Archive for April, 2018

TONIGHT: Philip Larkin’s early novel “A Girl in Winter” at Stanford!

Sunday, April 29th, 2018

Portrait of the poet as a young man… Philip Larkin


Robert Harrison

Philip Larkin is one of England’s most eminent postwar poets, but few know of his early forays into fiction. All that changes tonight, Monday, April 30, when Another Look considers Larkin’s little-known 1947 novel that takes place in wartime England, where a young refugee from the Continent attempts to recover her life while working in a provincial library. Meanwhile, she recalls an idyllic summer with an English family before the war. Please join us! The event is free and open to the public. Come early for best seats.


Tobias Wolff

When, where, who …

The Larkin event will take place at the Bechtel Conference Center at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 30. Panelists will include Another Look Director Robert Harrison, who will will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor and author also hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by renowned author Tobias Wolffthe founding director of Another Look, and literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest. “Liddie” Conquest knew Philip Larkin—a close friend of her late husband, historian and poet Robert Conquest and has written about Larkin’s poetry.

Liddie Conquest


Elizabeth Conquest in the Wall Street Journal

As we wrote in the Book Haven last week, “Liddie” Conquest was featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal. The article is available to subscribers here. The article is excerpted on The Book Haven here
The Bechtel Conference Center hosts all of Another Look’s events – a map is here. The nearby Knight parking structure, underneath the nearby Graduate School of Business, has plenty of room for free parking (see here for a map). In addition, parking is available on Serra Street and in front of Encina Hall itself.
In keeping with the Another Look mandate, this book has been pretty much forgotten in 20th century literary history. Help us jump-start a public conversation of this overlooked work. 

“Lynching Qaddafi”: an anthropologist’s p.o.v.

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

Mark Anspach is an anthropologist and author of  Vengeance in Reverse. The Book Haven recently published a Q&A about the book here. We also posted about an earlier piece he wrote on mass murderer Anders Behring Brevik here. Mark is the editor of Oedipus Unbound: Selected Writings on Rivalry and Desire by René Girard (Stanford, 2004). He is a contributor to Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion, edited by Scott R. Garrels (MSU, 2011). 

The story Mark tells here is new and old. It was originally published online in November 2011, but disappeared. We had hoped to republish it here in 2016, but held off in the upheaval after the elections. The story of lynching, however, is “evergreen” – and so we publish it today:

An on-camera lynching

“I’m good at killing people,” President Obama said. While claiming a proficiency at targeted assassinations is not the usual boast of a Nobel peace prize winner, it signals a change.  “We came, we saw, he died,” said Hillary Clinton at the death of Muammar Qaddafi. 

With everyone agreeing Qaddafi was a monster, the outcry over the way he died caught the Libyan rebels by surprise. A member of the National Transitional Council shrugged off criticism. “They beat him very harshly and then they killed him,” he said. “This is a war.”1

When videos showed rebels brutalizing their dazed and bloody prey, Libya’s new rulers bowed to demands for an investigation, but the impression remained that they didn’t really grasp what all the fuss was about.

Call it a cultural misunderstanding. Is it the Libyans’ fault if they don’t see what’s wrong with an old-fashioned lynching? Maybe we should turn the question around and ask why the images of Qaddafi’s final moments make us so uneasy.

A comment from the first Western journalist on the scene holds a hidden clue.  Describing cell phone footage of Qaddafi’s capture on the outskirts of Sirte, he wrote that the aging dictator who had once dreamed of uniting Africa “no longer bore any resemblance to a self-styled ‘king of kings’.”2

At first glance, this assertion seems self-evidently true. But is it?

Mark on mic

 Let’s forget Libya for a moment and imagine the following scene. Soldiers swarm around a prisoner, strip him of his clothes, mock and torment him and finally put him to death. The victim of the execution is a pitiable figure, bloodied and helpless to resist his captors – and yet, 2000 years later, his followers still call him the King of Kings.

The centrality of this story in our culture has trained us to be suspicious whenever we see someone treated the way Jesus was at the hands of Roman soldiers. That is true no matter who the victim is or what he may have done to deserve his fate.

Obviously, no one would mistake Muammar Qaddafi for a Prince of Peace, but that’s not the point. The very fact of lynching, in and of itself, is what we find unacceptable. As cultural theorist René Girard has long contended that the crucifixion of Jesus gave lynching a bad name.

That is not to say that Western societies have been immune to mob violence – far from it. We know that in our own country, between the late 1800’s and the 1960’s, thousands of black citizens were lynched. And we have been culpably silent today in the face of persistent reports from Libya that blacks have been attacked by rebel mobs.3

Nevertheless, in our culture, the crucifixion story is there to serve as a template for opposition to any kind of lynching. African-American writer Gwendolyn Brooks expresses this idea forcefully in the closing lines of her poem “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock – Fall, 1957”:

The lariat lynch-wish I deplored.
The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.

In younger days, 1970s (Photo: Stevan Kragujevic)

The rest of the poem emphasizes the disarming ordinariness of the people in a Southern town where black children faced racist violence when they tried to attend a white school. For the visiting reporter from a Northern black newspaper, this ordinariness is a “puzzle”:

The biggest News I do not dare
Telegraph to the Editor’s chair:
“They are like people everywhere.”

Throughout history, people everywhere have been prone to outbursts of violence like those that have marked the civil war in Libya. The real puzzle, perhaps, is how the human race ever managed to survive at all.

For René Girard, the answer lies in the paradoxical capacity of violence itself to reconcile people by bringing them together in a joint assault on a common victim or scapegoat. The cathartic elimination of an individual thought to embody all the evils afflicting the group temporarily restores unity and makes possible the founding of a new order.

“All the evils have vanished from this beloved country,” proclaimed transitional premier Mahmoud Jibril upon announcing the killing of Qaddafi. “It’s time to start a new Libya, a united Libya, one people, one future.”5

However much evil Qaddafi may have wrought, he cannot have been the only wrongdoer in the country. To claim otherwise is to make a scapegoat of him. In fact, despite what one might think, a scapegoat doesn’t have to be innocent. On the contrary, the guiltier he is, the more convincingly he can stand in for all other guilty parties and be sacrificed in their stead.

“It is important to cultivate the future victim’s supposed potential for evil, to transform him into a monster of iniquity,” writes Girard. This explains certain mysterious African royal rituals where the future king must commit forbidden sexual acts or violent crimes: the ruler himself is being set up as a scapegoat who must appear “worthy” of punishment.

In later days, 2009 (Wikimedia Commons)

The scapegoat king unites his subjects around him by uniting them against him. Insulted by the crowd during the installation ceremony, he may even face a mock attack by the royal army. Although he is not actually killed at the beginning of his rule, he often is killed at the end. Originally, the “king reigns only by virtue of his future death,” Girard writes. He is “no more and no less than a victim awaiting sacrifice.”6

In an earlier article on the Arab revolts, we argued that the fall of rulers like Mubarak restores them to the immemorial role of scapegoat kings. The photograph illustrating our text showed a placard in Tahrir Square that depicted Mubarak, Qaddafi and other Arab dictators as sheep awaiting sacrifice.

In the case of the Libyan leader, the photo proved prophetic. Through a chance twist of fate, Qaddafi was ultimately tracked down in a culvert that “opened next to a clutch of empty sheep pens.”7 By treating him like a sacrificial lamb,8 his captors briefly returned him to the central position he had gradually lost in the course of the war.

After his shirtless corpse was put on display in Misurata, thousands of Libyans from near and far made the pilgrimage to the rebel stronghold. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Richard II, they were eager to see “undecked the pompous body of a king” – and to capture the image on their cell phones, carrying it away with them as the high-tech equivalent of a holy relic.

For four days, the endless procession of onlookers filed past Qaddafi’s mortal remains. One reporter called the scene “a grim parody of the lying in state typically accorded to deceased leaders.”9 Even when Qaddafi’s one-time subjects came to curse him, it was hard to avoid the thought that they were also paying him a perverse kind of homage.

He figured it out.

The ambiguity of the situation is rooted in the dual nature of the scapegoat. If his death seems to make every evil vanish, then he has performed a miracle for which the people can only be grateful. By drawing all hatred to himself, he has become a mystical source of unity. For this reason, Girard suggests, we should not be surprised to find him transformed into “a sort of cult object” and “surrounded by a quasi-religious aura of veneration.”10

The owner of a house where Qaddafi’s body was exhibited like a cult object said, “This was the opportunity of my life. If I die tomorrow, I’m happy.”11 But knowledgeable observers fear the joy of Libyans will be short-lived. Their homeland is “shot through with rivalries, jealousies and blood debts,” notes Tarak Barkawi of Cambridge University. “Now it has lost the one thing that united much of the country: hatred of Colonel Gaddafi and his regime.”12

Already, the problem of how to dispose of the Colonel’s body caused unseemly bickering behind the scenes. In the end, the solution found was straight out of Leviticus: like the biblical scapegoat, the dead dictator was sent away into the desert. But he can hardly have taken the country’s ills with him.

Today the would-be “king of kings” rests peaceably in an unmarked grave. Yet the deep-seated conflicts that divide Libya – between East and West, between rival tribes, between Arabs and blacks – are likely to come roaring back. They will not be so easy to bury under the sand.

Footnotes below the fold…


The second Sierra Poetry Festival this weekend – with Robin Coste Lewis, David Kipen, and me

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

Angeleno David Kipen will be in the Sierra foothills for an onstage convo this weekend.

Another gig this weekend. I’m heading to the hills to be (I’m told) a “celebrity presenter” at the 2018 Sierra Poetry Festival on Saturday, April 28, which will be held at Sierra College in Grass Valley. Ever so tiny a celebrity, I should think – a National Book Award winner Robin Coste Lewis, is the keynote speaker, after all. And as always, Executive Director of Nevada County Arts Council Eliza Tudor is the magnificent organizer and visionary behind the event. You can hear her discuss the event (with poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo) over here.

I wrote about the Sierra festival in its inaugural year, 2017, when California poet laureate Dana Gioia was the keynote speaker. He gave a terrific talk – read about it here.

Last year’s poetry festival, with Dana Gioia and Moi (Photo: Mary Gioia)

Said Eliza of this year’s program: “We chose our theme, Ordinary Light, as a nod to our brand new United States Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, for the title of her award-winning memoir.” We’ve written about the poet, a Stanford alum, here.

I spent about a dozen years in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, “Gold Country.” The twin cities – Grass Valley and Nevada City – are the best and largest souvenirs of the Gold Rush period in California history, and have a growing tourist industry. (Both cities are now under state designation with the California Cultural District program.)

That’s one enticement. Then there’s the company. Consider this an invitation to come and join me. It’s an all-day one-day event. I’ll be having an onstage conversation with David Kipen at 3:30 p.m.

David, born and raised in Los Angeles, is the former literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts, during the time it was under the chairmanship of a fellow Angeleno … Dana Gioia. Since then, David opened the Boyle Heights bookstore and lending library Libros Schmibros in 2010.

He is also the former book editor/critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, which is where I encountered him in the late 1990s. I was a critic at that time for the august San Francisco institution.

However, he was for the most part telecommuting from Los Angeles. So we only had one brief encounter, years later, at an event for the National Book Critics Circle we both attended. He moved through the room like the sun, and his conversation is engaging and lively.

The conversation will be moderated by author Kim Culbertson, who will try to rein in David and me. Our topic: “What does it mean to be a literary citizen?”

She’s back: U.K.’s Mel Pryor (Photo: Radu Sava)

I don’t think the type on the poster is quite readable when reduced to blog size (bel0w), but you can go and see the full line-up and more legibly here. You can also register for the event online here.

The highpoint: Keynote Speaker Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis will speak at 9:30 a.m.

From The Guardian:

At age six, Robin Coste Lewis told her aunt that she wanted to be a writer. This, she thought, meant being a novelist.

“I thought that if one wanted to be a writer, one had to write novels because I didn’t know that one could be a poet,” says Lewis, whose debut collection Voyage of the Sable Venus won this year’s National Book Award for poetry. She believed this in middle school, high school, college, graduate school, and afterward while teaching, and trying to write fiction. She believed it when she published She Has Eight Arms But Only Shows Me Two in the Massachusetts Review, a work that she thought was a short story, “even though all my poet friends at the time were like, ‘Girl, that’s a prose poem.’”

To the marrow … National Book Award winner Lewis

Things changed after she was in an accident that caused permanent brain damage and kept her in bed for two years.

The recovery was difficult. Lewis had to do speech-language therapy and stop reading and writing. “My neurologist told me, ‘You can only write one sentence and read one sentence a day,’” she says. “I decided, ‘OK, if it’s one line a day, it’s going to be a goddamned good line.’” …

“I am an artist through to my marrow,” she says, though adding, “which might be a curse and not necessarily a good thing.”

And poet Mel Pryor will be flying in from England – as she did last year – to attend. Closer to home is Nevada City poet Molly Fisk.  But read the schedule here, and the list of presenters here. Tickets are here.

See you there.

“Notoriously tricky territory”: Elizabeth Conquest on the literary legacy of Robert Conquest, a long marriage, and lots of letters

Sunday, April 22nd, 2018


A marriage that was a “long conversation” … and plenty of papers, too. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

We’ve written about historian and poet Robert Conquest before – most notably for the Times Literary Supplement here, but also here and here and here, among other places. About his widow Elizabeth Conquest – a.k.a. “Liddie” Conquest – we’ve said comparatively little. That’s about to change. She will be one of the panelists at the Another Look book club on Monday, April 30, discussing Philip Larkin‘s early novel A Girl in WinterBut you might also turn to the pages of the Tunku Varadarajan‘s article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, titled:  “The widow of historian and poet Robert Conquest talks about his legacy – which includes three books still forthcoming”.

Liddie Conquest in London.

Robert Conquest was the first historian to chronicle Stalin’s murderous havoc. His book “The Great Terror,” published in 1968, was among the 20th century’s most influential works of investigative history. Yet Conquest was also a seriously accomplished poet and a prolific letter-writer. His correspondence includes letters to Amis and Larkin (880 pages to the latter alone), as well as to the novelist Anthony Powell and poets including D.J. Enright, Thom Gunn, Vernon Scannell, Wendy Cope and others …

Banker boxes full of papers cover practically every flat surface in the Conquest household. Sideboards, tables, floors and shelves—all heave with typed and scribbled sheaves. Not only is Mrs. Conquest readying “The Great Terror” for its 50th anniversary edition this fall, she’s editing his complete poems—more than 400, some never published—for publication next spring. She’s also editing his memoirs—he died with one chapter unwritten—as well as a fat volume of his correspondence.

“There are thousands of pages of letters that he wrote,” Mrs. Conquest says. “Bob warmed up before a day’s work by writing letters. He would sit at his typewriter and he’d fire off.” Toward the end of his life, he would dictate email messages to Mrs. Conquest, who sent them from their shared account. “He was never really fond of trying to figure out the computer.”

The lot of a literary widow, Mrs. Conquest says, “is not a happy one, for she must master the management of her husband’s literary estate.” But she doesn’t sound grumpy when explaining that she has a veto over the use of his writings, including the power to say yea or nay to any requests to reprint them. This is all “notoriously tricky territory,” Mrs. Conquest concedes, and such widows have “long been caricatured in writerly circles as pantomime villains”—the younger wife who “single-mindedly devotes her remaining decades after her celebrated husband’s death to championing his artistic legacy and slaying those who dare to question it.”

One of the many comments the combox: “Mrs. Conquest seems to be an absolutely wonderful woman.” We couldn’t agree more. Read the whole thing here.

More papers: Conquest at work. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The owl of Minerva flies at dusk…

Saturday, April 21st, 2018

.The writer’s desk has acquired a sort of mystique in the popular imagination, although it generally attaches to writers more famous and celebrated than my humble self. Nevertheless, I snapped a photo of a corner of my work space the other day, and the reason was the watchful gaze of this small, solitary owl.

My mother’s totem was the owl. So she collected them, everywhere she could find them, from all parts of the world. And somehow I inherited the menagerie when she died thirty years ago. I have no room for them in my current digs, and so they are packed away in a box in the garage.

Nevertheless, during a major household upheaval, I rescued one of them from long hibernation. A tiny one, less than two inches high, from Denmark. And now it sits in a cubbyhole in my huge oak roll-top desk, watching me, guarding me, perhaps judging me, as I work well into the wee hours. My brain buzzes faster closer to midnight. So it’s a fitting totem for me, too, night owl that I am.

Ah well, as Hegel observed, the owl of Minerva flies at dusk. And somehow landed here…

Postscript on 4/22: But I also confess a particular partiality for the Hegelian owl at left, stooping slightly to read the small print on the spine of a neighboring book. This fellow normally sits on a bookshelf next to Gorbanevskaya and Cavafy. He rests atop a block of white marble, and was sculpted and cast in bronze by my father, as an owlish gift to my mother. One of our long family legacy of owls…

“Evolution of Desire” launch party is literally unforgettable, thanks to Leah Garchik of the “San Francisco Chronicle”

Friday, April 20th, 2018

The tweeting consul et moi.

I wrote about the launch party for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, hosted by arguably the most hospitable couple at Stanford, Marilyn and Irvin Yalom, a while ago here. It cast a spell over all of us, I think. A few guests have drifted up to me since and said dreamily: “Wasn’t that a looovely party?”

Of course, I would assert that any party that had buckets of French (real French) champagne was well on the way to being unforgettable. But that would underrate the considerable charm of the gracious Yaloms, as well as their beautiful Palo Alto home.

Both are Stanford authors, but he is also a leading existential psychotherapist; she is one of the founders of feminist studies at Stanford. She also has the privilege of being René Girard‘s first graduate student.

The columnist..

It would also undersell the caliber of the guests, especially the high-octane presence of our French consul general from San Francisco, Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens.

But it was Leah Garchik of the San Francisco Chronicle who made sure the party is literally unforgettable – as long as cyberspace and the Library of Congress endure – by including a brief notice in her popular column. We don’t get top billing, but one notch below a Diane Keaton book-signing ain’t bad.

Read the snippet in yesterday’s paper here. Or in the screenshot below: