Archive for February, 2015

Stanford’s most illustrious drop-out

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Happy birthday, loser!

“We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say — and to feel — ‘Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’”

So wrote Nobel prizewinner John Steinbeck, Stanford’s most illustrious drop-out, who was born on this day in 1902. “He came to Stanford to mollify his parents, primarily his mother,” explained Kevin Hearle, a visiting scholar at the Bill Lane Center for the American West a few years ago. “He wasn’t excited about it. He didn’t see why he needed a college education to be a writer.”

Nevertheless, he made some lasting connections here – one of them was Prof. Edith Mirrielees, who would warm and ignite his hope, and also Ed Ricketts, a man who would later be immortalized as “Doc” in Cannery Row. (I’ve written about Ricketts here and here and here and here.) According to a Stanford Daily article a few years ago by Taylor Grossman:

“In a 1964 letter to his good friend Dook, Steinbeck asked, ‘Do you ever go near Stanford? I don’t think I would like to go. It would be kind of embarrassing because I was such a lousy student, I suppose. Anyway, I have no call for the Groves of Academe.’

“The Groves of Academe, however, had housed him well in some regards. In a 1962 letter to Mirrielees, he wrote about her influence on his writing.

“’Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in your class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly,’ Steinbeck said. ‘I was bright-eyed and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb from you the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. You canceled this illusion very quickly.’”

birthday cakeIn the six years that he was enrolled at Stanford, starting in 1919, he only accumulated 93 units — becoming equivalent in status to a junior. At the Faculty Club, his photo on the wall with all the Nobel Prize winners even though he refused to take “required” classes…

Remembering Regina Derieva: “Not until the party’s over we learn the names of the guests.”

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

ars2Look what came in the mail the other day, from faraway Sweden:  Curator Aquarum: In Memoriam Regina Derieva, published by Ars Interpres Publications in Stockholm. (You can buy your own copy here for 18 euros.) The volume is a collection of poetry, memoirs, essays, fiction, and photographs in honor of the late Russian poet Regina Derieva, who died in December 2013.  You can read about her in my Times Literary Supplement piece here. (Or in the Book Haven here and here.) I wrote about my involvement with the Russian poet in the TLS:

“A few days after Derieva’s sudden death last December at the age of sixty-four, I received a letter from her husband, Alexander Deriev, and our ensuing correspondence eventually led to the Stanford Libraries’ acquisition of this astonishing poet’s archive. A single cardboard box postmarked Märsta, Sweden, is all that remains of a long and productive literary life, augmented by a few files of unpublished manuscripts, photographs, letters and drawings Deriev brought with him to California in his backpack.

“There is a reason for the paucity of papers in a lifetime that should have left a mountain of them. Derieva’s life encompassed the upheavals of the past century, but she added an idiosyncratic twist: at each fork in the road, this outcast among outcasts made a choice – and that choice, or as often necessity, took her even farther from the pack.”


Perhaps my favorite photo of Regina Derieva, poet extraordinaire.

Those peregrinations took her far from her native Odessa and Kazakhstan – first to Israel, where the Jewish convert was denied a passport and citizenship, which left the family unable to open a bank account, rent a home, or hold jobs. In Curator Aquarum, one friend, George Kilcourse, recalls his first encounter with her in 1999, Jerusalem. “I vividly recall meeting Regina’s husband, Alexander, while riding a bus to the Old City. He was an animated companion. He mentioned to me Regina’s poetry and kindly offered to arrange our meeting.”

“The afternoon was warm and desert heat wafted through the corridors. I knocked on the apartment door of the Derievs. Alexander warmly welcomed me and I saw Regina sitting in her chair. Serenity is the best word I know to describe my first impression of Regina Derieva. There was a presence about her that belied the political turmoil she and her husband were experiencing. She defied the limbo where Israeli politicians were seeking to place her. The theme of freedom, a transcendental freedom that no one could touch, runs like a golden thread through her poems.”

In the short piece I wrote about the Stanford acquisition here, I cited a 1990 letter from Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, which includes this passage in response to one of her poems: “For a long time, I have not seen anything on a par with your poetry either among our fellow countrymen or among the English-speaking poets. And I can guess more or less – I can hear – what it cost you to reach this point, the point over the life and over yourself. This is why the joy of reading your poetry is also heartbreaking. In this poem, you exist in the plane where no one else exists, where no one else can help: There are no kin and, a fortiori, there are no equal to you.”

The short (140 page) Curator Aquarum volume includes contributions by a number of people who have appeared in the Book Haven over the years, including Tomas Venclova, Bengt Jangfeldt, Ellen Hinsey, Valentina Polukhina, and many, many others – but I’ll include two poems below, first “The Knockdown Question” by the inestimable Les Murray, and then “All Saints” by the Swedish poet, and member of the Swedish Academy, Per Wästberg (translated from the Swedish by Lars Palm):

The Knockdown Question

by Les Murray:

i.m. Regina Derieva

Why does God not spare the innocent?

The answer to that is not in
the same world as the question
so you would shrink from me
in terror if I could answer it


All Saints

by Per Wästberg

Drawing by Dennis Creffield, who is also in the new book.

Art by Dennis Creffield, who is also in the new book.

In sad remembrance of Regina Derieva, a true poetical witness to our fragile existence

November’s dead leaves. Twigs broken by the wind.
But in the earthworm soil roots form.
There is an underground kingdom.

Like syllables in a word no one can rightly decipher
like a word in an unclear meandering sentence
the writing that just was our life lingers.

Friends disappear like planes from the radar network.
In the air around us their contours are glimpsed.
The dead store the history of the living.

The windshield wiper is slower than before.
I lean closer to the glass to see.
If you could choose your death like you choose a lane.

An evening with an unexpected blackout. An important page
I can’t read is scanned by a domesticated insect.
The stars, the Shona say, are the eyes of the dead.

Not until the party’s over we learn the names of the guests.
Not until the doors are closed we see the rooms expand.
When all sounds are turned down we hear the cobwebs sing.

April 2014


The “politics of the sinless” and the “superficiality of the everyday”: Michnik, Havel, and the post-communist world

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

Long friendship: Michnik and Havel in 2011

Marci Shore, acclaimed author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, has written an important article – indispensable writing, really – over at the Weekly Standard. It’s one that merits not only reading, but reading – so I’m printing out a version for slow reading when I get some more work done this weekend. The focus of her essay is a Adam Michnik‘s The Trouble with History, edited by Irena Grudzińska Gross and published last year by Yale University Press. The Book Haven has written about Polish journalist and Solidarity leader Michnik here and here, and about Marci here and here and here and about Irena here and here. Read Marci’s article in its entirety here.  Fellow dissident Václav Havel, the playwright, essayist, and president of the post-communist Czech Republic, also plays a role in the piece – we’ve written about him here and here and here. A few excerpts from Marci’s article below:

The story of “living in truth” involves urban intellectuals hiking up a mountain. In August 1978, four Charter 77 signatories (including Havel, who was not ordinarily much of a hiker) met with their Polish counterparts (including Michnik) on Sněžka Mountain on the Czechoslovak-Polish border. Havel pulled a bottle of vodka from his backpack. A lifelong friendship was not all that resulted from that first encounter between the two men.

On Sněžka, they spoke about the political resonance of seemingly insignificant moral acts. Michnik asked Havel to write down his thoughts. Three months later, an underground courier appeared at Michnik’s Warsaw apartment with a manuscript entitled “The Power of the Powerless.” Havel’s essay introduced an ordinary green-grocer who, every morning, displays in the shop window a sign stating: “Workers of the world unite!” Neither he nor his customers believe in the Communist slogan. Even the members of the regime no longer believe in it. All know it to be a lie.

troublewithhistoryYet what else can the greengrocer do? If he were to refuse to display the sign, he could be questioned, detained, arrested—which suggests that displaying a slogan in which no one believes is of great importance. If, one day, all the greengrocers were to take down their signs, that would be the beginning of a revolution. And so the seemingly powerless greengrocer is not so powerless after all. He bears responsibility; by failing to “live in truth,” people like the green-grocer “confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”

This is a diagnosis of post-1968 communism as a descent into inauthenticity, and it comes not from the comfortable classics of Western liberal (or conservative) thought but, rather, from Martin Heidegger.


One lesson for the West was about responsibility in conditions of moral ambiguity. In Havel’s autobiographical one-act play Audience (1975), Havel’s alter ego Ferdinand Vaněk is a dissident playwright working at a brewery. The secret police have demanded that the brewmaster file weekly reports on Vaněk. The brewmaster becomes nervous: He finds it difficult to compose the reports. Could Vaněk, perhaps, write them? “You could do that much for me, couldn’t you?” he asks Vaněk. “It would be child’s play for you! You’re a writer, damn it, right?”

Vaněk appreciates the brew-master’s kind treatment of him; nonetheless, he refuses to write the reports about himself. For Vaněk, this is “a matter of principle.” The brewmaster breaks down:

And what about me? You’re just gonna let me sink, right? You’re just gonna say, fuck you! It’s okay if I end up being an asshole! Me, I can wallow in this shit, because I don’t count, I ain’t nothin’ but a regular brewery hick—but the VIP here can’t have any part of this! It’s okay if I get smeared with shit, so long the VIP here stays clean! .  .  . All I’m good for is to be the manure that your damn principles gonna grow out of .  .  .


Decries “official memory politics”

In Audience, everyone is implicated: the regime, the brewmaster, Vaněk himself. The brewmaster is a variation of the greengrocer; he is both victim and oppressor.

For Michnik, among the disappointments of post-communism has been the rise of right-wing nationalist populism, accompanied by an official memory politics known as “historical policy.” The essence of historical policy is a denial of moral ambiguity and a failure to take responsibility. It is an attempt to enforce a national historical narrative that presents “the thesis that all Polish disasters were the result of Polish benevolence, trust, and gentleness, and of the malice and cruelty of foreigners.”

For Michnik, historical policy is absurd: Communism had not simply been a Soviet occupation; everyone had taken part. In order to do something good, one had to participate in a system that was evil. Between heroes and villains there were many shades of gray. This was among the reasons why “lustration”—the purging from government and public life of those who had collaborated with the secret police—was not a straightforward matter. Many were put on secret police lists of potential informers without their knowledge. Others found themselves on those lists because they had once met with an agent at a restaurant or had succumbed to threats to their children.

Moreover, those placed most at risk by lustration were those who had been in the opposition—after all, it was their circles the secret police had tried to infiltrate. Those safest under lustration were the greengrocers. The post-Communist antipathy towards the dissidents, Havel believed, had its roots in the dissidents’ serving as people’s bad consciences. He and Michnik were among those who, under communism, had sat in prison the longest. They were also among those most willing to forgive. For Michnik, historical policy and lustration reflected a Jacobin-like impulse to impose a politics of the sinless. And the problem with revolutionary purity was that it led to the guillotine.



Read her article. Please.

The trouble with revolution, Michnik finds, is also its aftermath: the superficiality of the everyday. Once upon a time, East Europeans had stayed up all night copying censored poems by hand. Now, no one had time to read serious literature. The omnipresence of Communist propaganda had been replaced by the omnipresence of quasi-pornographic tabloids. The revolution had brought the end of censorship. Then, the market had taken over—and had proven to be tawdry. “Suddenly all great value systems are collapsing,” Michnik observed.

“[A]long with the development of this consumerist global civilization grows a mass of people who do not create any values,” Havel said during one of his last conversations with Michnik. For Michnik, this “axiological vacuum” was “a typical phenomenon of periods of restoration as described by Stendhal in The Red and the Black: this is a time of cynicism, intrigues, careerism.” Michnik grew preoccupied with Julien Sorel, Stendhal’s weak plebian hero who seeks authenticity in illicit love affairs: “Let everyone take care of himself in the desert of egoism called life,” Julien says.

In 1989, Michnik’s friend, the philosopher Marcin Król, was among those who had considered liberty to be the great priority. But individualism began to dominate all other values. “We were stupid,” Król said in an interview last year. No longer does anyone pose metaphysical questions like “Where does evil come from?” The dramas of characters like Julien Sorel resulted from their awareness of the weight of their actions. The lack of an answer to the question of whether they behaved well or badly was the source of great suffering. “Today,” Król said, “the lack of an answer does not hurt.” And that is the problem: It should hurt.

Yoko Ono: “There were people who really wanted me dead. I don’t know how I survived that.”

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015
Yoko Ono: Passages for Light

Me and Yoko (Photo: Toni Gauthier)

Did I ever mention that I interviewed Yoko Ono? That was more than six years ago, when she visited the Stanford campus with “wish trees” to take back to the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland. We’re still imagining peace and, frankly, it has never seemed so far away.

Yoko was surprisingly personable and open. Absolutely nothing of the prima donna about her. As for the photo – it was far more impromptu than it looks – I was just pulled in front of the lights and the camera popped. Since it’s her 82nd birthday today, I thought the interview might be worth a revisit:

You’ve been a celebrity for so many years. People must approach you with so many expectations and preconceptions.

[laughs] That’s for sure.

How do you handle it?

I don’t feel I’m handling it. “Handling” it is not the word I think of. I’m just going through it.

I understand you just took your first trip to China.

Yeah. I did that. That was great. I just didn’t know what to expect, but the strange thing is that they knew about my work so well, and I said, “I’ve never been here, so what’s the deal?” And they said, “We all look on the Internet.” It’s really a global village now.

You’ve taken a great interest in the global village. I understand that you’re on Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter—you’re more plugged in than most of us.

I think it’s something we should all be doing. The more we do, the more we will be united. It’s a “being on the same page” kind of thing. We’re all on the same page; we’re all in the same boat.

You’ve had a background in Japan and America going back all your life, really. How do you think the two cultures have influenced your art and your work?

I don’t know. I just leave it to the critics. For me, I’m just doing what I can do, and what I feel like doing.

Yet many have commented on a Zen-like quality in your work.


Stanford Prof. Gordon Chang with Yoko (Photo: Linda Cicero)

I was very interested in Buddhism at one time, when I was in high school. But in Japan, they comment that my work is very Western, too.

I found a video recording on the Internet of Cut Piece , in which you let members of the audience cut away pieces of your clothes with scissors. It’s unexpectedly powerful.

Which one?

This was one from Carnegie Recital Hall in 1965.

After I did that one, I went to London—swinging London, at the time—and the minute I put the scissors in front of me, 20 people came up on the stage and made me totally naked. Oops! It depends on the audience really; it’s a dialogue between me and the audience.

It seemed to draw violence out of the audience, like a poison.

It always draws something out of people. I mean, that’s why we’re doing this.

You said about your Paris 2003 performance of Cut Piece that it was intended to fight sexism and racism.

Yeah. But also, I wanted to show that we have to trust each other. If I’m going to say that, I have to do it myself. I have to trust people myself. Now it’s a very different situation in society. I did think that, really, it could be a bit dangerous. But then I thought, we have to trust each other.

You’ve gone from one of the most reviled public figures—the one that was blamed for breaking up the Beatles—to a celebrated international icon. How did you weather the storms?

I think that I was very lucky. I went through the most horrible situation where I could have been killed. There were people who really wanted me dead. I don’t know how I survived that. You can’t advise people. It’s such a severe situation when people go through it, I don’t know what they can do. All we can do is do our best, whatever that is—our best to survive.


Home movies: Yoko shows her dad playing golf (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Of course, when you burst on the world stage with John Lennon in the 1960s, World War II was only two decades in the past, and the women’s movement had not yet been launched.

Exactly. [laughs]

Do you feel sexism and racism played a role in your treatment?

Definitely. It was very upfront, very clear. I think maybe I was used as an example of something—to make people understand what one goes through. Maybe in that sense it was beneficial—beneficial to society, maybe.

I remember those early clips of you. When you were silent, you were seen as a sort of black spider, sitting in the background. When you spoke, you were seen as domineering.

I think that in some ways most women do go through that. You can’t really stand up for yourself, because then people say, “How dare you!” and if you’re silent, then they will think there’s something really creepy about it.

What do you hope to accomplish with the Imagine Peace Tower and the wish trees?

It’s growing, and it is doing what I hoped that it would do. Many, many wishes are being made and they are being sent to the Imagine Peace Tower. There’s an incredible power of people’s wishes that are concentrated in the Imagine Peace Tower. Also, light has the same vibration as love. The light that’s in the Imagine Peace Tower—which is the Imagine Peace Tower—I think many people are enjoying it, somehow, feeling part of it.

birthday cakeWhat would you say to critics who say these works are too—

I know. People say it is too simplistic, or whatever. Some people say, “Oh well, maybe when you get older you want to do something simple.” I thought that was ageist. My work was always minimal. Minimalism—I believed in that. It was always very simple. I think it is as simple as breathing. Breathing is very important. I don’t feel that that’s bad. I was very surprised myself that the wish tree has become so important in people’s lives. I’m very honored that I was used for that, instead of some very complex, highfalutin work. Sometimes something simple gives more to people.


Dante in the dock: saved by his outrageous hope

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

And he talks, too: Dante and Beatrice before the eagle of Justice (Tuscany, Siena?), circa 1444-1450.

Dante Alighieri wasn’t a political exile – he was a criminal one. He was found guilty of corruption, extortion, and misuse of funds during his two-month term as city prior in 1300. The charge was based on little more than hearsay, and the sentence of permanent exile was irrevocable. He lost more than home and citizenship – he lost his good name.  And that’s the sore that itches throughout the Divine Comedy. As Robert Pogue Harrison eloquently writes in “Dante on Trial,” in the current New York Review of Books, “every reader of the Commedia, however naive or learned, hears the cry of this poem loudly and clearly. Its idiom may be medieval and alien, yet its clamor has the universal accent of a wronged individual shouting back at the world—a world that has the power to crush him but not to silence him. There is in each of us a stifled, potential, or inarticulate cry of this sort. The reason we read the Commedia is because no one in the history of literature has given it such a cosmic reach and sublime form.” (Read the whole essay here.)

steinbergThe story behind this anguish and this cry is told in Justin Steinberg‘s Dante and the Limits of the Law (University of Chicago Press), and Robert calls it the best book on Dante to appear in years.

Steinberg claims that, to a great extent, the Commedia’s “poetics are meant to rectify [Dante’s] damaged reputation.” One of the ways it does this is by dramatizing how wrong public opinion can be when it comes to a person’s moral character. Dante shocked his contemporary readers time and again by placing some of the most respected citizens of Florence in Hell (Farinata degli Uberti, Tegghiaio Aldobrandini, Arrigo di Cascia, Iacopo Rusticucci, Mosca de’ Lamberti, to name a few that Dante himself considered among the most “worthy”). By the same token he saves various souls who had been publicly condemned or excommunicated—people who, as Steinberg writes, “would have been considered infamous ‘instantaneously,’ ipso jure, without a trial or sentence.”

So the upstanding Florentines go down, down, down to one or another of the horrible circles, and things are looking up for some of the much-maligned. In short, the moral of the story (or one of them) is told when, in Heaven, the great eagle in Paradiso 20 declares: “And you mortals, hold back from judging, for we, who see God, do not yet know all the elect.”

But wait, there’s a hitch:

Hold back from judging. Fair enough. But where does that leave the Commedia? Either we believe that the poem had a superhuman authorship (that Heaven set its hand on it, as Dante claims in Paradiso 25), in which case we are free to believe that its vision represents God’s true moral order; or else we believe that it had a strictly human authorship—that Dante Alighieri, the historical individual, created its poetry of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven—in which case we must assume that Dante was the arbiter who saved or damned the souls his wayfarer meets on the journey.

This is not the first time Robert has taken issue with Dante – I’ve heard him lecture, and he’s deeply troubled by Dante’s harsh pronouncements of damnation. If, as he writes above, we attribute “superhuman authorship,” as Dante himself claims, we’re left with a bitter and judgmental man, vengefully dishing out punishments to his foes (and a few of his friends, such as Brunetto Latini, too). As Robert put it very bluntly, “Dante was virtually certain that upon his death he would be going to Purgatory and not to Hell. In Purgatorio he predicts that he will be spending significant time on the terrace of pride, but not much time on the terrace of envy, before ascending into Heaven to join the saints. If I were Dante, I would not have been so sanguine about my prospects. No one could write a canticle like Inferno without possessing a great deal of infernal powers, and considerable malice.”

shaw-danteHe notes that Prue Shaw, author of the other book he considers in his essay, Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity (Liveright) calls Dante a very “human” individual, always noting his own propensity to the sins he condemns (and indeed, he succumbs to them in the course of the drama). “The Commedia would be unreadable if Dante presumed even the slightest moral superiority over his readers. The only virtue he claims for himself in abundance is hope. Indeed, the reason Dante remained certain that he was destined for Heaven was not because of self-righteousness but because he had a profusion of hope.”

So was it “superhuman authorship,” or the long, grief-stricken exhalation of a lot of bitterness and shame? My answer: why not both? I’ll credit those who say the Florentine poet was greatly changed by his experiences – and some even claimed that his beard was singed by his infernal journey. In the first canto of the Inferno, he says he “came to” in a dark wood, which suggests some sort of altered experience that would change his life forever. However, that doesn’t mean that the vision wasn’t mixed up with his own subjectivity; visions always are. Look at all those seers who saw the Virgin Mary speaking in Croatian or speaking in Japanese and wearing a kimono. Look at all those Jeremiahs who predicted the end of a world that hasn’t ended yet, and, since I last checked, is still spinning like a top. Even trying to be as pure and as objective as can, we can’t get it right, we can’t get out of our own skins. We stand in our own light. That’s the human condition, too.

A more interesting question might be: what does Dante tell us about our world that we do not recognize ourselves? Here’s my take: we live in a time and in a generation that thinks everything is negotiable, and that every psycho-spiritual lock can be jimmied. As W.H. Auden put it, we push away the notion that “the meaning of life [is] something more than a mad camp.” For us, there’s always a second, third, and fourth chance. It’s a strength – but it’s a weakness, too. Maybe that’s why we resist Dante. We don’t realize that some things are for keeps. There’s not always another day. Not all choices can be reversed with every change of heart – and no, our heart isn’t always in the right place. Words unsaid may remain forever unsaid. And perhaps no choice is trivial or innocent: it is the choices that bring us to ourselves, the choices that reveal and work as a fixative for our loves, our priorities, and our direction.

little_florentine_angel_heart_sticker-rc2267a0b97ae44beb8622c15021a4af4_v9w0n_8byvr_324Speaking of unsaid words … I hope all of you have done your Valentine’s Day correspondence – for the day is a celebration of agape, even more than eros. No shirking, and no complaints that one is “alone.” If there’s any lesson to draw from Dante, it’s that we are never truly alone. Certainly I’m not. So consider this my Valentine to Dante, with gratitude, and thanks to all my faithful Book Haven readers, too. From the bottom of my cheesy little Florentine heart. Mwwwaaa!




No money for the arts? Remembering Britain during the Blitz…

Friday, February 13th, 2015
J.B. Priestley: one of the best-known voices during the Blitz

J.B. Priestley: one of the best-known voices during the Blitz

“University officials talk endlessly about how hard the financial times are and say that’s why they can’t fund anything but the flashy hardware for the wet and hard sciences. I’m sure that’s true, but I’m not convinced we can just say that and fold. We make choices. Great Britain started its Arts Council during the Blitz. The Nazis bombed British cities every day and while it was going on the Brits worked diligently to make music, theater, poetry and painting available to more and more people. Their notion was, if you just dig in and hide in your bunker, then the Nazis win. Screw the Nazis, the Brits said, we like music and we are going to have music. And they had music. Things happen when there’s the imagination and courage to make music happen.

“I’ve been tap dancing around the past here, but the past is only good for how it helps us see today and get ready for tomorrow. I keep thinking of the line from Kierkegaard that Jerome Groopman quoted in one of his wonderful medical stories in the New Yorker: ‘It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backward. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forward.'”

– Prof. Bruce Jackson, State University of New York at Buffalo


The book that rocked a nation: Another Look takes on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Join us on March 5!

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

The 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, with Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte.

In the last year, the killings of black youth have sparked protests and violent clashes with police across the nation, putting racial justice in the headlines. Next month, the Another Look book club will reflect on these issues with a public discussion of James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time, the author’s scathing, yet compassionate, reflections on the consequences of America’s racial inequities.

The event will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, at the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall on Serra Street. Another Look discussions are free and open to the public, with no reserved seating.

The discussion will be moderated by Michele Elam, professor of English, with Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, and acclaimed author Tobias Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look. Michele Elam is a widely published authority on race and culture; Harry Elam is a leading scholar of African American theater and performance.

baldwin-bookMichele Elam, who will moderate the event on the novelist, playwright, essayist and activist, said that she selected the The Fire Next Time“because its urgent insistence that black lives matter is as poignantly relevant today as it was in the civil rights era.” Elam, whose Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin will be out this month, added that “The Fire Next Time offers some of his most cogent and searing insights into race, power, and love in America.”

Read the full Stanford Report article here or click the link below.

The book has two parts: Baldwin’s essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” which originally ran in the New Yorker, and also “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” a shorter piece that Elam called “a meditation on the fragility of black boyhood.”

Baldwin wrote to his nephew of the hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed, and his countrymen “do not know it and do not want to know it. He added, “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

He claimed in the longer essay that white men project their fears and their longings onto African Americans. “The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark.”

Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, the first of nine children. He never knew his biological father, but his stepfather was a harsh preacher. At school he studied with Countee Cullen, a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and worked on the high school magazine with Richard Avedon, who would become a world famous photographer. The book dwells briefly on his precocious and brief teenage career as an evangelical preacher. He moved to Greenwich Village at 17 to be a writer. A British television journalist recalled that when he started his career he was black, impoverished and homosexual – how disadvantaged can you get? “No, I thought I hit the jackpot,” he said, grinning. Then after the laughter subsided, added, “It’s so outrageous you could not go any further, so you had to find a way to use it.”

He hit the jackpot. (Photo: The Granger Collection)

He hit the jackpot. (Photo: The Granger Collection)

Use it he did. He wrote than a score of fiction and non-fiction works, including novels, essays, and plays. The Fire Next Time sold more than a million copies, and put Baldwin’s face on the cover of Time magazine. The award-winning author was a popular speaker – lively, epigrammatic, scathingly witty, passionate and deeply humane. He eventually settled in the south of France, where he was named a Commander of the Legion of Honor the year before his death of cancer in 1987.

The Fire Next Time is one of the great books of the last century,” said Wolff, who teaches the book every fall. “With forensic calm born of rage, Baldwin performs an autopsy on the self-flattering myths by which we blind ourselves to the radical injustices of our society,  even as we congratulate ourselves on its moral superiority. Grounded in historical and personal experience, relentlessly logical, his words burn as hot today as when they left his pen.”

Certainly the book changed minds and lives. When he was still a graduate student, Bob Fitch, who currently has a photography exhibit spotlighting the Civil Rights era at the Stanford University Libraries spent all night reading the book and the next day bought a camera and began photographing the Civil Rights movement. A few years later, at an informal staff meeting held in Martin Luther King’s bedroom, he saw The Fire Next Time among the leader’s rumpled bedsheets. King told the young photographer that the book had inspired his own 1967 book, which would be his last, Where Do We Go From Here – Chaos or Community? The Green Library exhibition continues through March 18.

Stanford Bookstore, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto have copies ofThe Fire Next Time.


The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events. Another Look also invites readers far away to join us in reading the book, and to send us comments. Podcasts of previous events are on the website.

Afrikaans author André Brink, 1935-2015: Remembering a conversation long ago in London

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

Not what he looked like then. (Photo: Seamus Kearney)

André Brink, the Afrikaans author banned during the apartheid era, died Friday, February 6, after he became fatally ill during a flight from Amsterdam to his native South Africa. He had just received an honorary doctorate in Belgium.

I interviewed him in London, way back in the late 1970s, when I was working on Fleet Street. He was already an an awarded and acclaimed author, and already censored in South Africa. He was rather good-looking in a way I can’t find in any of the photos of him. Not craggy, as he was to become, nor with the bushy mop of hair he would acquire in the 80s. He was rather a “square” –  clean cut, professional, in a business suit. But his stories about being a banned writer were anything but square. He was continually watched by the security police, his phone tapped, and his mail intercepted and occasionally stolen. My cover story on him may no longer exist anywhere, except perhaps in one of the boxes in the garage. I think his book Rumours of Rain had just come out – or perhaps he had just published his Looking on Darkness in English.

According to the New York Times, “Mr. Brink’s work was often cited alongside that of Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee as an exemplar of South Africa’s ability to transform the experience of harsh racial politics into literature with a global reach.”

From The Guardian:

He was born in 1935 in Vrede, a small town in the Free State and became famous for using Afrikaans to speak against apartheid. His novel Looking on Darkness, was banned by the apartheid government in 1974. His other works include Devil’s Valley, Before I Forget and Praying Mantis. The books An Instant in the Wind and Rumours of Rain were both shortlisted for the Booker prize.

After circulation of copies of Rumours of Rain was held up for six months by the South African authorities in 1978, Brink reverted to private distribution for A Dry White Season.


Hard work.

“We had a subscription list of those who had bought the earlier books,” he said the following year. “We sold about 4,000 copies that way.” After several months the censors gave approval to the book, also lifting a ban on Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, and it was released through formal publication channels.

Ten years later, Brando left retirement on Tahiti to take a small part in the film of A Dry White Season, which starred Donald Sutherland, Zakes Mokae and Susan Sarandon, and was banned in South Africa.

In 2012, Brink was again long-listed for the Man Booker prize for his slavery novel Philida.

His 1974 novel was the first book written in Afrikaans to be banned – so he translated it into English, thus Looking on Darkness launched his international reputation. And here’s the part of our conversation I do remember: I asked him what it was like to translate his own books into English. He said it was difficult, because Afrikaans was a young language and English a comparatively old one. In Afrikaans, you could express love and patriotism – and the emotions would be fresh and vital and new. But when tried to do the same thing in English, the effect would be overblown, hackneyed, and a little foolish. It was the difference between Shakespeare and Austen, he said. Shakespeare could express himself in English and he was inventing the world anew. Everything was possible. By the time Austen wrote, all the effects are understated. She achieves her effects by pulling back. (One reason why Darcy never makes his proposal to Elizabeth in her pages – it’s only the failed marriage proposals that are described in blow-by-blow detail.)

I’ve been thinking about what he said ever since. (And if I find the article in the garage someday, I’ll let you know.)




Quoting Diane Middlebrook

Saturday, February 7th, 2015

Quotable (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Brendan Boyle has written a review of Diane Middlebrook’s posthumous Young Ovid for the Wall Street Journal here, in a piece titled “Love and Other Crimes.” (And I’ve written about the book here and here.) My attention was immediately drawn to it because it leads with a line from my obituary for the celebrated biographer – here. The quote was taken from the unpublished bits of an interview I did with her in 2003, for my Stanford Magazine interview here.  Since obituaries typically aren’t chatty and first person-y, I didn’t mention my 2003 interview, and simply quoted her.

Here is the whole passage:

When asked several years ago why she picked Ovid as her subject, she responded with characteristic breeziness, “No estates, no psychotherapy, no interviews, no history—I just make it up.” She frequently pointed out that there is no historical record of Ovid’s life; all we know is in his poetry. In other words, the biographer is forced to rely on the text itself. Can literature be primary source? Her answer was always a resounding yes—especially evident in her biography of Hughes and Plath, a book that was called the “gold standard” on a contentious theme.

But later, Middlebrook would add that she was also attracted to “the remarkable confidence that Ovid had in his own survival.” At a Stanford address last January, Middlebrook noted, “The evidence inside his poetry is the key to this longevity. His voice comes to us like a plucked string, immediate and recognizable across two millennia…”

Why is there no attribution? Presumably Boyle picked it up from Wikipedia, which didn’t attribute the source, either. Nor did it credit me with this quotation from her obituary: “One of the reasons I like working on biographies is that it takes a long time,” she said. “You don’t have to work quickly. People are going to stay dead.”



In my ham-fisted way, I’ve corrected the Wikipedia listings. Honestly, what is the point of doing interviews, trying hard to make the quotations accurate, transcribing recordings, which takes hours and hours … if people are going to treat what you’ve written as if it popped out of thin air? Boyle writes, “It’s the second half of the response that’s worrisome and surely can’t have been meant in earnest.” Well, of course it wasn’t. If he had gone to the article that included it, he would have seen that it was said with “characteristic breeziness.” She was being flippant. But he couldn’t. Because he was using Wikipedia, which didn’t list a source.

In any case, Boyle didn’t think much of the book, apparently, and what she said to me about “making it up” sealed her doom in his eyes, since he refers to that remark a lot. “The fictionalized interludes that Middlebrook herself writes do not add much and often have that florid, overripe air that descends upon so much writing about the ancient world.” He repeatedly makes it clear that “there is already a very fine account of Ovid’s life in Peter Green’s 1982 introduction to the Penguin edition of Ovid’s erotic poems.”  After recounting its virtues, he concludes, “All of this, and far more, is available in Mr. Green’s introduction, and no one looking for a sophisticated, compendious account of the poet’s life should search elsewhere.” Then why review this book at all?

Jean Genet’s “The Balcony” at the San Francisco Old Mint – tonight through February 21!

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Audrey Dundee Hannah and Jack Halton explore the Old Mint.

I received a note from actor-director Florentina Mocanu-Schendel a week or so ago, inviting me to the Collected Work’s new production of Jean Genet‘s The Balcony. It promises to be an unusual production. Here’s one reason why: it’s performed at the gloomy Old Mint in San Francisco – also known as the City’s “Granite Lady,” with its dark stone corridors and vaults. You can see at the two bottom photos exactly what I  mean, if the other photos don’t give you a feel for the place. (All photos, by the way, taken by Jamie Lyons, who co-directs the play with Michael Hunter.) The Granite Lady is a survivor, the only financial institution open for business after the 1906 earthquake. They thought it was an apt setting for a play about the struggle for institutional power.


San Francisco’s cheery landmark.

The Balcony is about a revolutionary uprising in the streets of an unnamed city. While armed rebels fight to take control of the city’s power structures, most of the action takes place in a brothel or “house of illusions,” where clients act out their fantasies of institutional power: they play judges, biships, and generals as their counterparts in the “real” world struggle to maintain their authority.

Important voices had lots to say about the controversial classic: Genet’s biographer, the critic Edmund White, wrote that, with the foregrounding of illusion and meta-theatricality i creating contemporary power and desire, Genet invented modern theater.  The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan described the play as the rebirth of the spirit of Aristophanes, while the philosopher Lucien Goldmann called it “the first great Brechtian play in French literature.” Martin Esslin has called The Balcony “one of the masterpieces of our time.”

Collected Works was founded in 2012 by a a group of theater directors, actors, and designers, mostly from the PhD program in drama at Stanford, where they had worked under the enlightened guidance of Carl Weber, who in turn had been the assistant director to Bertolt Brecht at the Berliner Ensemble. The San Francisco Weekly said the group is “hell-bent on bringing exceptional, experimental performance to the West Coast theater scene” – and in offbeat venues, too. Go here for more information.

We’ve written about Collected Works before, here, for it’s earlier production of Gombrowicz’s Princess Ivona. This one definitely sounds like it’s worth checking out. Go here for times and tickets.



Right to left: Ryan Tacata (facing the wall) Scott Baker, Val Sinckler, and Florentina herself. (Photo: Jamie Lyons)


Ryan Tacata has a nightcap, with Valerie Fachman.


Val Sinckler ponders the script.


Ryan Tacata finds a lot to ponder, too.