Archive for January, 2018

Anton Chekhov, a lady, and her dog: “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life.”

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018
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I’m working rather feverishly to finish writing against an important and non-negotiable deadline, and began two blog posts to you, Faithful Readers, but got strangely tangled up in my own words and couldn’t finish. Nevertheless I finally got a chance at last to read poet Dana Gioia‘s discussion of Anton Chekhov’s 1899 short story, “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” His thoughts about it are over at his website here. In the course of it, he writes, the hero (if you can call him that) “undergoes a strange and winding course of emotional and moral growth that few readers would expect.” Vladimir Nabokov called it “one of the greatest stories ever written.”

Dana begins with some background on Chekhov:

Anton Chekhov’s late stories mark a pivotal moment in European fiction–the point where nineteenth-century realist conventions of the short story begin their transformation into the modern form. The Russian master, therefore, straddles two traditions. On one side is the anti-Romantic realism of Maupassant with its sharp observation of external social detail and human behavior conveyed within a tightly drawn plot. On the other side is the modern psychological realism of early Joyce in which the action is mostly internal and expressed in an associative narrative built on epiphanic moments. Taking elements from both sides, Chekhov forged a powerful individual style that prefigures modernism without losing most of the traditional trappings of the form. If Maupassant excelled at creating credible narrative surprise, Chekhov had a genius for conveying the astonishing possibilities of human nature. His psychological insight was profound and dynamic. Joyce may have more exactly captured the texture of human consciousness, but no short story writer has better expressed its often invisible complexities.

Dana and friend.

It is an instructive irony that at the end of the twentieth century current short fiction seemingly owes more to Chekhov than to Joyce or any other high-modernist master. In 1987 when Daniel Halpern asked twenty-five of the noted writers featured in his collection, The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories 1945-1985 (New York: Viking, 1987), to name the most crucial influences on their own work, Chekhov’s name appeared more often than that of any other author. Ten writers–including Eudora Welty, Nadine Gordimer, and Raymond Carver–mentioned Chekhov. (James Joyce and Henry James tied for a distant second place with five votes each.) Chekhov’s preeminent position among contemporary writers is not accidental; no other author so greatly influenced the development of the modern short story. As the late Rufus Matthewson once observed, Chekhov fully articulated the dominant form of twentieth century short fiction: “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life, rendered with immediate and telling detail.” Chekhov was the first author to consciously explore and perfect this literary method in his vast output of short stories.

What do you know? I got this off without too much fuss. And I even found an image of a small yapping dog (you can read the story behind the painting here.) Read the Dana’s essay here.

Bohumil Hrabal, a glass of water, and “a lightning strike of a novel.”

Monday, January 29th, 2018
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It’s a busy Monday, but our mind keeps straying to the seminal Another Look event last week on Frankenstein. And it brought to mind other Another Look events … for example, our February 2016 event on Bohumil Hrabal‘a Too Loud a Solitude.

One of the book’s most enthusiastic is Peter Orner, writing in “Night Train to Split” in Guernica (an excerpt from his new book Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live (Catapult):

“The first time I finished Too Loud a Solitude, I was up in Letná Park, and I remember leaping off the bench and running around in circles, holding the book above my head and shouting because I believed I’d experienced some religious illumination. A brief, ninety-eight-page, lightning strike of a novel, the book is about a man named Haňťa who has been crushing paper beneath a street in Prague for the last thirty-five years. People throw paper and books, books by the barrelful, down Haňťa’s hole in the pavement. Before he crushes them, Haňťa reads. The book of Ecclesiastes, the Talmud, Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant’s Theory of the Heavens. Kant, who argues that the heavens are not humane, nor is life above or below.”

There’s another reason Hrabal came to mind, however. Before last week’s event, we had a nice chat with Meri Mitsuyoshi, who shared  this arresting photo she took last year while reading Hrabal’s dystopian mixture of enlightenment, hope, and despair. “A lighting strike of a novel”? I think the whimsical and grim Czech writer would prefer the rainbow that flashed across the page where he described the Gypsy girls.

The history of the heart: how a pinecone, eggplant, and pear became a ❤

Sunday, January 28th, 2018
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I’d say it’s more like a pear

A couple weeks ago, we wrote about Marilyn Yalom‘s latest book, The Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love. Her onstage conversation at Kepler’s Books considered the history of the ❤, but left us a bit fuzzy about how the symmetrical shape took hold, sometime in the fifteenth century.

Her article in the Wall Street Journal this weekend gives the details: “the lack of real knowledge of physiology left open fanciful possibilities. The second-century Greek physician Galen asserted that the heart was shaped like a pinecone and worked with the liver. This view carried into the Middle Ages, when the heart first found its visual form as the symbol of love.”

Hence, “The earliest illustrations of the amorous heart, created around 1250 in a French allegory called ‘The Romance of the Pear,’ pictured a heart that looks like a pinecone, eggplant or pear, with its narrow end pointed upward and its wider, lower part held in a human hand.”

And then there’s Giotto, in his 1305 fresco of Caritas in the Scrovegni Chapel of Padua – (Proust makes much of this image – read about it here). I rather like the discreet pear-like objet passed between the lady and the saint (is she giving or taking it?) – a casual transaction like handing over a five-buck bill, that occurs cleanly without a fuss, rather than the messy, bloody, pulsating thing that makes a mess of our real lives.

But soon enough, science and biology took over, and that’s no fun at all:

The great exception, in this as in other matters of art and science, was Leonardo da Vinci, who studied both human and animal dissections. The painstaking illustrations in his notebooks show his longstanding dedication to anatomical accuracy. (Human dissection, long taboo, began appearing as early as 1315 in Italy, but it could be banned at any time, according to the mood of the pope.)

Queen of Hearts (Photo Margo Davis)

Andreas Vesalius, the 16th-century Flemish physician who is considered the father of modern anatomy, was allowed to dissect cadavers at the University of Padua, thanks to a judge who supplied him with the bodies of executed criminals. In his groundbreaking book “The Fabric of the Human Body” (“De humani corporis fabrica”), Vesalius corrected certain errors made by Galen that had been blindly repeated by successive generations of doctors since the second century.

The detailed plates in Vesalius’s “Fabrica,” like the drawings in da Vinci’s notebooks, pictured a heart that looked more like the real thing. Yet the advance of science did nothing to shake popular attachment to the image of the heart as bi-lobed at the top and pointed at the bottom.

Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub. Here’s to artifice over the real thing, which brings us back to the pristine object we began with: ❤

Read the Wall Street Journal article here.

The perils of selling your books: you never know where they might wind up.

Friday, January 26th, 2018
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Beware of gag gifts. You never know where they’ll wind up. Sometimes they make it all the way to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

Buddy? We think not.

Tucked away in the stacks: a published report Uganda and Human Rights, with an unusual dedication from Uganda’s former leader and genocidaire, Idi Amin, the general who took over Uganda in a coup in 1971. After a brutal and genocidal regime, he was deposed in a counter-coup eight years later.

The dedication reads:

To Phil Torzian
With Best Good
Wishes From Field Marshak
President Idi
Amin, D.S.O, V.C.,
C.H., O.M., D. Litt. (Hon), Chancellor
of Makerere
University

Kampala
28th May 1977

Too nice a guy for that.

The dedicatee is Philip Terzian, the kindly and genial senior writer, and former literary editor, at The Weekly Standard. Was he a friend of …? Why would Idi Amin present a detailed UN report on his human rights violations as a gift to a journalist? And with such a warm dedication to boot? And how did such a report come to be in the stacks of the National Library stacks?

“Im sure the book was mine and I’m 99.9% sure it was a gag gift from my late cousin,” Philip wrote in a note to me, after he had posted the photo on Facebook. “Around that time (1977) I had given Steve a framed/inscribed photo of Amin in his chancellor’s robes from Makerere University, and this was undoubtedly a return (gag) gift. I probably sold the book in Los Angeles and there are a dozen ways it could have made its way to Israel.”

Postscript: Whoops! Philip Terzian has published his own account of the brouhaha over at the Weekly Standard here. Check it out. And while you’re at it, a Q&A with him over at Creative Armenia here.

R.I.P. writer and visionary Ursula K. Le Guin: “We read books to find out who we are.”

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018
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“There is no safety, and there is no end.”

Tonight is the Another Look event on Mary Shelley’s FrankensteinWe’ve written about it here and here. It is also a day the literary world is mourning: Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday night at her Portland, Oregon, home. She was 88. We recently wrote a post about her, “Ursula K. Le Guin Going Strong at 88: “I’m Not a Curmudgeon, I’m Just a Scientist’s Daughter,” here.)

Said the New York Times: “Ms. Le Guin embraced the standard themes of her chosen genres: sorcery and dragons, spaceships and planetary conflict. But even when her protagonists are male, they avoid the macho posturing of so many science fiction and fantasy heroes. The conflicts they face are typically rooted in a clash of cultures and resolved more by conciliation and self-sacrifice than by swordplay or space battles.” The obituary is here.

But there’s another reason to connect tonight’s celebration and the passing of one of the world’s great writers, as Clay Bullwinkle wrote us today: “Because she was like Mary Shelley,  a science fiction writer who covered important issues for individuals and mankind.” And also because was a local girl, raised by two professors (anthropologists, both) in Berkeley.

I will celebrate her for a reason of my own. She offers another reason to (as Werner Herzog said, “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read.” It’s here: “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”

She told The Guardian in an interview in 2005. “If you cannot or will not imagine the results of your actions, there’s no way you can act morally or responsibly.”

But perhaps the most interesting online tribute to her is over at the blog, Better Living Through Beowulfblog, which cites the words from her one books about death, including this one: “There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.”

Read it here.

How a Stanford engineer made Milton’s home his own.

Monday, January 22nd, 2018
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Milton’s Literary Garden:  all the flowers he wrote about are here.

The stampede towards STEM is not irreversible, and not everyone who begins in science and technology stays there. Some are saved by literature in the end. Take John Dugdale Bradley, a Cambridge-trained Chartered Chemical Engineer and a Stanford MBA who now finds himself a later-life a champion of John Milton – the writer the Stanford’s late Prof. Martin Evans called the most learned poet in the English language. 

He began as a neighbor

But the Stanford graduate began as a neighbor first. He and his wife moved to a cottage a few minutes away from Milton’s Cottage in Buckinghamshire. As he visited the cottage regularly, he got to know the man whose spirit still haunts it. From small beginnings he gradually became more involved in saving this literary jewel. Now as a Trustee he is leading the effort to raise a $5 million Endowment Fund to generate income to operate, preserve and enhance the cottage, museum, and literary garden in perpetuity. This mission includes the dissemination of Milton’s legacy and his eloquent promotion of all the freedoms we enjoy today. He spoke at Stanford recently, and so the Book Haven invited him to tell us about the cottage in a guest post.

Where Milton wrote “Paradise Lost.”

In 1665, John Milton fled London’s Great Plague with his wife and daughters. It was the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in England. He sought safety in a small, rural, secluded cottage in Chalfont St. Giles, about 25 miles northwest of the heart of London. It is the only Milton residence that survives today. Within these walls he completed Paradise Lost and was inspired to write its sequel, Paradise Regain’d. These late, great works ensured his enduring poetic legacy and universal recognition as one of the world’s greatest writers.

In the study, Milton, who had become blind, completed Paradise Lost by dictating to his wife or daughters every day. Here are rare first editions of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained on public display along with the first illustrated edition of Paradise Lost and some 200 translations into many languages.

In the museum’s old kitchen, displays many of his other works including Areopagitica and Lycidas, the romantic poem lamenting ‘a promising young life cut short’ in tribute to this college friend Edward King of Christ’s College Cambridge.

The parlour where Milton received his guests and where he encouraged debates on the issues of the day contains his parliamentary works including the ‘Tenure of Kings and Magistrates’ [published in support of and shortly after the execution of King Charles I] and a Proclamation from King Charles II calling for Milton’s most controversial books to be handed in and burnt. Other works are about divorce and ‘the Irish question.’

Where Milton received guests and (we hope) kept warm.

Alongside the cottage, is a registered Grade 2 literary garden is filled with most of the trees, shrubs, plants and herbs mentioned in Milton’s works. The garden is worth a visit in its own right.

As well as early editions of his best-known poetic works, including LycidasParadise Lost and Paradise Regain’d, the cottage includes a treasure-trove of his iconic prose writings, many of which focus on freedoms in government, religion, speech and the press.  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both revered Milton, and so the Puritan poet found a significant place in American history; his thinking and writings (particularly Areopagitica) influenced the development of the U.S, Constitution and later the First Amendment dealing with freedoms we all cherish – freedom of thought, of speech and of the press as well as religion.

And an unknown American may have inadvertently saved Milton’s Cottage for posterity.  Rumour has it that the building was to be sold,  to be shipped to the US and rebuilt there, beam by beam – so incensing the locals that they clubbed together to purchase Milton’s Cottage on behalf of the nation and keep it firmly on British soil.  That was back in 1887 and it has been in the care of a charity and open to the public as a museum ever since.

Milton’s Cottage has no permanent endowment, however – a state of affairs that the current Board of Trustees is determined to address.  We have therefore launched Paradise Maintain’d, a new endowment fund that is seeking to raise $5 million to protect and preserve this unique literary landmark in perpetuity.  Once we reach our target, the income generated will cover all of our annual core and maintenance costs as well as fund new initiatives to increase public engagement with Milton’s work.

To find out more, please visit our website here.  US donations are tax deductible: contact endowments@miltonscottage.org for further information.

Oh! And more news! The Book Haven will be visiting the Milton Cottage on site come March, when I will be honored with the inaugural residency. More from the Milton Cottage then!