Archive for March, 2012

Internet-speak and “truncated text” – is it OTT?

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

The curmudgeon is correct.

I find myself agreeing with Geoffrey Hill, taking what I fear is an unfashionable stand against the popular British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, when she said that that “the poem is a form of texting … it’s the original text”:

“It’s a perfecting of a feeling in language – it’s a way of saying more with less, just as texting is. We’ve got to realise that the Facebook generation is the future – and, oddly enough, poetry is the perfect form for them. It’s a kind of time capsule – it allows feelings and ideas to travel big distances in a very condensed form.”

Said the Hill, according to The Guardian:

“When the laureate speaks to the Guardian columnist to the tremendous potential for a vital new poetry to be drawn from the practice of texting she is policing her patch, and when I beg her with all due respect to her high office to consider that she might be wrong, I am policing mine,” said Hill … The Oxford professor of poetry has previously described difficult poems as “the most democratic because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing they are intelligent human beings”, saying that “so much of the popular poetry of today treats people as if they were fools”.

Speaking in Oxford, he said that he “would not agree that texting is a saying of more with less, and that it in this respect works as a poem”. “As the laureate says, poetry is condensed. Text is not condensed, it is truncated,” said Hill. “What is more it is normally an affectation of brevity; to express to as 2 and you as u intensifies nothing. Texting is like the old ticker tape: highly dramatic and intense if it’s reporting the Wall Street Crash or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, not through any inherent virtue of the machine. Is the breaking news which runs at the foot of the screen on the BBC news channel condensed and consequently poetic? I fail to see how anyone could rationally claim that it is. Again texting is linear only. Poetry is lines in depth designed to be seen in relation or in deliberate disrelation to lines above and below.”

What, then, are we to do with the abbreviated, acronym-laced speech that is taking over today?  For many of my younger Facebook friends, “lol” has become a verbal tick.  On reading, it gives the impression that the speaker is  giving way hearty laughter for each banal, and often distinctly unfunny, thought or announcement.

A beleaguered mother wrote this on her blog:

My daughter is always laughing at my ineptitude.

“GBH & K!” she yells to me, running out the door. (Great big hugs and kisses)

I stand there, looking mystified, as I try to figure out the latest abbreviation.

“Oh! H&K, too!” I shout. But she’s already out of sight.

My daughter is so good at KPC. (Keeping parents clueless) Just when I think I’ve got it she throws a new one at me.

KWIM was her favorite for a long time. And she’d pronounce it, like it was a word. “Kwim?” she’d ask. (Know what I mean?)

Or “ADK!” she’d roll her eyes, exasperated with her little brother putting on his shoes. (Any day now)

FWIW (that’s “for what it’s worth,” to the unitiated), here are the newest text-speaks from the great unwashed who gave us the now-shopworn LOL, OMG, and ROTFLMAO – brought to you by Vikram Johri over at Frank Wilson‘s Books Inq.:

1.  HST
4. IIMO… (this is followed by a question)
6. TWW (Hint: sentence beginner when referencing the past)
7. OTW
10. FTLT

Can’t possibly guess what they mean?  Flip down to the comments section, and I’ll give the answers.  Meanwhile, it’ll be something to puzzle over on a slow Saturday.

Blogger Danish Dog added a few of his own:

1. HST Having said that
2. OUAT Once upon a time
3. ISOT In search of truth
4. IIMO Is it my opinion
5. ITNEFY If this never even finds you
6. TWW This was when
7. OTW Otherwise
8. WTFO What the fuck? Over.
9. WOTS Word on the street
10. FTLT For the last time

“We are nothing without our language.” Salman Rushdie and courageous footwear.

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Breyten Breytenbach, an unnamed editor, Philip Gourevitch, and the man himself (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

This week, we posted about great literary slugfests.  But are they a thing of the past?  One prominent literary agent thinks so:

“The day of the writer as public character is greatly diminished,” said Mort Janklow, the veteran literary agent. “Writers are more professional. You don’t hear about feuds. You don’t see the most prolific writers out.”

“It’s hard to be a great social figure and a great writer.”

And that, apparently, means the end of feuds.

This comment came from a New York Times article about Salman Rushdie, that witty, brilliant, and increasingly banal figure on the public literary scene.

Just when you are about to give up on him entirely, just when you want to see no more of this leering, goateed, grizzled grandee with another grinning babe on his arm, just when you are about to conclude that he has descended on a smug, one-way trip into vulgarity and a cliché, he whips out with a crisp comment like this one:

“The human being, let’s remember, is essentially a language animal. We are a creature which has always used language to express our most profound feelings and we are nothing without our language. The attempt to silence our tongue is not only censorship. It’s also an existential crime about the kind of species that we are. We are a species which requires to speak, and we must not be silenced. Language itself is a liberty and please, do not let the battle for this liberty be lost.”

The comments are from The Guardian article about his “rousing address” in Delhi – read the whole thing here; I found it rather plodding and waspish, always ready for a jab at a foe.  I guess after what he’s been through he’s entitled to the jabs.  One just longs for … well, a little nobility, a little moral grandeur.

The fatwa thrust him unexpectedly to an international stage – potentially the foremost in a new generation of giants such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky, Vaclav Havel. So it’s dispiriting to see him living in a cheesy fantasy of celebrity; he’s shrinking before our very eyes.  Am I missing something?

My friend Zygmunt Malinowski, the photographer who provided the images for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, alerted me about the NYT article.  He’s a bit more cautiously optimistic than I am: “I don’t know what to think about a writer who is that popular in the celebrity business. It seems to me that he broke the mold of the isolated writer such as Salinger, Updike and of course Czeslaw Milosz. Good for him.”

He sent me this photo: “I photographed him a few years back by the  New York Public Library with the editor of Paris Review and with Breyten Breytenbach and his editor walking close by.  They just finished a talk about Ryszard Kapuściński.  S. Rushdie was very interesting to listen to.

“Their footwear is fun, sneakers and red shoes – that takes a bit of courage too!”

When literary tête-à-têtes ends in fisticuffs…

Monday, March 26th, 2012

The subject of the fistfight: Lewis and Tolkien

It’s not often that two guys having a literary discussion end up by hauling off and whacking each other. And yet  it happened in the city of my alma mater, after several hours of serious drinking:

A 34-year-old Ann Arbor man was sent to the hospital with a head injury after another man punched him on Saturday during a literary argument, according to police. … the man was sitting on the porch with some people he had just met, talking about books and authors.

The 34-year-old man was then approached by another party guest, who started speaking to him in a condescending manner. An argument ensued and the man was suddenly struck in the side of the head, suffering a cut to his left ear …

The injured man – who was smacked so hard his glasses flew off and a lens popped out – was treated at a local hospital.

The story jumped from Ann Arbor to The Guardian, whose blogger, Sam Jordison, telephoned Michigan to get the scoop:  “The details remain sketchy, but the prominent rumour around town is that the men were disputing the relative merits of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.”

Virgil says: Don't watch. Don't listen.

Then Jordison shares his own self-satisfaction and his derision of his betters (Henry James, for example, is “the old windbag”) – apparently, he never loses a fight and is always right, just like the rest of us.  (It is the one thing we all have in common.) Then he asks a question:

But all this does make me wonder whether anyone else has experienced book-based violence. Have you had a literary argument so heated that you’ve only been able to resolve it with blows? Or could you imagine doing so – or at least losing your cool? And what’s your tipping point? If, for example, I were to inform you that J.M. Coetzee‘s Disgrace is a clever book for people who don’t like to think, would you hold it against me? And how do you like to annoy other book-lovers?

Here’s a few.

Mailer, Gore

Mad men: Mailer, Gore

There’s the time Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal. “As usual, words failed him,” quipped Vidal.

And two Nobel laureates ended a friendship when Mario Vargas Llosa socked Gabriel García Márquez – story recounted here and here.

Then there’s the fistfight between Ernest Hemingway and Wallace Stevens, confirmed by others but recounted by Hemingway in a February 1936 letter:

"Nice Mr. Stevens" and Hemingway

Nice Mr. Stevens. This year he came again pleasant like the cholera and first I knew of it my nice sister Ura was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc. So I said, this was a week ago, ‘All right, that’s the third time we’ve had enough of Mr. Stevens.’ So headed out into the rainy past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door having just said, I learned later, ‘By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.’

So who should show up but poor old Papa and Mr. Stevens swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only trouble was that first three times put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him. But you mustn’t tell this to anybody.

The winners

Then there’s the time that Desmond Leslie punched journalist and theater critic Bernard Levin in front of 11 million viewers over an article Levin had written about his wife, the actress Agnes Bernelle. The incident occurred the TV show That Was The Week That Was in 1962.

I am forced to come to the conclusion that book-lovers are a quarrelsome lot, not so much from these incidents as from some of the unsupported character assassination in the reader replies (though they did tip me off about where to find the best fights). Basta! What is it in us that likes to watch a fight?  As Virgil says to Dante in the Inferno: “To hear such wrangling is a joy for vulgar minds.” It’s one reason the Inferno has always been more popular than the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. Something to remember when one indulges in the “Comments” sections.

The two who come out best from the whole mess are … those two tweedy Oxford dons, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Lewis, in particular, was generous and self-sacrificing to an extreme, and though the two men disagreed, they remained gentlemen and friends.

More bookplate porn!

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

A Toni Hofer woodcut bookplate

What a difference a couple days makes! A whole new world has opened up to me, and my wallet has opened up as well. Here’s why.

On Friday, I posted “Bookplate Porn: “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever,” and I challenged readers to submit their favorite bookplates.  (In the post, I had admired some of the excellent Stanford Library bookplates of Lisa Haderlie Baker.)

No sooner did I post my short piece on Facebook page than I got an almost instant reply from colleague Mike Ross: “Ooohhh. When I get back home next week,” he promised, “I’ll have to find the bookplates a Linz, Austria, woodcutter made for our grandfather, who’d helped there in the late stages of World War II. They’re gorgeous!” However, he didn’t wait till he got home to post again.  He added this 12 minutes later: “I just remembered his name: Toni Hofer. He’s mentioned in a number of articles, including this one.

Bookplate engraving by Niu Ming-Ming

The article is from – get this – a bookplate collecting society in Austria, called Österreichische Exlibris Gesellschaft, or the Austrian Exlibris Society, emphasizing the bookplate as “a bearer of culture … that was identifiable as an art form in itself.” It was an important enough organization that the Nazis messed with it. Who knew bookplates had that kind of clout?

It was all, however, just the tip of an iceberg. A search for Toni Hofer (we couldn’t wait for Mike Ross to come home, wherever he is) led me to Ebay.  Type in “exlibris” into the search function to discover a world of wonders.  Apparently, there is a whole subterranean movement to collect bookplates. Over a thousand are featured on ebay even as I write, some from the Czech Republic, others from Romania, Russia, Finland, Denmark.  Check them out.

Naturally, I couldn’t resist. I’ve bought three already, and bid on two others.  You can look at hundreds right now. One of the wiggiest is from a Chinese artist at right.

We accept submissions by iphone

Back to the contest.  More contestants. In case you haven’t figured it out, there will be no winners and no losers in this contest.  It’s like Lewis Carroll‘s Caucus Race; as the Dodo said, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Except there aren’t any prizes, either. Consider everyone getting honorable mentions.  And it won’t end. Keep sending me pictures of pretty bookplates till the end of time.

Elena Danielson replied by email yesterday with her own nomination.  She sent a photo from her iphone with the note: “Hand Printed at Paper Crane HMB … This one pasted in 1st Ed of Moment in Peking autographed by author Lin Yutang.”

I did a little google search of my own for bookplate porn (I figured I couldn’t have invented the term) and uncovered this: “If there’s such a thing as bookplate porn, this gorgeous book is the ultimate,” wrote Sadie Stein in The Paris Review.  She’s referring to Martin Hopkinson‘s new book on bookplates, The Art of Bookplates.

A bookplate book

From him, I learned that “bookplates originat[ed] in their modern printed form in 16th-century Germany, where books were highly valuable.”  He writes:

In the early 1500s, Albrecht Dürer and other German engravers and printmakers began to create highly decorative bookplates, often featuring armorial devices and coats of arms for wealthy individuals and institutions. As the fashion for ornamental bookplates spread, distinctive national styles evolved. Nearly every conceivable design element—from cupids to scientific instruments, portraits, and landscapes—served to decorate personal bookplates. This volume explores the various sources of ex libris inspiration, including designs by C. R. Ashbee, Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsley, Eric Gill, and Rudyard Kipling, as seen in the books of Frederic Leighton, Calvin Coolidge, and many others.

Finally in a postscript to my original post, one reader submitted this suggestion with the words:  “Here is one of my favorites. How could it not be?”

The comment is from Richard Katzev.

Bookplate porn: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

I miss them.  You know what I mean:  those exquisite bookplates you used to run across when you peeked into the top-notch books in the finest libraries or secondhand bookstores. I miss them, even though I admit I have grown attached to the practical “From the Library of …” embosser I use to efficiently process my books and ward off potential book thieves. It gets the job done, and looks dignified and restrained – but it’s cheating, really. Not the classy way to go.  This is.  You know it when you see it.

We’ve written before about bookshelf porn – and we’ve talked about library porn and bookstore porn.  But there’s something intimate and cozy about bookplate porn.  You can’t, after all, imagine yourself toddling off with the University of Coimbra General Library in Portugal, but you can fantasize taking home one of the beauties pictured on this post, slipping one in-between the pages of a book for quiet, solitary delectation later.

Here are a few to make you drool.  I have seen a few of them before while browsing in the Stanford Libraries (they really are some of the best I’ve seen),  but someone pointed out a whole website of them here.  I only got to the “L”s before I found more than enough to fill a blog post on a slow Friday night.

This is how it works for the Stanford Libraries:  A bookplate is created when a donor gives a substantial and important collection, or  when a donor starts an endowed fund for library materials. Lisa Haderlie Baker, whose blog is here, has created most of Stanford’s  bookplates over the past decade or so.  (Check out the blog – she makes gorgeous cards as well.)

Given my propensity for butterflies, birds, and bees in this sampling, it’s obvious that spring is on my mind. Yet I reserve a special affection for the high-concept bookplate at right, with its almost-Tibetan clouds.  And the Charlotte Salomon bookplate is an obvious favorite, we’ve written about her before.

Here’s a thought.  This is too much fun.  If you send me digital forms of your own favorite bookplates, we’ll do a follow-up post with your picks.

But I bet you can’t match these.  Go ahead.  Try.


Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation – and a Cahiers Series giveaway

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Update on 3/26:  Still some editions of this treasure available for free for a retweet (or Facebook “share”) during the giveaway: Go to Facebook and Twitter pages here and here, beginning today.  I wouldn’t miss it. The New York Review of Books called this series “exquisitely produced, lavishly illustrated, and lovingly edited”

“…but knowing him at all was my good fortune.”

With those words – iambic pentameter with a stranded, falling syllable at the end – Keith Botsford begins his “autobiography” of artist, author, and critic Józef Czapski in the Cahiers Series’ Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation.

The Cahiers series/Sylph Editions will be hosting a giveaway on its Facebook and Twitter pages here and here, beginning today.  I wouldn’t miss it.

While visiting the Cahiers headquarters in Paris, Daniel Medin casually handed me Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation.  I didn’t realize until some time later, after my return to America, what a gift it would prove to be.

Botsford uses Czapski’s own words, interrupted with his commentary and illustrated with twelve of Czapski’s paintings. He calls this a “biography from within,” but he begins on the outside, with externals: Czapski was “not just tall, he was elongated…enormously wide awake behind his glasses.”

“There were two odors about him: the saddle-soap smell of the Uhlan officer and the more delicate perfume of the diffident man of delicate sensibilities, a whiff of the ascetic.”

Czapski seems to have cast a salutary spell on Botsford: “How could one fail to love such an Eye?” he asks. But it’s not just the artist’s vision that haunts him: “I am setting down a quality of his mind: the way he made connections. Not table-talk. He spoke ill of no one; even about Picasso he changed his mind.”

Polish officer in 1943

It’s hard to read much of 20th century Polish literature without running across the name Józef Czapski, one of the founders of the influential Polish emigré monthly Kultura.

My visit to the Kultura office in Maisons-Laffitte last month more insistently reminded of the remarkable man I had so far overlooked. A crucial chunk of Czapski’s  bio is necessary to understand him:  he was one of about 400 officers to survive the Katyń massacre, in which the Soviets slaughtered 20,000 Polish officers.  In 1941 and 1942, Czapski was sent as an envoy of the Polish government to look for the missing officers in Russia. After the war, Czapski remained in exile in Maisons-Laffitte. He was in a key position to offer help to dissidents and defectors. And he did.

During Czesław Miłosz’s time in Washington as a cultural attaché for the Soviet government, Czapski had told him that if he decided to jump ship, Kultura would protect him.

Miłosz had other reasons to be grateful to Czapski, the man who introduced him to the writings of Simone Weil through her first published book, Gravity and Grace. Czapski also showed him Arthur de Gobineau’s pages about ketman, which would become a key concept in the poet’s influential denunciation of communism, Captive Mind.

Botsford writes of Czapski: “In fact he was serene, and good order reigned in his mind. I take it as significant that from a man who had, like every Pole, suffered greatly from Poland’s German and Russian neighbors, I never heard a word against either nation, only a very pure love of his childhood and Poland.”

Yet, “Poland, and his exile, weighed on him.”

“not just tall, he was elongated” (Self-portrait, 1984)

“Striking is the fact that I can recall no whining. As he’d faced all he alterations of his long life, that Tolstoyan and Catholic streak in him was powerfully directed towards what was actively good, to what could still be celebrated about life.”

Czapski wrote:

Matisse was visited by Rouault. The two men had not spoken to each other in years. Matisse had survived two major operations. He told Rouault: How quickly life goes by! It’s terrible. Yet he was quite calm, blessed the blue sky he saw out the window, and wished his daily work was more like prayer.

How does one escape history? One doesn’t. There is something unbreakable about one’s being who one is, how formed, what seen and heard, where been when.

I think that Miłosz would have characterized him by the word he repeatedly emphasized in my own interview with him, “piety,” a term that embraced a respect for an aesthetic hierarchy. Joseph Brodsky would likely have called it “a plane of regard.”

The Nobel laureate said of Czapski: “He was deeply religious. So many of his major influences were men who thought of a divine order in the world. He read Rozanov, he debated with Simone Weil. All that was private and internal to the man. He had an idea of the Good in his head.”

This “idea of the Good in his head” permeated Czapski’s views of his art: The fullness of art is reached by the strait and narrow path of absolute humility, by veneration for the world as we see it, the use of the hand to draw it.  (Words that remind me an awful lot of the poet Julia Hartwig.)

Botsford, however, met Czapski when the artist was 70 – and  this short, 42-page study becomes truly remarkable when describing Czapski’s old age.  Czapski’s words again:

Akhmatova said: I kissed boots among the higher officials to get some news of my son, whether he was alive or dead, and got nothing. So many extraordinary people I’ve known. Why do I recall my fellow-officers in Griazovietz? Why did Herling-Grudziński listen to the stories of his fellow-prisoners, and tell them?  Because the stories they had to tell deserve to be remembered. They are gone, but who they were should not disappear. The Communion of Saints, the talk of the living and he dead, goes on.

Somewhere I read or heard of a woman who begged God to show her – even if just for a second – what paradise was like. An angel visited her and told her to shut her eyes and He would grant her wish. When she opened them again and looked about her, she said, But that is what I see every day.

Czapski’s old age lasted decades.  He soldiered on until 1993, and was more than ready for his death at 96.

But at eighty-three: I see death differently: as a form of salvation, a deliverance, as an ‘enough.’ What remains is what is poetry and what is goodness.

And elsewhere – “die and become. As a moth alters.”

Check out the giveaway.

(Photos at top and at right reproduced from the Cahiers Series with permission.)

For World Poetry Day: Tomas Venclova on Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky, and Czesław Miłosz

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

I met Tomas Venclova in Kraków last May, at the festival celebrating the Czesław Miłosz centenary.  After the grand fête closing the week-long events – an awards ceremony and concert at the Kraków Opera House – a few exhausted party-goers had had enough and were ready for bed.  Those of us who were weary of wine and hors d’oeuvres looked for a way to head back to the hotel in the rain. I was shoveled into a taxi with two men.  One of them was Tomas Venclova, Lithuania’s leading poet, and a writer who is sometimes mentioned as a Nobel candidate.

We had corresponded before, as he was one of the contributors to my book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and I had also heard him reading and reminiscing in the days before – the voice not quite what I had expected, the pitch slightly higher, the timber a little quirky, almost birdlike.

And here he was … or had I introduced myself in the crowded, jostling days before that night?  I must have. I honestly can’t remember.  But this is the first time I do remember, clearly:  he was in the front seat – silent … as tired as I was, perhaps? I could see his silhouette, with his trademark cap, against the rainy windows. I spent most of the time chatting with the fellow with whom I shared the back seat, someone who knew us both – and such are the tricks of memory that I cannot remember who, exactly, that third companion was. He has become a mysterious stranger, though the Lithuanian poet and I have struck up a correspondence since. A penpal by email or letter, from Yale, or Vilnius, or Paris – but  I haven’t seen him face-to-face since May.

Except on these newly released videos of interviews conducted last year in Paris.  I was greatly chuffed that Web of Stories has put them online to celebrate World Poetry Day on Wednesday, March 20.  It’s a good excuse to talk about this quietly marvelous poet – we aren’t likely to do anything later, on his birthday; it falls on September 11.

Here’s your chance to meet the poet and his poems.  Too few know the Vilnius-born poet and his work. Consider it a gift on the first day of spring.

From the email Web of Stories sent me:

In these absorbing clips, Venclova recounts his upbringing in Lithuania, including how he and his father had staunchly opposing political views. He also depicts how his first poems were dedicated to the Hungarian Revolution and despite not being published, they were circulated among groups of people: “I can say with pride that many, many years later when Hungary and Lithuania were free, I received a Hungarian medal for supporting the Hungarian Revolution then through my poems.

He also reminisces about his decision to emigrate to America, losing his Soviet citizenship, being offered a job at Yale and looks back over his career as a writer since leaving Lithuania: “When I left, I thought that it was possible that I’d end up as a lorry driver, for example, or a cleaner or a road layer. But that didn’t happen, I’d been a philologist and a writer and I remained a philologist and a writer.”

Alas, I was not able to embed the story of his meeting with Anna Akhmatova, and her interactions with Alexander Solzhenitsyn – you’ll find that here.

This clip describe Tomas’s meeting with Joseph Brodsky at Akhmatova’s funeral. My friend, the Lithuanian physicist Ramūnas Katilius, translated Tomas’s poems into Russian for the Nobel poet. “This was our triumvirate, our group.”

I didn’t realize that, in fact, that Tomas Venclova first brought Czesław Miłosz (or Česlovas Milašius, in the native Lithuanian) to Joseph Brodsky‘s attention. Here’s the story in the clip below.


Part Deux, with video clips discussing his help from Arthur Miller, his friendship with Timothy Snyder, and his unsuccessful attempt to save an imprisoned dissident, Viktoras Petkus, is here.

Part Deux: Tomas Venclova on Arthur Miller, Timothy Snyder, and an imprisoned friend

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

More on Tomas Venclova.  I can’t get enough.

Below, a few more clips from the celebration of World Poetry Day at the Web of Stories, continuing my post here.

I certainly didn’t know the playwright Arthur Miller had championed the Lithuanian poet and written a letter to the Communist authorities to protect him. Here’s the story:

I’ve written a lot about Timothy Snyder in these pages – but I didn’t know till now he is friends with Tomas (who is a great fan of Bloodlands). “A relationship with him is something you can be proud of,” he says of the acclaimed author.

A reading of his poem “Before the middle of July, Paris.” The poem is dedicated to the imprisoned Lithuanian dissident Viktoras Petkus. “Well, this is about how a person attempts to reach public opinion in the West, and doesn’t succeed.”

Ever wonder how cigarettes got that “glamorous” image? Hint: It wasn’t an accident.

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Accidents happen (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I ran into historian Robert Proctor at the Stanford Humanities Center Book Celebration earlier this month – or rather he ran into me.  I was drinking a glass of red wine to celebrate the fête honoring, among other tomes, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz when … whoops!

That’s one reason I wear black – I like red wine, and yet tend to be both the perp and target of clumsiness … well, usually the perp.  (In photo at right: that’s moi at the back of the room in the tan jacket – but the blouse was black silk, whew!)  Once I had sopped the wine from my cleavage and neck, I recognized the author of Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition, a book the tobacco industry tried to stop with subpoenas and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees – I wrote about it here.

In an exchange of emails afterward, I learned that his book got a very big spread in Le Monde.  Author Proctor, who was the first historian to testify in court against the tobacco industry (in 1998), deserves it.  The link for 25 February article by Stéphane Foucart is here. It’s blogged at Le Monde here.

But I didn’t see a link anywhere for the fascinating sidebar, “Smoking Onscreen Pays Big Dividends.” An excerpt from the French article – my translation is all-too-fallible, but the dollar figures speaks an international language:

You can’t ignore it.  If you saw David Fincher’s screen adaptation of the first part of the Millenium – the trilogy of books by the writer Stieg Larsson – you know that Mikael Blomkvist smokes Marlboro reds. The journalist of integrity, a somber and solitary hero, orders his pack of cigarettes in a bar at the beginning of the film.  How many scenes are like this?  This type of investment is expensive.

In the secret documents from the industry – the “tobacco documents” – we find the agreement struck between Sylvester Stallone and Brown & Williamson in 1983: the actor took $500,000 for smoking several cigarette brands (Pall Mall, Kool, etc.) in his five films. It’s hardly rare.

This will break a few icons:  Paul Newman gets a car worth $42,307 for smoking such mark in The Last Stand (1984). Sean Connery gets $12,175 worth of jewelry to smoke in the James Bond film, Never Say Never (1983), Clint Eastwood gets a $22,000 car to show a particular cigarette in Sudden Impact (1983) … The examples are legion. Often, a studio makes the agreement directly with a brand – $350,000  for that Lark smoked in Licence to Kill (1989). In his book Golden Holocaust, Robert Proctor shows that the film was invaded by the cigarette almost from its inception.

In other words, it’s not an accident that cigarettes acquired a “glamorous” image – and to some extent maintained it decades after the bad news was out.

Glad France is getting the dismal news at last.  I saw a lot of people lighting up in Paris last month.  Those cigarettes cost a lot more than a wad of euros.

Hurry hurry hurry! Get your Simone Weil t-shirt! 10 hours to go!

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Okay, Okay, I know. What on earth would Simone Weil, the brilliant philosopher and mystic who worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor and the disenfranchised, have thought of a t-shirt in her honor?  Nevertheless, I’m going to go for it. You should, too.

Here’s why: the funds go to her new movie, An Encounter with Simone Weil. Anything that promotes the work and writing of the woman Albert Camus described as “the only great spirit of our time” is a worthwhile endeavor, but this one especially so.  Here’s what filmmaker Michael Moore said of the film:

Julia Haslett has made a profound and moving film on a woman who continues to speak to all of us. Few Americans know of Simone Weil, but this deeply affecting documentary will make you want to know more. An Encounter with Simone Weil challenges all of us not to look the other way when we see the suffering of others. Julia’s personal journey through the film is both heartbreaking and inspiring.”

New York Magazine made it a “critic’s pick” with these words:

Haslett’s intensely personal and touching film about the twentieth-century French philosopher and activist uses Weil’s writings, spiritual journey, and short, sad life as a way to explore her own personal emotional landscape—from her relationship with postmodern capitalism to her relationship with her troubled family.

The event on Kickstarter is here, with 10 short hours to go.  A $75 pledge gets you a signed copy of Sylvie Weil‘s new book, At Home with André and Simone Weil.

Postscript:  So here’s the final tally: 247 backers signed in, pledging $20,077 on a $15,000 goal.  Good news!