Archive for October, 2012

Happy Halloween – here’s the best pumpkin evah.

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012
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Happy Halloween, everybody!

Enjoy the day with the best pumpkin of the year – perhaps the best pumpkin evah.  This beauty was commissioned for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and carved by Marc Evan and Chris Soria.  I wonder how long it took to make.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of the day, you might want to revisit Dana Gioia’s ghost story, or more recently the Jeff Sypeck’s take on the spooks from the rooftops of Washington’s National Cathedral.  Or how about George Orwell on love, sex, religion, and ghosts. Or… or… or… Dostoevsky, Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, and Paul West on evil — just in time for Halloween.

Enjoy the day, and take it easy on the candy.  Read a book instead.

Postscript:  From high art to pop art in a few quick hours.  Here’s another pumpkin to celebrate the day.  Sculptor Andy Bergholtz created the jack-o-lantern Joker in one manic 8-hour stretch:

“Surprisingly, Bergholtz has only been carving pumpkins for a year. He said that another sculptor he knows, Ray Villafane, had been encouraging him for years to sculpt squash, but he resisted.  Then last year Villafane recruited him to help carve pumpkins for Heidi Klum’s Vegas Halloween party. Bergholtz said, ‘I instantly fell in love with the art form and haven’t looked back since.'”

Want to know how the artist did it?  See video below.

Remembering William Maxwell: “He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012
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Maxwell

Sophisticated? He didn’t think so. (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

In preparation for Stanford’s “Another Look,” a new book club launched by the English department at Stanford, I wrote a retrospective on author William Maxwell, whose  masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow, will be the inaugural book for  “Another Look”  on Monday, November 12.   The book will be discussed by award-winning author Tobias Wolff, with Bay Area novelist, journalist, and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford’s lit scholar Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.  More on “Another Look” here

***

“I never felt sophisticated,” the erudite and elderly Midwesterner explained to NPR’s Terry Gross in 1995.  His modesty is certainly one reason why William Maxwell remains a connoisseur’s writer, never achieving the wider recognition he deserves.

Yet Maxwell’s career was situated at the epicenter of American literature and letters: On staff at the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he was the editor of J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, and many other luminaries.  He also contributed regularly to the magazine’s reviews and columns, and continued to do so until 1999, a year before his death.  Maxwell wrote six novels, many short stories, a memoir, two books for children, and about forty short, whimsical pieces, which he called “improvisations.” Three volumes of letters have also been published.

Others have readily compensated for Maxwell’s modesty.  Christopher Carduff, editor of the Library of America edition of the author’s complete works, once called him “a kind, wise, quiet voice. One of the essential American voices of our time.”

“I don’t think he tried very hard to promote himself,” said writer Benjamin Cheever, son of novelist John Cheever, in a telephone interview. “He was very, very quiet – both as a public person and as a conversationalist.  He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

“He lived for art, its appreciation as well as its creation,” wrote John Updike in The New Yorker.  “His shapely, lively, gently rigorous memoirs, out of the abundance of heartfelt writing he bestowed on posterity, are most like being with Bill in life, at lunch in midtown or at home in the East Eighties, as he intently listened, and listened, and then said, in his soft dry voice, exactly the right thing.”

The path of Maxwell’s life took few sharp turns. He was born in Lincoln, Illinois, on August 16, 1908. His professional life was almost entirely bound up with the New Yorker, where he worked for four decades – in a sense, he became the “company man” his father would have approved. After an intensely long and lonely bachelorhood, he married the most beautiful woman he had ever met.  Their marriage lasted until her death, a week before his own.  He and Emily (universally called “Emmy”) had two daughters – the first born when he was 46.

His work habits were relentlessly predictable:  According to his daughter Katharine Maxwell, he was consistently in bed at 10 p.m., and up at 6 a.m.  He didn’t like the superficial chitchat of cocktail parties.  He excused himself abruptly from dinner parties at 9.45 p.m. – he wanted to be fresh to write the next morning.

About four-fifths of his oeuvre is set in or around his hometown. Thanks to him, Lincoln has become a landmark as indelible as Hannibal, Missouri, in the annals of American literature.

“The shine went out of everything”

There was one defining peak on the otherwise rather flat landscape of Maxwell’s life: his mother’s death in the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he was 10. He never really got over it; almost all his friends and acquaintances speak about it when recalling him. “He couldn’t speak of her without tears welling up in his eyes,” recalled his daughter, Katharine Maxwell. She said it resulted in a sort of flinty atheism, a grudge almost – “yet he said he thought God could write a better story than he could.”  Maxwell’s friend and fellow writer at the New Yorker, Alec Wilkinson, described him as “melancholy-minded.” Said Wilkinson: “His mother’s death stamped him forever with an awareness of the fragility of human happiness.  It kept him away from any religions. I remember him saying that ‘no one can fail to be astonished by creation – that’s as far as I’m going to go as to a governing faculty to the universe.’”

(more…)

Terror’s human face: Women of the Gulag – the book and the movie. Help make it happen.

Saturday, October 27th, 2012
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Marianna Yarovskaya on location

I met Paul Gregory a couple years back, when his Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Institution Press, 2010) was just out.  I wrote about it, with a video of Paul, here) … well, “writing” might be too strong a word.  His noontime presentation at Stanford was so tight and so compelling that I pretty much presented what he said, as he said it.  I didn’t have to do much more.  (I’ve written about his Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives here).  Since meeting him, he’s become a high-powered economics blogger at Forbes 

Filmmaker Marianna

The Bukharin book was such a great story, I kept seeing it as a film.  Instead, he’s saved the film for his newest book, Women of the Gulag.  He’s teamed with Muscovite documentary filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya.  Paul told me some time ago about his newest effort: I was against several deadlines and didn’t have the extra brain cells to process it then, but given his previous book, I had little doubt that it would be stellar.

It is.  From his introduction:

A remark often attributed to Stalin is, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

This is the story of five such tragedies. They are stories about women because, as in so many cases, it was the wives and daughters who survived to tell what happened.

These five women put a human face on the terror of Stalin’s purges and the Gulag in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.  They show how the impersonal orders emanating from the Kremlin office of “the Master” brought tragedy to their lives. They cover the gamut of victims. Two are wives and daughters in ordinary families unable to comprehend why such misfortune has overtaken them. A third is a young bride living in the household of a high party official. The last two are wives of the Master’s executioners. These stories are based on their memoirs—some written by themselves, others by close friends or by their children.

Writer Gregory

Here’s the deal.  The book will be out early next year with Hoover Institution Press.  But the movie is in limbo until you pitch in over at kickstarter here.  The filmmaker is trying to raise $30,000 to finish the film, and she has 57 more days to raise the money on the kickstarter deal, which ends December 23.  Think of it as a Christmas present to Russia … or better yet, to mankind, because this history is important to record.

Applebaum at Stanford

“Why film a bunch of old babushkas?” Marianna is asked.  According to Washington Post‘s Pulitzer-prizewinning Anne Applebaum, who appears in the film, “Aside from its historic value, a project like this one has special significance in the light of contemporary Russian politics. In recent years, under President Putin, Soviet and Russian history have been re-politicized, and the Stalin period has come to be viewed with ambiguity by politicians, writers, film makers, and regrettably the public. The stories of the victims of the gulag, told by simple people who had little or no understanding of why this was happening to them, make an excellent antidote to creeping historical amnesia. This project is also urgent, of course, because most of their subjects are in their advanced years, and their stories have to be recorded now.”

Filmmaker Marianna explains why she’s passing the hat:  “We are now continuing the campaign and the project and are in post-production. We are also interviewing more women in other parts of Russia. We already have almost 40 hours of footage. These funds will go towards recording more testimonies on HD video and towards editing the footage we have gathered. Clearly the timing is urgent as the survivors and the heroines of the original Stalin gulag are getting very old. This is “the last chance.” (Marcel Krüger has an interview with her here.)

The film below gives a preview of their work.  I hope you find it as riveting as I do – and please do pony up whatever you can over at Kickstarter here.  Time is of the essence.  As always.

Goyle of my dreams: Things are Looking Up for Jeff Sypeck

Thursday, October 25th, 2012
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Our Washington-based medievalist and occasional correspondent Jeff Sypeck, author of Becoming Charlemagne, walked past these stones every day.  At last, he succumbed  to the impulse to write formal poems in honor of the gargoyles at the National Cathedral.  As he wrote on his blog Quid Plura: “Some books you plan to write; others simply happen. Looking Up definitely falls into the latter category. It’s a great surprise to me that it even exists; I hope you’ll find something pleasantly surprising in it as well.”

The result is Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles.  Just in time for Halloween,  Jeff’s book offers us “monsters both malevolent and benign.”

According to the book jacket:  “Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles gives voice to the National Cathedral’s famous gargoyles and grotesques. From light verse and straightforward sonnets to strange soliloquies and songs, the 53 poems in this book draw on medieval myth and legend, local lore, and the weirder side of Washington. Across 138 pages, you’ll find a tragic octopus-lobster love story, a broken angel, a fish with a cryptic riddle, a Cajun alligator, an agnostic hamster, quarreling rabbits, wistful cavemen, a knife-wielding goblin, mother-son monsters, and dragons galore.”

Looking Up exists “through the kindness of the folks at the National Cathedral, who graciously let their publication-shy gargoyles appear on its pages.”

Jeff is offering a little kindness of his own:  since much of the cathedral is still in desperate need of repair after last year’s earthquake, he’s donating 75 percent of the net profits from this book to the cathedral’s fund for reconstruction.  Says Jeff: “It’s my way of saying thank-you for the many quiet afternoons I’ve spent on the cathedral grounds.”

Jeff, who taught medieval literature for a decade at the University of Maryland, has been pleased by the response so far to his “unfashionable folly.” He wrote me: “This book has everything working against it: it’s local, formal, print-only, and medieval-inspired – but people seem to be getting a kick out of it, which is gratifying.”

The book is available on Amazon (I’ve ordered mine already) – or pick one up in the National Cathedral gift shop, if you’re in D.C.

Meanwhile, to tide you over, here’s one of the small volume’s more popular poems, with photo of the lobster and octopus in question.

An Octopus Reappraises Her Lobster

I hear the hot breath of the lobster I love.
The trees wilt below us; there’s nothing above.
You snore and I shudder, for sleepless I know
The oath of adventure we swore long ago:

“Between us, our limbs number eighteen in all;
Let’s creep from this tank and slip over the wall
And forever be free! Let’s aspire to perch
On a spire of our own on the loftiest church.”

You clawed at my tentacle, tender and green,
Like the first awkward kiss of a king and his queen.
You scuttled, I swam; through the garden we went.
Where grass gripped the stones, we began our ascent.

A lobster lives long, as no octopus can,
But a lobster has in him but one perfect plan.
I longed for longevity. No girl expects
To ask of her lobster, “So what happens next?”

You curl up contentedly, dreaming of me;
I cling to my cornice and scarcely feel free.
“I won’t let you down,” you once vowed, and I sighed.
I love that you’re honest. I wish you had lied.

“His sobering effect”: Czesław Miłosz’s “Notes on Joseph Brodsky”

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012
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Last weekend I was chatting with Joseph Brodsky‘s first translator, George Kline.  The Bryn Mawr professor befriended the young Russian poet in St. Petersburg, and went on to be the translator of the Harper & Row 1973 Selected Poems, with a foreword by W.H. Auden.  It was later reissued as a Penguin paperback – I carried that dog-eared volume with me from 1976, when I bought it in an Ann Arbor bookstore, until it was lost it in a foreign city … somewhere in Vilnius, as I recall, sometime in the late 1990s.

George thanked me for sending him Czesław Miłosz‘s “Notes on Brodsky.” I couldn’t recall having done so, but looked up a copy for myself in Stanford’s Green Library, in a 1996 Partisan Review, to make sure I hadn’t.

The piece is well worth excerpting.  “The presence of Brodsky for many among his poet-colleagues was a mainstay and as if a point of reference,” the Polish poet wrote.  Later, “whatever survived from the past has been due to the principle of hierarchical distinction.”

“Here was a man who by his oeuvre and by his life reminded us, against what today is so often proclaimed and written, that hierarchy exists.  That hierarchy cannot be contrived by syllogisms and established in a discourse.  Rather, by living and writing, we affirm it every day anew. It has something to do with the elementary division into beauty and ugliness, truth and falsity, goodness and cruelty, liberty and tyranny. But, first of all, hierarchy means respect for that which is elevated and unconcern, rather than scorn, for that which is base. …

“To go straight to the goal, not letting oneself be swayed by any voices calling for one’s attention. That is, knowing how to recognize what is important and clinging only to it. That was precisely the the strong side of the great Russian writers of the past.

“Brodsky’s life and writing tended toward accomplishment, as an arrow tends towards the aim. Yet, evidently, that was an illusion, just as in the case of Pushkin or Dostoevsky. We must therefore formulate it differently – that fate tends straight to the aim, while the one who is ruled by fate knows how to read its main lines and to comprehend, be it dimly, that to which one is called.”

His words brought back what the Miłosz had said to me on the same subject, about “maintaining one’s own vision, one’s own taste, let us say, against the current fashion of the day.”

Esse.

From my Georgia Review interview a dozen years ago: “I have lived a long time in the West and tried to remain faithful to a line of Polish poetry. The same applies to Brodsky and Russia. The history of poetry is the history of language. That’s why Joseph Brodsky wrote that we write to please our predecessors, not our contemporaries.”  I’ve quoted this part before, about Milosz’s crucial division between esse and devenir:

“There was at a given moment a stable world where we could see, hold on to values that were a reflection of the eternal order of things. Now we are in a flux. This is a very peculiar way of life. … When everything is in flux, revision, it is healthy to have some poets who preserve the feeling of respect.  In a way, Brodsky was a conservative voice in that sense – he had a lot of sense.”

“For me, the value of Brodsky was his sobering effect, and his enormous feeling of hierarchy. He had a great feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature.”

Paul Celan, John Felstiner, and the soul of beauty

Sunday, October 21st, 2012
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Some weeks ago, we discussed Simone Weil‘s comment that “distance is the soul of beauty.” At that time, Andrew Shields wrote to the Book Haven:

Back in the spring of 1988, several students and I (already graduated but still hanging around) spent several evenings at [author and translator] John Felstiners house, reading, translating, and discussing [Paul] Celan poems. The most memorable discussion was about “The Vintagers,” in which we discovered ourselves, as it were, as readers of the poem. Our experience of the poem (a “beautiful” experience) was connected to our distance from it, which we found characterized in the poem as the distance between those who make tears into wine and those who later drink it. That seemed like a figure of Celan the poet as wine-maker and ourselves as reader/drinkers.

I wrote to John, asking if we could republish his translation of “Die Winzer” – so many know little of the German-language poet’s work besides his “Todesfuge.” In his 1995 literary biography, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, John says the 1953 elegy “asks even more attentiveness than usual” in Celan’s oeuvre.  The poem, he says, “ingrains autumn into itself: an elegy and at the same time a meditation on poetic process, impelled by rhythmic repetition.”

Here it is:

The Vintagers

They harvest the wine of their eyes,
they crush out all of the weeping, this also:
this willed by the night,
the night, which they’re leaning against, the wall,
thus forced by the stone,
the stone, over which their crook-stick speaks into
the silence of answers –
their crook-stick, which just once,
just once in fall,
when the year swells to death, swollen grapes,
which just once will speak right through muteness
down into the mineshaft of musings.

They harvest, they crush out the wine,
they press down on time like their eye,
they cellar the seepings, the weepings,
in a sun grave they make ready
with night-toughened hands:
so that a mouth might thirst for this, later –
a latemouth, like their own:
bent toward blindness and lamed –
a mouth to which the draught from the depth foams upward, meantime
heaven descends into waxen seas, and
far off, as a candle-end, glistens,
at last when the lip comes to moisten.

Scholars John and Mary Felstiner (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

According to John, who is studying “creative resistance” during the Holocaust: “Despite this ever present ‘they’ in Celan, critics who are sure that ‘Die Winzer’ concerns the poetic process itself identify those who ‘harvest the wine of their eyes’ as poets taking on our pain and transforming it. Perhaps, but this disregards the people who first found voice in ‘Todesfuge,’ whose wartime suffering sifted through European earth. It’s they, a buried people, who are leaning against night in ‘Die Winzer,’ against the shooting wall, and who speak ‘into/the silence of answers.’ To say that ‘they’ are poets is off by a generation.”

Noting that an earlier draft of the poem was called “Die Menschen” (roughly, “The Humans”), John writes (and these excerpts don’t nearly do justice to the Felstiner’s expert biography), “The change from ‘The Humans’ to ‘The Vintagers’ added a pastoral irony, since in German Romantic poetry the Winzer figures as a rejoicing worker. In Hölderlin, ‘The vintager’s brave joyous cry/Rings pure on sun-warmed vineyard slopes.’ Closer to Celan is Isaiah‘s prophecy: ‘upon thy harvest the battle shout is fallen. … And in the vineyards there shall be no singing … no treader shall tread out wine in the presses’ (16:9-10). Desolation threatens the harvest and the song alike. …

She said it first.

“And shortly before writing ‘The Vintagers,’ Celan had read Heidegger on Hölderlin’s 1801 elegy ‘Bread and Wine,’ in which Dionysus goes between humankind (die Menschen) and ‘they,’ the gods. Celan marked Heidegger’s phrase, ‘poet in a destitute time: singing on the trace of the departed gods.’

“The Vintagers” corresponds in a score of words to “Bread and Wine” and still refutes it. The later poet does not invoke gods or the mystery of water being turned into wine or wine into the blood of redemption. When, in Celan, ‘they cellar the seepings, the weepings,/in a sun grave they make ready/with night-toughened hands,’ we are to think not of Dionysus’s priests or Jesus’ disciples but of people forced to dig their own graves.”