 31, 2012.

A prize of $5,000 will be awarded in each category – fiction and non-fiction – to encourage new or emerging writers.

Entry forms and rules for the Saroyan Prize are available online.

The fiction category includes novels, short story collections and drama. Literary non-fiction of any length will be considered for the Saroyan non-fiction prize.  Judges will be looking for strong literary merit that honors the Saroyan tradition, particularly in non-fiction memoirs, portraits and excursions into neighborhood and community.

Entries in either category are limited to English language books that are available for individual purchase by the general public.


The Saroyan Prize was last awarded in 2010, when the fiction prize went to Rivka Galchen for her novel Atmospheric Disturbances and the non-fiction prize went to Linda Himelstein for The King of Vodka. Other notable winners include Jonathan Safran Foer in 2003 for his novel Everything is Illuminated.  George Hagen won in 2005 for his novel The Laments, and Kiyo Sato won in 2008 for her memoir Dandelion Through the Crack.

Go ahead.  Try.  $5,000 buys an awful lot of kitty litter.