Archive for February, 2013

Ezra Pound on video: “Late, very late I have known sadness.”

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

A handsome interlocutor

The American poet Ezra Pound in 1967, interviewed by the Italian film director, poet, journalist, philosopher Pier Paolo Pasolini – who reads the aging poet’s poems (and beautifully).

There’s a little discussion of the Pisan Cantos, written in 1945 when Pound was held for treason in an American military detention center near Pisa, after his pro-Fascist wartime broadcasts to America. He was imprisoned for  weeks in a wire cage open to the elements. Pound had a nervous breakdown.

Pasolini asks him about the music at the end of Pound’s Second Pisan Canto: “What music is it?”  Pound replies: “The birdsong of Clément Janequin, written for choir. Francesco da Milano transcribed it for the lute, and Gerard re-transcribed for violin.”  If that doesn’t make one long for Renaissance France, I don’t know what would.

The “Lewis” in the video is the painter Wyndham Lewis, Pound’s his great friend.

Still confused about Les Misérables? Another chance to get it straight.

Monday, February 25th, 2013

Or the hottest?

Last night’s Oscar awards ceremony brought Victor Hugo‘s Les Misérables into the limelight again – but we’re still startled by how many moviegoers are confusing the events of 1832’s failed uprising with the more renowned 1789 French Revolution.  So let’s take the opportunity to remind you that there’s a mini-history at the Book Haven here. We’re up to 36 comments and counting.

And when you get that sorted out, we’ll start telling you about the 1848 revolution.  And then the 1851 coup d’état by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. And then the destruction of the last Napoleonic empire between 1870 and 1871.  It goes on and on.  With all the brouhaha, it’s a wonder they could manage an empire at all … oh, that’s right, they couldn’t… It does go some way to explaining the insane decision to sell off a third of the North American continent in the Louisiana Purchase. They were distracted.

Meanwhile, enjoy this Oscars ceremony Les Misérables medley.  And Aaron Tveit as Enjolras above at right, the coolest revolutionary ever.

“Aus Anstand”: A little ditty that carries a long story

Sunday, February 24th, 2013
"Aus Anstand."

Her finest moment.

I remember decades ago, back in Ann Arbor, Joseph Brodsky whistled “Lili Marlene,” and asked me if I recognized the song. I didn’t.  How many would of my generation?  He, of course, had been a toddler during the Siege of Leningrad, and retained a lifelong fascination with World War II.

The song came up again today, in a conversation I had this morning with George Klinewho mentioned how much the Nobel poet had liked the song.  Naturally, it’s been running through my mind today, and so I looked up a little of the song’s history.

The catchy sentimental tune was written in 1915, by Hans Leip, a schoolteacher who had been conscripted into the Imperial German Army.  The song survived into World War II.

Joseph Goebbels tried to put a stop to it.  But  Axis soldiers all over Europe kept asking them to play to play the sweet, sentimental ditty again, and Goebbels had to relent.  The tune was used to sign-off the broadcast at 9:55 p.m., and the soldiers waited to hear it.  The soldiers on both sides, as it turned out.

The British soldiers in north Africa adopted it from the Germans, and both sides listened to it again and again.  But none sang it better than the German actress Marlene Dietrich.

While  in London, Nazi officials had offered her big contracts if she would agree to return to Germany as a ffilm star for the Third Reich.  The actress, staunchly anti-Nazi, turned them down flat.  She applied for U.S. citizenship instead.

She had a great career, before and after the war, but she said her finest moment was during the World War II.  She sang for U.S. soldiers, and she also sang for German POWs. She performed for Allied  troops on the front lines in Algeria, Italy, England, and France – and she even went into Germany,  with Generals James Gavin and George Patton, putting herself in danger within a few kilometers of German lines. When asked why she had risked her life to sing,  she famously replied, “aus Anstand” — that is, “out of decency.”

I’d never heard the English version before.  It’s below.  The husky, lilting German is below that.  See which you like best.  And see if you can recognize the language of the third version, recorded in 1943 (but not, alas, by Marlene…)

“America’s Sweetheart”: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mary Pickford, and plummy vowels

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

“We were very tired, we were very merry…”

Okay, okay, I admit it.  I was absolutely smitten with Edna St. Vincent Millay as a young teenage girl.  I would wander a quarter-mile down Lone Pine Road in the isolated outskirts our tony neighborhood, head into the woods and loudly recite Millay’s sonnets of disillusioned love to the cattails, red-winged blackbirds, and the frozen pond.  And it made me feel grand.

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t feel too embarrassed.  No less than an eminent authority than Richard Wilbur wrote, “She wrote some of the best sonnets of the century.”

Too bad I didn’t have a recording of her voice.  I didn’t know about “her resonant voice with its clipped consonants and plummy vowels” – that might have intimidated me into a little more sense and silence.

Kate Bolick writes about the pin-up poet of the 1920s in “Working Girl” over at  Bollick informs me that I was not the first.  As a young woman at Vassar, Millay “threw herself into campus cultural life, starring in plays, publishing poems, and cultivating her already magnetic personality into a persona that proved irresistible to a captive pool of young women ripe for seduction.”

Here’s one secret they didn’t know:  She was named after a hospital. Her mother, who raised three daughters alone, was a sort of itinerant nurse, and had some reason to be grateful to St. Vincent Hospital.  Voila!   So all you have to do to get a classy sounding name is head for the nearest emergency room.  (Wouldn’t work for me.  Nearest hospital is Stanford University Hospital.  Cynthia Stanford University Haven doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)

The Millay girls grew up poor, and the plucky girls were alone for days and had to look after each other.  One day in winter, I recall reading, the pipes broke, flooded the floors, and froze.  The girls ice-skated throughout the house.

Bolick writes:

America’s other sweetheart.

There certainly wasn’t any money for college, so after Millay graduated from Camden High School in 1909, she stayed home writing poems and confiding her dissatisfactions to her journal. It was during this period that she drafted the epic, 214-line “Renascence,” which uses the topography of that little coastal burg—the mountains and bay islands and apple trees—to dramatize one woman’s spiritual oppression and mystical rebirth. Maine can get forbiddingly grim in winter, and it’s tempting to imagine the young poet sick with thinking she’ll never leave that godforsaken place, desperate to get out of the house at least, heroically pulling on her boots, trudging through the freezing slush, and eventually winding up at the local five and dime, idly flipping through a movie magazine. The year is 1912. There’s a big spread on the latest hit, The New York Hat, starring “America’s Sweetheart” (actually Canadian) Mary Pickford. It’s a silly film, about a girl and a hat. But what Millay sees is her more-or-less reflection. She and Pickford were born the same year. Like Millay, Pickford was barely over five feet tall and rarely exceeded 100 pounds, with a winsome face and masses of hair—“luminous tenderness in a steel band of gutter ferocity,” as one film critic put it. Millay pays for her hot cocoa and hurries back home, seed planted; soon enough, she’ll send that fetching portrait to the editor of the Lyric Year poetry contest.

That little scene is an invention, of course—I made it up. But there’s something potent in the idea of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Mary Pickford shining at opposite reaches of the same celestial firmament. In the 1910s, women were entering the public sphere in greater numbers just as the publishing and entertainment industries were gaining momentum, to mutually beneficial effect. Pickford, too, was raised in poverty by a single mother, and used her beauty and acting talents as her ticket out, inaugurating one of modern America’s most enduring fairy tales.


Millay is commonly thought to be the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (in 1923).  Not so, says Bolick. “In fact, she was the third. But who beyond poetry scholars remembers Sara Teasdale and Margaret Widdemer?”

I do sometimes.  Sara Teasdale, anyway …

It is not heaven: bitter seed
Leavens its entrails with despair
It is a star where dragons breed:
Devils have a footing there.

The sky has bent it out of shape;
The sun has strapped it to his wheel;
Its course is crooked to escape
Traps and gins of stone and steel.

It balances on air, and spins
Snared by strong transparent space;
I forgive it all its sins;
I kiss the scars upon its face.

Whoops. That’s Elinor Wylie, the third in the troika of American lyric poets of the period, with Millay and Teasdale.  Somehow Wylie and Teasdale have a tendency to blur in my mind, and sometimes Millay joins them.

Read the rest of Bolick’s piece here.

And listen to the pronunciation of “merry” and “ferry” in the poet’s reading of “Recuerdo” below. Wow.

More Gombrowicz: “Only phenomena capable of a ruthless life have the right to exist.”

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

“Terribly Polish.” (Photo: Bogdan Paczowski)

A week after Witold Gombrowicz arrived in Buenos Aires in 1939, Germany invaded Poland.  He couldn’t go back.  Thus began two decades of South American exile.

He began his Diary some time later, in 1953, and continued writing till his death in 1969. According to Ruth Franklin writing in the New Yorker:  “In the diary, Gombrowicz describes himself as ‘Terribly Polish and terribly rebellious against Poland.’ Gombrowicz rebellion was primarily targeted at what he came to call ‘form.’  … Though his diary project was defined by the search for self, he was not yet ready to thrust himself into it. Later, the diary grew more adventurous, branching into increasingly personal territory and experimenting more with the form and structure of his entries. Gombrowicz’s quest to save Polish culture from its own admirers becomes a favorite theme of the diary. … His exhibitionism begins in mild form, with an almost sheepish account of his daily routine. … But soon the diarist moves into the darker corners of his personality.”

And then Ms. Franklin describes precisely the incident I described in my previous post, which I had found when I first opened the book at random –  “Gombrowicz, Argentina, and a restroom on Callao Street, 1955.”  So what are the odds in a 783-page book?

Here’s an earlier diary entry from 1954, more under the rubric of “Terribly Polish and terribly rebellious against Poland.”

In Poland the tower of a too aristocratic culture crashed and everything there, except for the factory chimneys, will become dwarfed in this and the next generation. Should we, the Polish intelligentsia in exile, shrivel up because of this? This is strange but true: even though we have been suspended in a void, even though there will be fewer and fewer people capable of understanding us, we must continue to think in an unsimplistic and unprimitive way, in a way that is in keeping with our level, just as if nothing at all had changed in our situation. We must simply because this is natural in us and nobody should be more stupid than he is. We must realize ourselves completely and speak our bit out to the last letter, because only phenomena capable of a ruthless life have a right to exist.

Gombrowicz, Argentina, and a restroom on Callao Street, 1955

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Do it, do it, do it. (Photo: B. Paczowski)

If there had not been a seminar at Stanford a few weeks ago, in preparation for The Collected Works’ production of Witold Gombrowicz’s Princess Ivona, had not Lillian Vallee come to speak … well, I might never have found out about the Yale University Press’ new 783-page edition of Gombrowicz’s Diary, translated by Lillian.  (The New Yorker, last summer, called the translation “heroic” – how did I miss all this?) Now I have it.  I opened it at random.  Here’s Gombrowicz in Argentina, 1955:

Should I tell or not? A year ago, more or less, the following happened to me. I stopped in a café on Callao Street to use the bathroom. … All kinds of drawings and scribblings were on the walls.  Yet the unconscious urge would never have assailed me, like a poisonous dart, if I hadn’t accidentally fumbled across a pencil in my pocket. The pencil turned out to be an ink pen.

Enclosure, isolation, the certainty that nobody would see, some sort of stillness … and the murmur of water whispered: do it, do it, do it. I took out the pencil. I wet the tip.  I wrote on the wall, high up so it would be hard to erase.  I wrote something quite vulgar in Spanish like:

“Ladies and gentlemen, please comply …
S–– not on the toilet seat but straight in its eye!”

I hid the pen. Opened the door. I walked through the whole café and mingled with the crowd on the street. And the graffito remained.

From that time on, I exist with the awareness that my graffito is still there.

I hesitated to disclose this.  I hesitated not for reasons of prestige but because the written word should not serve to spread certain … manias.  But I won’t hide the fact that never would I have dreamed that such things could be this … electrifying … and I can hardly refrain from reproaching myself. I wasted so many years without tasting this inexpensive and risk-free delight.  There is something in this … something strange and intoxicating … resulting most likely from the horrible openness of the graffito, which is there on the wall, in union with the absolute secrecy of the perpetrator who cannot be found out. And also because this is not at all on the level of my work. …


He’s a winner! Michel Serres gets the Dan David Prize

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Relaxing at Stanford (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Michel Serres is a winner.  But then, we knew that already.  We’ve written about him here and here and here.

Here’s the latest evidence:  He’s one of the five winners of this year’s Dan David Prize, which was announced last week by the Dan David Foundation and Tel Aviv University. The other winners include Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, and Esther Duflo, a French economist who studies poverty in the Third World and has been active in the fight against malaria, and epidemiologist Alfred Sommer, and Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, a Cambridge historian of the philosophy of ancient Greece.

Haaretz described Michel Serres as “a French scholar whose work on the atrocities  of war has helped seal his reputation as one of the greatest French philosophers living today.”

Each year, three $3 million awards are made in three dimensions: past, present and future. Serres was recognized in the present dimension under “Ideas, Public Intellectuals and Contemporary Philosophers” Wieseltier represented “the present,” too – so they’ll split the million.

Here’s what the David Prize people had to say:

Michel Serres is a French master thinker of the old school, with an intimate knowledge of the western tradition in philosophy and science, from its origins to the present, a passionate curiosity about the present and the willingness—and the ability—to enter productively into discussion of a vast range of current questions. His career began with an enormous and penetrating investigation of Leibniz’s use of mathematical models, which continues to be a standard work, and rapidly developed into a series of inquiries: into the history and nature of mathematics, epistemology, moral philosophy and humanity’s relations with the natural world.

In the great tradition of French intellectuals, Serres has analyzed scientific, philosophical and fictional texts, deftly and reaching original conclusions.  He has led more recent efforts to preserve a French tradition in philosophy, concerned for moral and social questions. …

Serres is an eloquent, even seductive writer. Both in France and in the United States, where he has taught for many years at Stanford, he has been a compelling and charismatic teacher, and his lectures and publications have reached large audiences around the world. His combination of deep learning and profound thought with the desire and ability to address the public has become rare.

The award ceremony will be held at Tel Aviv University on June 9.  I’m proud that I appear to have the only video interview with him in English:

“A durable sense of joy”: Master Miltonist Martin Evans (1935-2013)

Friday, February 15th, 2013

A great scholar, perhaps an even greater man. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Martin Evans died Monday morning at his home.  It’s a great loss for Stanford, and a great loss for Milton studies.  My obituary is here.

One of the intellectual highpoints of recent years at Stanford (and there has no shortage of them) was the 400th birthday celebration for John Milton, including the 10-hour marathon reading of Paradise Lost.  The event became a very intense baptism into the brilliant world of Milton studies – a world whose most eminent scholars include Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, Stanley Fish, and others.  And, of course, Martin Evans, too.

Stanford’s Jennifer Summit, Canada’s Liz Pentland looking on. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Martin, my genial host for the event, insisted that John Milton was the most learned poet in the English language, bar none.  No surprise that  I was so inspired by the caliber of minds I met at the event – and by Martin, most especially – that I attended his classes for a quarter to hear the master-teacher firsthand.  I was not disappointed.

From the obituary:

Evans coined the phrase “Miltonic moment” to describe the point of crisis just before the action changes dramatically, looking at once backward to a past that is about to be transcended or repudiated, and forward to a future that immediately begins to unfold.

His first reading of Milton marked a Miltonic moment of his own: “I fell hopelessly in love with the poetry. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever read,” Evans said.

Yet Evans is remembered for being a powerful mentor as well as a revered scholar.

The poet and scholar Linda Gregerson of the University of Michigan, his student in the late 1970s, recalled, “He was immensely generous, both personally and intellectually, able to convey deep learning with extraordinary clarity. He always took a deep delight in ideas, and was just opinionated enough to make things fun.”

Poet and Miltonist Gregerson

She recalled him as “impish, with a brilliant, irreverent sense of humor.”

“He converted many of us to a lifelong inhabitation in the world of Milton studies. It’s a formidable world in many respects, not nearly so genial as the world of Shakespeare studies, for example. But Martin imbued it, and us, with a durable sense of joy.”

It made me almost regret not being a Roundhead, and left me wishing I did not feel quite so strongly for Charles I.

Back to the 400th birthday party, when I wrote (you can read about the whole thing here, with Humble Moi at half off the lefthand side of the screen at the tale-end of this video, here, to prove I did, really attend the event):

Canadian Miltonist John Leonard made a convincing Satan. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Although those attending the event were invited to wear costumes, none did. And there was no prelapsarian nudity. ‘Everyone will be wearing clothes,’ promised English lecturer Alice Staveley, another organizer of the event. ‘We’re all fallen readers.’

“It’s another decision Milton would have approved. He was, after all, a Puritan. In America, however, the word ‘Puritan’ carries a lot of cargo. Evans insisted that English Puritans bear little resemblance to their dour American counterparts. For one thing, Milton ‘loved music, loved wine,’ Evans said. ‘Puritanism,’ in the American sense, is one of Milton’s many bum raps.

“The influential novelist, poet and critic Charles Williams ticked off the charges leveled at the purportedly proud and scornful Milton, rebutting his foes who maintained ‘the pride of his Satan was his own pride, and he approved it.

‘They argued over his Arianism or his Calvinism. They confined his instrument to the organ. They denied him cheerfulness and laughter (he who, it is said, used to sing while he had the gout!). They gloomed over him, as (they supposed) he, in his arrogant self-respect, gloomed over the world,’ Williams wrote in The English Poems of John Milton (1940).

“But in today’s world, so far from Bread Street and the blind prophet, Milton has few champions as unflagging as the redoubtable Evans.”

A half-century Milton legacy. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

While speaking with his former students in the last few days, one story impressed me, in particular.  I met Angelica Duran at the event several years ago, but I didn’t know her backstory until I spoke with her several days ago.  She was a first-generation Chicana graduate student when she was at Stanford, from 1994-2000, and also a single mom of two very young children.  At one point, she was going to drop out for a quarter because she was in a tailspin over her conflicting duties and overwhelming workload.  Martin told her if she took time off, she most probably wouldn’t be coming back.  “Let’s look at your schedule,” he told her.  He inspired her with his own stories about growing up in hardship as a child in Wales. She went on to become director of religious studies and associate professor of English at Purdue University and editor of the Concise Companion to Milton. Oh, and she’s still a mom, too.

Well, as his former student Dennis Danielson of the University of British Columbia, who is editor of the Cambridge Companion to Milton, Martin Evans was “not ashamed of his affections.”  Here’s part of the talk Danielson gave when the Milton Society of America named Martin as a prestigious “honored scholar” for lifetime achievement – part tribute, part roast, “that’s the way he liked it,” said Danielson.

Near the end of the quarter, after we had all got our sea legs, we had some excellent discussions, and there was a moment at which Martin expressed a magisterially-delivered opinion about the beginning of Book 11 of Paradise Lost—with which I found myself in serious disagreement. What could I do? I decided to take a big risk, and what I did was to write my final paper on the very issue about which we disagreed, explaining why I disagreed—in the form of irrefragable scholarly argument, of course.

A week later as I walked out of the quad on my way home I waved a cheerful, slightly nervous hello to Martin, who was riding by in the opposite direction on his bicycle and had no I idea how anxious I was about having stated my disagreement with him. He sailed past me, but then he turned his bike around and rode back to where I was. As usual, he wasted no words, but told me that he appreciated my paper very much, thought I should publish it, and also thought it would form the basis of a good PhD thesis. Then he turned again and without further ceremony pedaled off into the quad. It was a moment I’ll never forget, and I see it as typifying the man’s forthrightness, unselfishness, and magnanimity. What I don’t remember is whether I carried on back to my apartment on the ground or through the air.

He will be missed.  He is already.

Happy Valentine’s Day, book lovers!

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Janet Lewis’s Wife of Martin Guerre and the cold, cold face of justice

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

He got around.

The second event in the “Another Look” book club (I’ve written about it here and here and here) is drawing nigh:  The event will take place next Wednesday, on the 20th of February.  The book is Janet Lewis‘s The Wife of Martin Guerre – well, I’ve written about that here.  (And did you know that Michel de Montaigne attended Martin Guerre‘s trial?)

I’d welcome some of your thoughts on the book before the event – or even afterward.  Meanwhile, here are a few of my own about the calculated lie that sets the plot in motion and the cold, cold face of justice.  The rest is on the “Another Look” website here.

The movie version

A calculated lie is at the center of Janet Lewis’ The Wife of Martin Guerre, and the lie explodes the life of everyone around it.  The novel is a brutal tour de force, defying reader expectations.

“Another Look” seeks out short masterpieces forgotten, neglected or overlooked.  In the case of The Wife of Martin Guerre, we didn’t have to look farther than home.  The 1941 book was born at Stanford, and the author taught in its English Department.  Hailed as one of the top books of the last century, it’s too little-known today. The story has become famous, but the book has not.

The short novel, about a 16th-century case of imposture in southwestern France, has been made into a play, an opera, several musicals, and most notably The Return of Martin Guerre, a 1982 movie with Gérard Depardieu in the title role.

The story is a tragedy, and like all great tragedies, has a lie at its core.  Oedipus is not a stranger who rolled into town; he’s the son of the city’s murdered king.  Claudius is not the unexpected beneficiary of a throne and wife, he’s guilty of regicide and fratricide.  King Lear’s eldest daughters do not love him, despite their protestations.  But these lies are quickly overwhelmed by their effects; in Lewis’s novel, the lie is the hard, unbudgeable kernel of destruction that no one wants to examine.

The judge’s version

Like Agamemnon, Macbeth, and so many tragic heroes, the “new Martin” resolves, “If only I can keep this, all will be well, I’ll make everything else right in the end.” But the lie he wishes to keep eventually damns any possibility of a future or peace.

The heroine, Bertrande de Rols, is initially the passive prisoner of the thing she most wishes to be true, but doubts in her heart.  In the world Lewis creates, the greatest enemy is not a person or a judicial decision: it is in the thing we do not wish to be fact – the unbearable truth just around the corner, the truth seen with peripheral vision, just by the tail as it goes down a hole.  The lie at the core of the book gives rise to a welter of smaller daily lies, which, in turn, buttresses the great one.

The characters move seamlessly from victim to perp, from perp to victim, and back again.  As poet Tim Steele, a friend of Lewis, writes in Numbers (1989-90), the book is a psychological study of “people who betray others or who are themselves betrayed in the course of the interpretation of evidence.”  When Bertrande finally turns to the truth, it turns her to stone; Lewis hints it may even lead to her death. … Read the rest here