Archive for October, 2013

More praise for the Cahiers Series – with new works by Anne Carson and Paul Griffiths

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Anne Carson’s essay, translations, and the Greek poet Ibykos

From this week’s Times Literary Supplement:

The Cahiers Series is a collection of beautifully produced booklets (twenty-two have been published so far), around forty pages in length, all illustrated with images, which are sometimes apposite, sometimes not, but always interesting. The declared goal of the series is ‘to make available new explorations in writing, in translating, and in the areas linking these two activities’. Some editions have a fairly tenuous connection to translation: in Shades of the Other Shore, two Americans, a poet and an artist respectively, are “translated” from the United States to rural France, with Jeffrey Greene’s short prose pieces and poems exploring “imagined correspondences between personal and historical ghosts tied to the seasons”, and Ralph Petty’s watercolours recording a journey to the source of a local river; in Józef Czapski: A life in translation, the novelist and translator Keith Botsford writes an imaginary autobiography of the Polish author and critic; in In the Thick of Things, the French architect Vincen Cornu attempts ‘to “translate” architectural sensation into words and images’. Then there are the cahiers written by translators or by poets who also translate, as well as translations of stories or plays followed by a brief translator’s note.”

That’s about as good an introduction to the Cahiers Series as I’ve seen anywhere (I’ve written about the valiant endeavor here and here – and the Book Haven even sponsored the Józef Czapski giveaway here).  Alternatively, you could take this, from the Book Trust: “The Cahiers Series represents all that we should be striving for in our increasingly interwoven world.” The effort is managed on a shoestring out of American University of Paris, and yet the short cahiers are truly elegant productions with thick paper and hand-stitched bindings, lavishly illustrated – a friend, Assoc. Prof. Daniel Medin (we’ve written about him here and here) is one of the admirable champions behind the project, and one damn fine editor, too.  Margaret Jull Costa‘s article about the Cahiers Series in the current Times Literary Supplement here seems to pretty much weave together all the past issues. Although I don’t have the list in front of me, it looks like she’s been able to fit about every title into her text.

Except the newest two.  That gives me an opening to tout them:


Eleven Noh plays become stories in English.

Nay Rather
Anne Carson

This cahier unites two texts by celebrated Canadian poet Anne Carson, encouraging readers to experience them alongside and illuminating each other. ‘Variations on the Right to Remain Silent’ is an essay on the stakes involved when translation happens, ranging from Homer through Joan of Arc to Paul Celan; it includes the author’s seven translations of a poetic fragment from the Greek poet Ibykos. ‘By Chance the Cycladic People’ is a poem about Cycladic culture where the order of the lines has been determined by a random number generator. The cahier is illustrated by Lanfranco Quadrio drawings and gouaches, inspired by his reading of Anne Carson’s texts.

The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories
Paul Griffiths

Paul Griffiths effects a multi-layered translation, taking a series of eleven Japanese noh plays and turning them into stories in English. The reader will encounter spirit-beings set free, lovers lost and found, dreams and desires fulfilled, lessons learned from nature, and always a longing for the infinite, as the long, slow drama of each noh play is transformed into a short and moving tale. Interspersed and contrasting with the stories are ten photographs of contemporary Japan by John L. Tran which further explore the relation between theatricality and narrative, while offering hints of a very different vision of infinitude.

The price (£12) is pretty good. Order them here.

Surviving the Holocaust: One man remembers Raoul Wallenberg’s safe house

Monday, October 28th, 2013
PS portrait

The face of a survivor

During Bengt Jangfeldt‘s presentation on Raoul Wallenberg last week , one man in the audience asked a question about the Holocaust hero’s safe houses in Budapest, where Jews were protected from deportation and almost certain death.  His interest was personal: he had been a child in one of them.  When the Book Haven asked him to write a little about his experiences, Peter Stangl, who has written an unpublished memoir, gave us more than we had hoped for.

Stangl is director emeritus of Stanford Medical Center’s Lane Library. He was born in Budapest on December 19, 1936.  His father was a businessman, his mother a graphic artist and illustrator.  His mother perished in the Holocaust, probably at Dachau.  The boy, however, was hidden by nuns, then took shelter with his father in a Wallenberg safe house in the Budapest ghetto.  After the war, he graduated from high school in Communist Hungary in 1955.  He signed up for a lathe mechanic apprentice program after high school to avoid the draft, but was a few months shy of finishing the program when the 1956 October uprising broke out.  He escaped to Vienna with a school buddy and then emigrated to the U.S., arriving in December 1956.

He received a scholarship to go to Yale, where he received a B.A. in Russian Area studies in 1962.  He studied linguistics at the Sorbonne and Yale School of Graduate Studies, 1963-64.  He received an M.S. in Library Science, Southern Connecticut State College, 1968. He worked at the Yale University library system 1964-71, and became director of Lane Library, 1971 -1996. 

Here’s a shard of his Holocaust memories:

In 1944, I was seven years old.  That was the year of mass deportation of Jews from Budapest.  My father was among the first, being an able-bodied man in his forties.  Young Nazi soldiers came to the house to take him away and he was taken to work camp.   Within hours he was back, having escaped from the train station where they were loaded onto trains.  He knew he would be rearrested shortly, so he gave hurried instructions to my mother to stay put, not to respond to calls of reporting for deportation.  He kept repeating that he would be back, no matter where he would be taken, and that he would take care of everyone and everything.

stangl2And sure enough, the soldiers were back and took him away again.  Posters appeared all over the city announcing times and gathering places for Jews, by age and gender, to report for registration – meaning to be transported to concentration camps.  This is what my father was talking about.  But my mother was too scared not to report, and she went.

My father escaped again and came home (altogether he escaped seven times) and was furious with my grandmother for letting mother go.  He made arrangements for me to go to a half-finished house on the edge of the city, where two nuns were hiding about a dozen jewish children and trying to keep us safe. I stayed there for some weeks, until my father – back again – sent for me. Dad explained that we were going to move to a new place where we will be safe, thanks to a very good man named Wallenberg. We walked a short distance and entered a big apartment house with the emblem of the Swedish Embassy by the gate.

Most of this period is a jumble in my mind. The building was teaming with people, five or six persons to a room.  Food was scarce; I remember the constant feeling of hunger and stomach aches.  I know from accounts that I was quite sick there: I had a severe case of multiple vitamin deficiencies.

A notable episode, still painful in its memory, is worth retelling here. One day, as my father called me, I could tell from the tone of his voice that there was something special.  “Listen carefully,” he said. “Through an old friend I managed to get a little cocoa powder and dried milk.  Grandmother will fix you a cup.”

“Really??” I could hardly believe it. “Now?

“Yes, in just a minute.  You know the nice lady two floors down, who always wears that red robe?”

I knew.  I didn’t like her.  She had false teeth that always seemed like they were about to fall out.  She scared me when she smiled at me.

Budapest, Festnahme von Juden

Jewish women in Budapest, October 1944 (Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

He continued, “I want you to go downstairs to her.  Be very polite, and tell her that your Daddy sent you.  She will give you some saccharine.  She is diabetic, you know?  Since there is no sugar, we will use that in your cocoa.”

“Thanks, Dad, can I go now?” I asked breathlessly.

“Yes, go.  Just one other thing — don’t say anything about this to any of the other kids, they would only feel jealous or envious.  You don’t have to share it, you are sick.”

I was enormously thrilled, and flew down the stairs, two steps at a time.  The lady was very nice.  She knew about the cocoa.  She told me to wait a moment while she went inside to get her saccharin.  I held out my hand and she dropped the tiny pill, just a little bigger than the head of a pin, into it.  I held it tight, said thank you, and was gone.  The smell of the cocoa, as I reached the door upstairs, was almost unbearable.  I went racing through the hallway to Grandmother, just as she was pouring the cocoa into a cup.  I opened my tight fist to drop the little tablet on the table — nothing.  It wasn’t there.  I felt like lightning had struck me.  I stared at my empty hand and started to cry.  My father went crawling down the stairs, looking everywhere, finding nothing.

After a long time and with much cajoling from Grandmother, I stopped crying long enough to taste the cocoa. It was bitter, very, very bitter.  I cried some more. . .


Raoul Wallenberg: quick-witted heroism and the long silence afterward

Sunday, October 27th, 2013

Jangfeldt’s biography of Wallenberg will be out next year. (Photo: Steve Gladfelter)

Bengt Jangfeldt  hesitates over the word “hero”: “I don’t particularly like to use it, it’s a cliché, but he was a hero,” he finally said. At any rate, the Swedish author won’t be able to duck the word now. The Hero of Budapest is the title of the forthcoming English edition of his biography on Raoul Wallenberg, the man who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Hungarian Holocaust.  The book should be available in February 2014.


Hungarian Jews arriving at Birkenau, 1944

He spoke about Wallenberg at a late-afternoon event in Stauffer Auditorium at Hoover last Wednesday.  In particular, he discussed “Swedish passivity” in responding to Wallenberg’s disappearance.

Wallenberg grew up in a wealthy banking family – akin to the Rothschilds and Rockefellers in reputation and wealth.  His 23-year-old father, a naval officer, died of cancer before Wallenberg was born in 1912, and the boy was raised by his mother and a grandfather, diplomat Gustaf Wallenberg, who was as adventurous as young Raoul.

He studied in Paris and then, of all places, my own alma mater, the University of Michigan (we’ve written about that before, here) – his grandfather wanted him to attend a public university, somewhere in the heartland of America.  Ann Arbor was the ticket.  He took a degree in the university’s new architecture program.  He also fit in time to hitchhike, drive, and bus around the country, venturing as far as Mexico.  His grandfather told him it was the “best away to learn – never use your name, and never show off.”


Wallenberg in Swedish uniform

After graduation in 1935, Wallenberg took brief jobs in South Africa and Haifa, and then the footloose Swede began working for a Hungarian Jew in a import-export business in Stockholm. His boss was also part of an effort, backed by the Americans, to rescue the Hungarian Jews.  Wallenberg was itching to travel to Budapest under diplomatic cover and lead the rescue operation.  “It was a chance to prove to his banking family he was worthy of something.  He was a loquacious, funny guy,” Jangfeldt said, “not good for banking boards, but he impressed the Americans.” He got the job.

“The Germans were increasingly dissatisfied with Hungary,” Jangfeldt said, as the Hungarians resisted their ally’s Final Solution. German tanks rolled into Budapest in March 1944 and, with the support of Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross party, the atrocities resumed, continuing furiously even after the Soviets crossed the border a few months later.  Winston Churchill wrote on July 11, 1944, “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world….”

Wallenberg arrived in July 1944, just as the massive deportations of over 400,000 Jews to death camps had, briefly, hit the “pause” button, soon to resume.

In Budapest, Wallenberg’s office was situated in the same building as the American Embassy. Wallenberg was daring and inventive in his efforts to save the Jews who remained, about 200-250,000 of them.

He began issuing provisional passports to any Jews who had a connection to Sweden, through business or family ties.  “Suddenly, many people had ties to Sweden,” Jangfeldt said. Wallenberg, who was proud of being 1/16th Jew, recorded them all in his “Book of Life.” He may have saved as many as 8,000 Jews from deportation, but Jangfeldt emphasized that he saved many more in other ways.  He provided food for the Ghetto inhabitants – “there was always food for the tens of thousands of people.”  He ran networks that helped others escape or find shelter.  He began a Swedish hospital in his private flat.  He housed about ten thousand Jews in more than thirty extraterritorial buildings that he rented.  (A denizen from one of the safe houses was in the audience at Hoover – more on that tomorrow.)

1389.9 Holocaust B

Passport photo

Using Russian and Swedish archival sources previously not available, Jangfeldt has been able to reconstruct Wallenberg’s eventual capture and death.  In January 1945, Wallenberg tried to meet with the Soviet leaders on the Ukrainian front, urging them not to bomb the Jewish ghetto. Wallenberg’s Russian would have been fluent – “I know he went to my high school, and I had lots of Russian,” Bengfeldt said.  It was a bad move on Wallenberg’s part.

“It’s something of an enigma why he was arrested,” Bengfeldt said. Abducting a diplomat is a violation of international law. Wallenberg was, ironically, accused of spying, or otherwise working for the Germans.  Perhaps it’s not entirely a surprise; Wallenberg regularly met with top Nazi leaders, including Eichmann, and their names were in his confiscated possessions. Altruism?  The Soviets simply didn’t believe it, and they didn’t believe the story about saving Jews.  “From a Russian point of view, it must have been suspicious to see someone coming voluntarily to them with the story of saving Jews.”

Jangfeldt’s research revealed a startling fact: Wallenberg had at least 15 kilograms of gold and jewelry in his car when the Red Army arrested him in 1945. Again, why?  Jangfeldt suggests that this was the amassed fortune of many of the Jewish victims Wallenberg had helped, who had left their valuables with him for safekeeping. He wished to return them at the war’s end to help them rebuild their lives. It seems like a reckless risk, but perhaps he had gotten away with so much, so often, that he had begun to feel invulnerable.  In any case, the decision may have been the fatal one.

jangfeldtIn April 1945, Averell Harriman, acting on behalf of the U.S. State Department, offered the Swedish government American help in making inquiries about Wallenberg’s fate. His offer was declined.  Jangfeldt called this “a symbol of Swedish passivity.”  The Swedes persuaded themselves that Wallenberg had been killed in Hungary – “the assumption that he had been killed in Budapest was very cynical,” Jangfeldt said. We now know he was taken to the Soviet Union’s notorious prisons, Lefortovo and later the Lubyanka.

The Soviet foreign service reassured the Swedes that they had conducted an investigation, and that they knew of no one named Wallenberg in the Soviet prison system.  In a sense, it may have been true. Soviet security forces operated as a state within a state, and it’s more than possible they kept secrets from their own diplomats. In fact, Wallenberg was jailed within 500 meters from the Kremlin.  Throughout 1945 and 1946, Bengfeldt said that very little was done on the Swedish side – with a jaw-dropping inaction also from the banking side of the Wallenberg family, which had the power and influence to make mountains move.

Why did the Swedes turn their backs?  Jangfeldt notes that a trade agreement was being negotiated between the Soviets and Sweden in March 1946.  “It’s not impossible that Sweden wanted to get Wallenberg off the table for economic reasons.”  Cynical?  “Fifty years makes one cynical,” Jangfeldt said.  Well, it’s been more than that now. One potential source of help was long gone. Gustaf Wallenberg had died in 1937 – “if he had lived, things would have been different.”

Though it’s commonly accepted that Wallenberg died in 1947, rumors and purported sightings continued into the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s.  In 1989, “all of a sudden the Wallenberg belongings, from when he was arrested, had fallen off a shelf”; his address book, calendar, car registration, cigarette case, diplomatic passport and stacks of old money in a variety of currencies were returned to Wallenberg’s immediate family. His mother, stepfather, and two half-siblings never gave up hope of finding him alive.  The Yeltsin era brought more transparency – access to archives and interviews – but no definitive answers. The question remains: “Wallenberg never returned home and we ask ‘Why?'”

Biographer Bengt Jangfeldt on “the battle for Mayakovsky”

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Angry young poet in 1929

I bought Vladimir Mayakovsky‘s Poems in the summer of 1978, in a small Chinese bookstore in Kathmandu that specialized in propaganda. I haven’t looked at it much in the years since; the dust-jacket disappeared sometime in the subsequent decades, and I wouldn’t have recognized the slim, maize-colored hardcover as the one I bought way back then, except for my Islington address scribbled on the inside front cover. It is the second edition (1976) of the book, published by the state-run Progress Publishers in Moscow – therefore, the official Soviet version of the premier poet of the Russian Revolution.

The introduction is big on hyperbole and cant – “the fight for a better future for all mankind,” “a big step forward in world art in general,” with poems that accomplish “new feats in the name of communism.”  But one succinct word is missing:  suicide.  Mayakovsky killed himself in 1930.

It wasn’t a truth that could be missed at Bengt Jangfeldt‘s Piggott Hall lecture on “The Battle for Mayakovsky” last Thursday,  which opened with a photograph of handsome young poet dead at 36, shot through the heart – or almost shot through the heart, as the eminent Swedish biographer, who is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on Mayakovsky, put it, “he missed a little because he was left-handed.” The face is in unearthly repose, the lips parted slightly – it resembles Jacques-Louis David‘s hagiographic portrait of the dead Marat, another revolutionary who met a violent end.  The poet’s death was “very un-Marxist, I would say,” according to Jangfeldt, and that was an immediate problem for the Soviets.


Biographer Bengt

Mayakovsky was unusual in the annals of Soviet totalitarianism: he was victimized because he was published, and a battle for his legacy has been mounted and his biography doctored, censored, and subjected to “awful, spiteful scrutiny,” Jangfeldt said. The news of his suicide was manipulated by the state, and presented as a response to romantic disappointment – the possibility that the revolutionary poet had become disillusioned instead with the revolution, and had “no longer believed in what he wrote and hated himself,” was officially unacceptable.  In a macabre sign of the times, his brain was sent to the brain institute; the Soviets were intent on discovering the “materialistic basis of genius.” Mayakovsky fared embarrassingly well: his brain was 360 grams heavier than Lenin’s (we wrote about the curious and complicated history of Lenin’s brain here). Later accounts gloss over his dramatic finale altogether: some say simply that he died in 1930, or, as the case with the Progress book in my hand, don’t say anything at all.

mayakovsky3By 1935, his legacy was in jeopardy.  His lover Lili Brik wrote a letter to Joseph Stalin complaining of the neglect. She was summoned to the Kremlin.  Stalin took action: “Mayakovsky is still the best and the most gifted poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his cultural heritage is a crime. Brik’s complaints are, in my opinion, justified,” he wrote. Was it the power of a woman?  Jengfeldt thinks not. “Why did Lili Brik write this letter now and not before? … Why did Stalin act with the speed of lightening?” In retrospect, it looks like something of a put-up job, a letter concocted at higher levels, possibly by Stalin himself, to trigger a series of events.

One probable motive:  The Alexander Pushkin centenary was fast approaching in 1937, and preparations were well underway.  Pushkin was the great poet of Russia, yes – but what could the Soviet Union offer that was comparable?  Stalin’s action reversed a reputation in decline, and suddenly Mayakovsky was inescapable. “Towns, streets, boats, squares were named after him.  He was forcibly introduced like the potato under Catherine the Great.  His canonization occurred at a time the party was manically naming heroes.” Mayakovsky and Maxim Gorky became the gods of literature, in poetry and prose, respectively.  Soviet honor was saved amid a wash of unsuccessful socialist realism – at least for awhile.

Lili Brik soldiered on through the decades, carrying the torch as her lover’s poetic reputation oscillated. His life had been as messy as his death, and the Russians liked their poets to have ideal family lives – “a poet of the revolution is not supposed to have a complicated private life,” said Jangfeldt.  Moreover, Lili was Jewish, and the Communist authorities did what they could to erase her memory, championing other candidates as the “true love” – he had been unfaithful to his married lover, and there were plenty of other candidates to choose from. Brik’s character and motivations were endlessly maligned. In 1970, Jangfeldt became fascinated by the story, and translated and published some of Mayakovsky’s letters to Brik into Swedish.  He took photocopies to Brik’s Moscow apartment in 1972, as a sort of carte d’entrée.  He never forgot her words of greeting to him.

“Tell me, is Stockholm still a beautiful city?” she asked.  She hadn’t been to Sweden since 1906, and lived in the usual Soviet time warp.  It was one of those moments, Jangfeldt said, “when you feel the wings of history beating you in the face.”


Happier days in 1915

Jangfeldt later published translations of 416 letters between the couple, Love Is the Heart of Everything: Correspondence between Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lili Brik, 1915-1930.  “When this was published, they could never say she hadn’t existed. … This process of forced oblivion had to be stopped. I defended her place in history, nothing else.” The authorities, he said, “must respect that Mayakovsky lived with her for 15 years and he dedicated his poems to her.”

Brik died at 87 in 1978, also by her own hand.  “She will always have a difficult life – even after her death,” Jangfeldt said. She missed the fall of communism, and another death for Mayakovsky.

“When communism fell, he fell, too,” said Jangfeldt, like one of the statues pulled down by crowds at the times of revolution.  “People had been force-fed his poems for years” and a backlash was inevitable.

Too often, he had been seen as “a high-pitched and vulgar mouthpiece for the regime” – yet many of his poems are very good, and no more than five or six poems have created the reputation of a great poet. “It’s difficult for people today to believe that people may have been honest in believing in the revolution. I don’t think Mayakovsky was cynical,”Jangfeldt said.

The first volume of Mayakovsky collected works was published in Russia this year, out of a project score of volumes in years to come.  Meanwhile, enjoy the videos below.  The first has archival footage, and I think that’s Mayakovsky’s voice reading briefly about one minute in. The second shows Mayakovsky in 1918’s The Lady and the Hooligan, the only film featuring Mayakovsky that has survived in its entirety.

Michel Serres calls for a strike – against the English language

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013
Resident Socrates (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In quieter times (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The French have always been protective of their language against the foreign invasion of words.  “Weekend,” “internet,” “football” make their regular incursions against the proud tongue of the Gauls, and are repelled, with mixed results.

Now France’s preeminent public intellectual Michel Serres (we’ve written about him here and here) has joined the fray.  In today’s Telegraph:

“There are more English words (in adverts) on the walls of Toulouse than there were German words during the Occupation,” said philosopher Michel Serres, a member of the Acadamie française [sic], the state body which aims to protect the French language.”

“I want to invite the French to go on strike. Each time that advertising is English, you don’t buy the product, each time a film’s title is not translated, you don’t go into the cinema,” he said in an interview with la Depeche du Midi newspaper.

The spelling error in a leading British newspaper makes a good case for the English taking a few more French classes – and when, oh when, will foreign diacriticals be an established style rule for newspapers?  It looks so insular when we refuse to honor the spelling of foreign names.

In any case, one Englishman fired back:

Stephen Clarke, the Paris-based English author whose novel The Merde Factor sees its hero battling with the anti-Anglais brigade, wrote a stinging reply to Mr Serres’ boycott call in a blog for the Telegraph:

“It is pretty thoughtless to compare advertising posters that we are free to ignore completely with Nazi proclamations informing people that they will be shot if they are found out of doors after curfew or sent to death camps if they belong to certain ethnic groups.

He’s threatening retaliation – a ban on all French words and expressions on the other side of the Channel.  No more gâteau for the English. Let them eat cake!

Meanwhile, here on the Pacific, Humble Moi had the honor of catching Michel Serres for one of his very rare English interviews – in fact, it’s the only one I’ve been able to find online:

Congratulations to Morgan Meis for the Whiting Award!

Monday, October 21st, 2013

Happy man … and kinda rich, too.

Congratulations to Morgan Meis, a longstanding friend of the Book Haven!  He’s one of ten winners of this year’s Whiting Writing Award for “exceptional talent and promise in early career.” The prize carries a significant cash award of $50,000 – so he’s in clover…at least for awhile.  Morgan is the author of a novel, Angelus Novus (Soft Skull Press, 1995), and has written for The Believer, Harper’s, and each week for The Smart Set We know him mostly as an editor of 3quarksdaily, a filter blog treating literature, science, and the arts. He is a previous recipient of a $30,000 Andy Warhol Foundation Award for his art criticism.

This year’s winners include: fiction writers Hanna Dela Cruz Abrams (The Man Who Danced With Dolls), Jennifer DuBois (Cartwheel) C.E. Morgan (All the Living),  Stephanie Powell Watts (We Are Taking Only What We Need), and Amanda Coplin (The Orchardist);  poets Ishion Hutchinson (Far District: Poems) and Rowan Ricardo Phillips (The Ground) and playwright Virginia Grise (Making Myth). Clifford Thompson (Signifying Nothing) received the award for nonfiction, as did Morgan, who is author of this year’s Ruins (Fallen Bros. Press), a collection of the best essays from one of America’s best and most poignant, personal and philosophical young critics, Morgan Meis Ph.D, on art, culture, politics and the transitory and illusory nature of time.”

ruins-revised-edition-morgan-meis-paperback-cover-artThe Whiting prizes were established in 1985 by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation. According to the foundation, the award honors those “who have yet to make their mark on the literary culture.’’

Previous winners include Tony Kushner, who hosted the ceremony tonight in Manhattan,  Jonathan Franzen, and Mary Karr.

Afterwards?  I hear there’s some serious partying going on at the offices of the New York Times.

Postscript on 10/22:  No surprise, 3quarksdaily has its own announcement, with a pitcha, here.  It also informs me that Elif Batuman, Mark Doty, Jeffery Eugenides, Suketu Mehta, William T. Vollman, and David Foster Wallace are former winners.  Good company.

Back in the U.S.S.R.: Carl Proffer, Ardis, and an “eleven time zone prison”

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

The basketball player who bootlegged books … with Brodsky and Ellendea

Last month, the University of Michigan commemorated two of the most remarkable people to cross the campus threshhold: the late Prof. Carl Proffer and his wife Ellendea Proffer Teasley, founders of the exuberant and trailblazing Ardis Publishers, which published the best Russian literature at a time when the Soviet government wouldn’t.  I’ve written about them here and here and here and here, as well as many other places over the last few decades, ever since the time I met them in the erstwhile Ann Arbor country club they had turned into a publishing house (as well as a family home with four kids).  I wasn’t at the September symposium, except perhaps in spirit.  Fortunately, the event left a welter of videos in its wake.  In one of them, Ellendea described, in 27 minutes, the intrepid  venture that was Ardis.

The young Carl Proffer was a longshot for a Slavic scholar, she recalled – a teenage basketball player who was more likely to become a lawyer rather than scholar, someone who never ventured beyond the required reading list. He discovered Russia through a casual interest in Cyrillic, which led him to a mentor – a distinguished Byzantine historian émigré who had been tethered to teaching a first-year Russian language course for the university.  “Then this man, meant for other things, this basketball player with a fancy prose style, fell in love with the literature,” said Ellendea.  That was sophomore year – junior year gave him the Scottish enlightenment and the gifts of persuasion.  He attended St. Andrew’s in Scotland, which runs on a tutorial system, and discovered philosopher David Hume.  “This was an amazing awakening. The basketball player became an intellectual, but not a normal one.”

“He was a person of high risk – captain of the team. … He was afraid of nothing. He could control his temper and his indignation. The rest of us could not; we were very young,” she recalled.  “Everyone he came into contact with went into Russian, too, because he spread the word. His philosophy was spreading the word … He was the first PhD candidate from Michigan. They built the program around him. He became the youngest full professor in 1972.”


Carl and Ellendea at Ardis

Perhaps the biggest chance he took was with a pretty girl in a miniskirt. “It was easy not to take me seriously if you didn’t know me well,” said Ellendea, who was six years younger.  “He not only took me seriously and married me, but he made me a full partner.”  Every decision was made jointly, and she continued Ardis after his 1984 death until 2002, when Overlook Press acquired Ardis.  She received a MacArthur “genius” award in 1989.

“Carl could type 110 words a minute – that was important. Ardis was built on our bodies.  We used up our energy, and his energy was phenomenal.”  The venture was a dangerous one, and bootlegging manuscripts risked arrest and worse. They faced other dangers in the U.S.:  “We got no money from anyone. We lived on a knife edge – mortgaging our house every year.”

“We walked a razor’s edge, and he was cool,” with an important exception – “and this is where we get to the ‘why’ of Ardis,” she said.

The plight of their friends, the literary heart of Russia, left Carl in “absolute cold, angry outrage – destructive outrage.” She continued, “Our people, they wanted one book, they were writing a monograph and wanted one book on Toulouse Lautrec, they wanted one book on Shakespeare. … They knew so much, so many languages but never left this damn country, which was really an eleven time zone prison … We saw people like us, behind bars, and sometimes they were having to kiss their own chains and say, ‘It’s nothing. It’s great.’ It was no kind of life.  … This was our mood when we come back. We were enraged at what has happened to these remarkable people. Nadezhda Mandelstam with four locks on her door. It’s 1969, but she’s still afraid.  She said, ‘Don’t bring young people to me because they are the worst. They are the informers.'”

She described Soviet-era Russia as “a thin crust over a big volcano of peasant emotion, under the control of the gun and the whip. And that thin crust was a deep, rich, powerful culture to us.  Not just literature – music, art, dance.”

The Proffers dressed up to meet their Russian contacts, but they choose to dress as Americans, not to emulate the proletariat or the Russian intelligentsia, since they were neither.  “We would be American, because the Russians were starting to think, ‘Oh, the whole world is like this.’ Visually, we would contradict that idea.  Because it’s easy to go into despair when you’re in jail for 70 years.”

“I want you to consider the daring, the nerve of him. He had daring, but he never said, ‘Now I’m going to jump from the high dive’ –  he just did it.  We were people of action, that is certainly true. … We were moving very fast because Carl, like [Joseph] Brodsky, did not think he had a long life ahead of him.”

I was there in spirit, and you can be, too – videos of the event are here.

Tomas Venclova speaks at the EU about his mother tongue and an “eccentric, capricious city.”

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Tomas in Vilnius

I met Tomas Venclova in his role as a poet, and it is primarily as a poet he is known.  However, he has a lesser-known role as a champion of Lithuanian culture, literature, and above all language. His work in that arena is as impressive as his poetry – and he had a chance to show it at the European Union yesterday and today, in Brussels and Luxembourg, where he was speaking.  I asked him if I could share some of his remarks, which he had sent to me. “Mais oui!” he replied.

I’ve blogged so much about Vilnius and Lithuania – try here and here and here and here and here. But it’s a wonderful country and during my most recent visit, traveling from Warsaw to Vilnius, I gained a deeper appreciation of its wildness and mystery, of its old superstitions and myths, and the enchantment of  its jewel-box capital, aptly symbolized, on its coat of arms, by Saint Christopher wading through the mud of history.

The Lithuanian language has has kept many archaic features of ancient languages such as Sanskrit or Ancient Greek, and is spoken by about 3.2 million people. Yet, as Tomas pointed out, it’s in better shape today than Gaelic – “now, it is not just the official state language, but also the language of schools, universities, press and other media, as well as of very good theaters. Even before World War I, Lithuanian literature in Vilnius had built quite a reputation, though during the two interwar decades, when the city was annexed to Poland, it was often dismissed as inferior.”

Marvelous Vilnius, a Jerusalem claimed by two nations, the Lithuanians and the Poles, is “the perfect and sacred city which had been lost in the whirlwinds of history,” he said.  The city, which at times almost a religious space, “is often said to be mysterious and magic, eccentric and peculiar, the inspiration of myths and poetry. A particularly strong connection between the city and its surroundings is also very characteristic to it, allowing poets to see Vilnius as a pastoral place with ‘wild’ but idyllic nature intruding into the city center and adorning its baroque décor. … The text of Vilnius is composed of smaller texts, written in different languages, sometimes rich in code-switching, as for instance the seventeenth-century dramas, where Lithuanian and Belarussian cues are interwoven with Polish ones.

“But there is more than just linguistics involved here. Most varied cultural discourses overlay one another, letting competing myths sprout from the primeval mythological trunk. The national identity of many residents of Vilnius is similarly complicated: the same person can simultaneously belong to several cultures, which is why she or he sometimes stands aloof from the rest of society, suffering from an inner conflict.”

Two of the Polish language’s greatest poets were born and reared in Lithuania: Czesław Miłosz in the 20th century and Adam Mickiewicz in the 19th – and Miłosz was a close friend of the Lithuanian-language poet.  Venclova’s talk wasn’t short on his friend:

vilnius3“Czesław Miłosz, the greatest Vilnius poet of the twentieth century, also started his career in the interwar period … The life of Vilnius-Wilno (at that time, annexed to Poland) did not change much from Mickiewicz’s to Miłosz’s times; the city and its suburbs were populated by the same provincial Polish gentry, known as szlachta, the memories of the free masons’ lodges were still alive, and the great University, closed by Tsarist Russia in 1832, was reopened in 1918. Thus, the budding poet could readily feel he was entering a larger tradition. But for Miłosz, Vilnius was not a sanctuary to visit on a pilgrimage; nor was it a place asking for a particular literary genre to record its magnificence, namely, the poetic Baedeker, much exploited by the lesser poets of the time. Miłosz was not a regional but a European poet, as was Mickiewicz. According to him, the Mickiewicz tradition marked a revolt, a disagreement with reality as well as the prospect of exile. But for him, too, Vilnius-Wilno was a sacred city. Finding himself in exile in 1950s, he denied feeling nostalgic: he wanted to start anew and to build his poetic tower without looking back. Yet his texts soon acquired a double perspective: he would depict the city of his youth through the prism of his new French and American experiences, reviving the details of the past life with heartfelt love and skill, and contrapuntally comparing Vilnius to his new surroundings. He recreated the city spaces in the Proustian manner: his city is idealized because of his physical and temporal distance, but the picture is realistic enough and devoid of unnecessary sentimentality. In the cycle Miasto bez imienia (City without a Name) published in 1969, as well as in other poems, Milosz was approaching what he himself called apocatastasis, the revival of purified, primordial reality. He was greatly, probably mainly, interested in the language of that reality. In this, an obvious example and archetype for Milosz was Mickiewicz, but also the Lithuanian Konstantinas Sirvydas, the author of the seventeenth-century dictionary, to whom Miłosz devoted his beautiful poem ‘Philology.’

 “The peak of this poetry is manifest in the poems written after the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, when Miłosz could return to it. Nostalgia acquires a new shape: 52 years later, Vilnius looks like a city of the dead and Lithuania is some ‘other space’ described in metaphysical categories. At the same time, nothing has disappeared from the landscape of Vilnius: Miłosz sees the same ‘forests of brown gold’ in October, when the weather, again, is like wine, and the familiar hills and twisted baroque gables whisper that everything passes but are also witnesses to the permanence of the world, resurrected in human memory.

vilnius2“Miłosz and his companions were interested in the history and culture of the ethnic communities which had their own right to the city, namely, the Lithuanians, the Belarusians and the Jews. Together with a friend, he translated the works of the Lithuanian poet Kazys Boruta and wrote reviews of twentieth-century Lithuanian literature, his lifelong interest. In some ways he considered himself a Lithuanian who wrote in Polish; I remember how happy he was when Lithuanian translations of his poems were published before the Polish originals.”

“Miłosz possessed some knowledge of Lithuanian, just as Yeats possessed some knowledge of Gaelic,” he said – but that’s a bit of an overstatement. Miłosz was born among Lithuania’s Polish-speaking gentry, and didn’t bother to learn the language, even though he had a ethnically Lithuanian grandmother. Robert Hass said he began learning the language instead when Miłosz was in his 80s. Why bother so late?  “Because I think it might be the language of heaven,” he confessed to Hass.

vilniusDespite attempts to make Vilnius a truly national city, Tomas said, “the Lithuanian capital has remained what it had always been―complex and multidimensional, a continent in miniature. But this is a fragile condition, and we are responsible for it.”

“The creation of our continent and our civilization has always been a duty, an uncertainty, and a risk. I don’t know of any place in Europe that better lives up to this risk than Vilnius―a perpetual peripheral area and borderland, an eccentric, capricious, erratic city with a unique past that violates all the rules of logic and probability.”


Fame, I guess. My minute on Moscow TV.

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013
"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Tomas started it.

It’s a kind of fame I suppose, but centered thousands and thousands of miles from where I live. I’ve written about the Stanford Libraries exciting acquisition of a stunning treasure trove of drawings, poems, photographs, samizdat manuscripts and more from the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky.  The story began in Vilnius, when I was visiting a friend of the eminent Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, the physicist Ramunas Katilius and his family. I told that story here.  The news was picked up by the Russian press – I wrote about that here.

Then a Russian TV station wanted to film the collection for its Moscow viewers.  See below.  Did I flunk my screen test?  My career in Slavic film-making – over before it began!  But working with the handsome young Russian videographer and photographer Grigory Rudko was great fun.  Enjoy the clips of Stanford, the Libraries, the Katilius Collection, and, if you can, Humble Moi.

Yes, yes, I know it’s in Russian. Please stop complaining.  You can read the whole story in English here – or in Russian, over here. And I’ll try to get that fractious look off my face in the screenshot below. (Postscript on 10/17: Fixed the screenshot! Enjoy my hand instead – it’s better than my scowl. Really.)

Happy 90th birthday, Italo!

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

calvinoThe Italian writer Italo Calvino would have been ninety today.  Happy birthday, wherever you are…

“In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of the written language.”

birthday cake

– Italo Calvino (Oct. 15, 1923–Sept. 19, 1985)