Archive for May, 2018

Fitzcarraldo publisher Jacques Testard: “He is the best thing that has happened to the anglophone literary world in years.”

Thursday, May 31st, 2018


Translator Jennifer Croft, author Olga Tokarczuk, publisher Jacques Testard at the Man Book International Prize.

A few days ago, we discussed a remarkable man, Jacques Testard, founding publisher of Fitzcarraldo Editions. The tony new house published this year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize, Olga Tokarczuk‘s FlightsI quoted friend and editor extraordinaire Daniel Medin of the American University of Paris, who was in London for last week’s ceremony:

Author and translator at signing

But in the applause for the author (and in this case translator, too), many forget the role of the publisher. Not Daniel, who also had praise for Fitzcarraldo Editions and its founding publisher Jacques Testard, with whom he has worked closely at The White Review for many years. “He is the best thing that has happened to the anglophone literary world in years. Firstly, for co-founding The White Review, which helped launch the careers of so many compelling English-language writers in the UK and in translation. Then, for Fitzcarraldo, which has brought the work of intrepid writers like John Keene, Kate Briggs and Claire-Louise Bennett to a larger audience. These are the first three that came to mind but his list is strong across the board, and includes of course many works in translation.

“It’s extraordinary that his books have won the Nobel and Man Booker International within a few years of launching. The best part’s that this is only the beginning. Jacques is playing the long game: his first translated title was by Mathias Enard, a finalist last year who will be eligible with his forthcoming novel, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants.

“Fitzcarraldo should be competitive next year with Esther Kinsky‘s remarkable novel, River. (Incidentally, Kinsky translated Flights into German and won a major prize for her rendering of Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night.)”

I did a little digging, and found this: “Interview with a Gate-Keeper: Jacques Testard,” a Q&A from 2017 with Kerri Arsenault over at LitHub. How did the house get its name? I wondered, and apparently so did Arsenault. The answer: “The name of the press, which comes from the Werner Herzog film about the man who wants to build an opera house in the jungle, is a not very subtle metaphor on the stupidity of setting up a publishing house—it’s like dragging a 320-ton steamboat over a muddy hill in the Amazon jungle.” From the interview:

Publishing today…

JT: I suppose my original interest in editorial work specifically came from a misguided notion of the glamour involved in the job, the mythology around great publishers of yesteryear, and the intellectual nature of the job. I wouldn’t say I had an easy time becoming an editor—in the early days I never managed to get the jobs I was applying for and so I ended up doing it in this long, unusual and convoluted way, working my way in from the margins by starting up my own project with a friend in order to eventually get to do it for a living.

KA: You mean editing isn’t glamorous?

JT: Publishing is a fairly low-adrenaline job, particularly when you work for a small independent press. I spend a lot of time on my own, editing, but also doing everything else you need to do to keep a small press ticking. I’ve had a few glamorous moments—the pinnacle was the Nobel Prize dinner for Svetlana Alexievich in Stockholm—but I spend a lot more time carrying big bags of books to the post office than drinking martinis with famous authors. In fact, carrying books around is quite a big part of the job.

The publishing house got an early boost when it published little-known Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time, “which we managed to pick up before she won the Nobel Prize, thus rendering any future prize successes utterly meaningless by comparison.” It was nominated nonetheless:

KA: I see Second-hand Time was longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, the UK’s most prestigious award for nonfiction. What has publishing Alexievich meant for Fitzcarraldo?

The Nobel helped.

JT: A lot. It gave the company financial stability in our second year of operations—thanks to the rights sales we were able to slowly grow the company, going up initially to eight books a year, and now ten. It also gave Fitzcarraldo Editions a platform, a visibility which it might have taken a bit more time to achieve—that book was reviewed absolutely everywhere and critics and literary editors pay attention to what we publish as a result. It also gave us our first significant publishing success, from having to manage successive reprints to making contingency plans in the event of a prize-win, to organizing a ten-day tour for a Nobel Prize laureate. In that respect it’s given me the opportunity to learn more about my job as a publisher.

So is publishing still a madman’s dream?  “Kind of. I guess the suggestion is that publishing is so difficult and financially precarious that to set out to publish the kinds of books that we do is akin to dragging a 320-tonne steamboat up a hill. It’s possible, but it’s going to be extremely difficult.”

It’s looking better with last week’s Man Booker International Prize. Can’t wait to read Flights. Read the interview here.

“Bro – he lives!” Joseph Brodsky on the morality of uselessness, and the need to “switch off”

Monday, May 28th, 2018

Sentenced to hard labor in Norenskaya, after a show trial.

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky famously said that all that poetry and politics have in common are the letters “p” and “o.” In a sense, that can be said to be the topic of Rachel Wiseman‘s “Switching Off: Joseph Brodsky and the Moral Responsibility to Be Useless,” over at The Point. 

It was the poet’s birthday a few days ago (he would have been 78), but it was also right after Philip Roth‘s death, so I didn’t post. Yet it would be ungrateful not to say something about the man who gave so much to me.

Fortunately, David Streitfeld of the New York Times sent me this article this morning, and it’s too good not to let the world know about it. (It’s one of a series on intellectuals – here.)

Спасибо, David

Wiseman begins with the 1964 show trial, where the Nobel poet, then 23, was labeled a social parasite. Then she contrasts his position with journalist Keith Gessen‘s criticism of him:

“If a poet has any obligation to society,” Brodsky said, “it is to write well. Being in the minority, he has no other choice.” The Soviet trial judge is not the only one who has taken this attitude to indicate a lack of social conscience. The novelist and critic Keith Gessen, in a 2008 article for the New York Times Book Reviewfaulted Brodsky’s generation of intellectuals and those who followed for being “powerless to stop Putin from terrorizing the country, not because they feared him, but because after the destruction of the Soviet Union they retreated into ‘private life,’ which is what they wanted all along.” Gessen is a great fan of Brodsky the poet, but wishes he would be more of a critic. In a New Yorker essay from 2011, he condemned Brodsky for allowing himself to become a “propagandist for poetry.” Gessen searched Brodsky’s oeuvre in vain for an example that might undercut the unapologetic aestheticism that had “hardened into dogma.” Not unlike the judge, Gessen seemed to demand of Brodsky, How were you useful to the motherland? How could someone of Brodsky’s intelligence actually believe that aesthetics governs ethics and not the other way around?

In a sense, she begins to demonstrate the point the article is trying to make. It sags in midway, as she addresses growing up in the “multicultural, bubblegum Nineties” and the politics du jour (“national nightmare”) – the piece becomes predictable and rote in outlook. It fades into outrage, repetitive emotions, and the mob before it regains altitude:

Every generation of intellectuals finds a way of coming to terms with the limits of their agency. Brodsky’s chose poetry; mine and Gessen’s took the train downtown. It’s not a strict binary, of course: these two tendencies can coexist in the same individual and express themselves in different ways. But we might consider that switching off, for Brodsky, was a way of performing his social responsibility, not shirking it. In Brodsky’s view, politics was one level of human existence, but it was a low rung. The business of poetry, he thought, is to “indicate something more … the size of the whole ladder.” He held that “art is not a better, but an alternative existence … not an attempt to escape reality but the opposite, an attempt to animate it.” What compels a poet to write is less “a concern for one’s perishable flesh” than “the urge to spare certain things of one’s world—of one’s personal civilization—one’s own non-semantic continuum.”

Gessen critiques

Hard to know what to quote because so much of it is so good. But let’s end at the ending. Those who have sent me emails know my standard footer: “Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.” It’s a remarkable quote, and true in just about every case I can think of. Here’s where it comes from, embedded in his remarks on the Biblical passage enjoining us to turn the other cheek:

Brodsky gives an account of the standard interpretation of the lines of scripture that inspired this doctrine of passive resistance and then goes on to mention the ending, which is less commonly quoted. The idea is not just to turn the cheek to the person who strikes you—you are also supposed to give him your coat: “No matter how evil your enemy is, the crucial thing is that he is human; and although incapable of loving another like ourselves, we nonetheless know that evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another. (This is why you’ve been hit on your right cheek in the first place.) At best, therefore, what one can get from turning the other cheek to one’s enemy is the satisfaction of alerting the latter to the futility of his action. ‘Look,’ the other cheek says, ‘what you are hitting is just flesh. It’s not me. You can’t crush my soul.’”

As David wrote to me when he sent the link, “bro – he lives!” Then he added, “anyway, what was it exactly they used to call him?  joe the bro, no? it was a play off  ‘joe the pro.'”

С днем ​​рождения, Иосиф. It’s true. “Bro, he lives.”

Postscript: Oh, but I forgot to include the tweet David sent a few minutes earlier. It’s below. Sounds about right, except … a “green velour suit”? In the 1970s, maybe … but the 90s?  I went to twitter and a whole stream of postscripts followed, including some from James Marcus:

Postscript on 7/15: Look what I found in the garage, while looking for other records. Naturally, I was so chuffed I had to tweet:


Man Booker International Prize: a big night for Olga Tokarczuk, Jennifer Croft, and one phenomenal publisher, Jacques Testard

Saturday, May 26th, 2018

Winners past and present: László Krasznahorkai and Olga Tokarczuk   (Photo: New Directions)

Now the whole world knows: Olga Tokarczuk has become the first Polish writer to win the Man Booker International Prize, for her novel Flights. The Man Booker press release called it “a novel of linked fragments from the 17th century to the present day, connected by themes of travel and human anatomy.” The prize was announced this week during a ceremony in London.

Croft ,Tokarczuk, Testard (Photo: Boris Dralyuk)

“Tokarczuk is a writer of wonderful wit, imagination and literary panache,” Lisa Appignanesi, who led the panel of judges, said in a statement.  She added that the novel “flies us through a galaxy of departures and arrivals, stories and digressions, all the while exploring matters close to the contemporary and human predicament — where only plastic escapes mortality.”

The £50,000 prize for best translated fiction from around the world will be shared with translator Jennifer Croft.

I heard the news from an unusual source: the boyfriend of Jennifer Croft is my colleague and editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Boris Dralyuk. We’ve written about him here and here. He’s over the moon, obviously and almost literally, as he’d just flown from Los Angeles when we exchanged messages, and 30,000 feet is as close as any of us will get to that chilly orb.

Wise words from Daniel

It was cheering news to others who attended the ceremony as well. Daniel Medin of the American University in Paris wrote me: “I’m delighted by the result. Flights is an original and formally adventurous novel. Great translation, too.” Daniel is associate director of the AUP’s Center for Writers and Translators and one of the editors of its Cahiers Series. He is also co-editor of Music & Literature magazine and a contributing editor to The White Review. He also tells me he’s now on the jury for the Berlin-based Haus der Kulturen der Welt  Internationaler Literaturpreis. (We’ve written about him here and here.)

He continued, “I’ve taught an earlier novel by Tokarczuk – also in a wonderful translation, in this case by Antonia Lloyd-Jones – in my course on Central European literature and history. Her fiction clearly belongs in that tradition.”

Boris at Pushkin House

But in the applause for the author (and in this case translator, too), many forget the role of the publisher. Not Daniel, who also had praise for Fitzcarraldo Editions and its founding publisher Jacques Testard, with whom he has worked closely at The White Review for many years. “He is the best thing that has happened to the anglophone literary world in years. Firstly, for co-founding The White Review, which helped launch the careers of so many compelling English-language writers in the UK and in translation. Then, for Fitzcarraldo, which has brought the work of intrepid writers like John Keene, Kate Briggs and Claire-Louise Bennett to a larger audience. These are the first three that came to mind but his list is strong across the board, and includes of course many works in translation.

“It’s extraordinary that his books have won the Nobel and Man Booker International within a few years of launching. The best part’s that this is only the beginning. Jacques is playing the long game: his first translated title was by Mathias Enard, a finalist last year who will be eligible with his forthcoming novel, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants.

“Fitzcarraldo should be competitive next year with Esther Kinsky‘s remarkable novel, River. (Incidentally, Kinsky translated Flights into German and won a major prize for her rendering of Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night.)”

And Boris was doing double-time, too: during his week in London, he celebrated his new Ten Poems from Russia (Candlestick Press) with a reading at the Pushkin House.

Author and translator (Photo: Janie Airey/Man Booker Prize)

Biographers! Bah! Robert Conquest and W.H. Auden on “shilling lives”

Thursday, May 24th, 2018


Elizabeth Conquest, a.k.a. “Liddie”, was surprised to hear that somewhere in my garage I had squirreled away W.H. Auden’s course syllabus – a copy, of course, from the Rackham archives of the University of Michigan. But then all the extant copies of the syllabus are copies of some kind. Probably mimeograph, in that era. Somewhere I have a xerox of that mimeo copy, or perhaps a xerox of the original typescript that Auden submitted when he was the resident poet at the university in 1941-42. It’s daunting, to say the least. Check it out here.

Liddie is the widow of the groundbreaking historian of the Stalinist era, Robert Conquest. He was also an important English postwar poet, and an influential figure of the “Movement” poets. She is the editor of The Complete Poems of Robert Conquest, to be published in Spring 2019 by Waywiser Press and is currently editing The Selected Letters of Robert Conquest. She is also editing Two Muses, her husband’s memoirs.

“Cracking the Books with Wystan” stirred her memories. Wrote Liddie: “Bob was, as a budding poet, much influenced by Auden—his earliest poetry notebook (1934-35) has many Auden quotations scribbled all over the inside covers, and bits here and there elsewhere.”

Liddie remembers

She sent me a paragraph from Bob’s unpublished memoir, Two Muses. In it, he reflects on the introduction of the 1956 New Lines anthology that launched the Movement poets:

In the preface I stressed the formal side because, after all, it was really Auden who brought back the formality that had been destroyed by Pound and others.  (A lot of the best of Auden’s poetry has a sort of hard surface which rejects the reader—and the later stuff about Nones and Lakes and such is unreadable—but there is a certain amount of energetic unpretentious stuff, and also some other odds and ends of lyrics etc., which come off pretty well.)  I think his original impact was from his a) self confidence, b) “new” preaching of not too homiletic a nature, c) not being unreadably modernist, yet able to claim the advantages of the latest thing.  Also the other purveyors were either worse (Spender) or less in the then groove (MacNeice).  I didn’t take to Auden at first reading (when I was c. 14), finding it cold, but gradually fell for the vigour and skill—not the lowest poetical virtues—and also, I suppose, the (then) mythopoeic effect—as in part of The Orators.

(Well, this reader rather likes “Nones” and in fact all of Auden’s “Horae Canonicae.” But as my brother always said, that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.)

Bob Conquest at his desk (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Liddie added, “Bob thought Charles Osborne’s biography was disgraceful, and shortly after it was published in 1979, wrote this sonnet, which appeared first in (I think) the TLS.

“One thing that impressed me about Bob is how everything he ever read remained lodged in that big head of his, to be effortlessly produced when needed.  I wonder how many readers of ‘Second Death’ ever notice the aptness of echoing Auden’s sonnet on biography in this criticism of Osborne, and in the same verse form.”

That is, Auden’s poem “Who’s Who” uses the same sonnet form established by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey: iambic pentameter with abab cdcd efef gg.

Here’s Bob Conquest’s reaction to Auden’s biographer:


                    Second Death

A ten-pound Life will give you every fact
– Facts that he’d hoped his friends would not rehearse
To an intent posterity which lacked
Nothing of moment, since it had his verse.

Or so he thought. But now we come to read
What his more honest prudence had held in:
Tasteless compulsion into trivial deed,
A squalor more outrageous than the sin,

Piss on that grave where lies the weakly carnal? . . .
– Hopeless repentance had washed clean his name,
His virtue’s strength insistent on a shame

Past all the brief bravados full and final.
Without excuses now, to the Eternal,
He makes the small, true offering of his fame.

Haven’t read the original? Here’s Auden’s sonnet “Who’s Who”:

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day …

(I have Liddie’s permission to reprint “Second Death,” but I don’t have the permission of the Auden Estate for “Who’s Who,” so the rest is here.)

Philip Roth has died at 85: “Each book starts from ashes.”

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

Philip Roth died Tuesday night of congestive heart failure. He was 85.

interviewed him in February 2014, as part of Stanford’s Another Look book club celebration of the author’s 1979 classic, The Ghost Writer (see here). He had finished writing, he said, and had finished giving interviews, too. We were able to persuade him otherwise.

His weapon-of-choice was the email interview, rather than a telephone conversation. Roth was precise, nuanced and to the point. He turned around a thoughtful and polished transcript in one quick weekend. This interview was discussed in London’s Guardian here and in the Los Angeles Times here. It was republished in Le Monde‘s  here, in La Repubblica  here – and an excerpted version of the interview also appeared in Germany’s Die Welt here.

The Q&A, which mostly discusses The Ghost Writer, is reprinted below.


“Each book starts from ashes.” (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Cynthia Haven: “There is no life without patience.” This thought is expressed at least twice in The Ghost Writer. Could you expand on it a little?

Philip Roth: I can expand on it only by reminding you that the six words are spoken not by me but by a character in a book, the eminent short-story writer E.I. Lonoff. It is a maxim Lonoff has derived from a lifetime of agonizing over sentences and does a little something, I hope, to portray him as writer, husband, recluse and mentor.

One of the several means of bringing characters to life in fiction is, of course, through what they say and what they don’t say. The dialogue is an expression of their thoughts, beliefs, defenses, wit, repartee, etc., a depiction of their responsive manner in general. I am trying to depict Lonoff’s verbal air of simultaneous aloofness and engagement, and too his pedagogical turn of mind, in this case when he is talking to a young protégée. What a character says is determined by who is being spoken to, what effect is desired, and, of course, by who he or she is and what he or she wants at the moment of speaking. Otherwise it’s just a hubbub of opinions. It’s propaganda. Whatever signal is being flashed by those six words you quote derives from the specificity of the encounter that elicits them.

Haven: You’ve said of your two dozen or so novels, “Each book starts from ashes.” How did The Ghost Writer, in particular, rise from the ashes? Could you describe how it came about, and your labor pains bringing it into being?

Roth: How I began The Ghost Writer almost 40 years ago? I can’t remember. The big difficulty came with deciding on the role Anne Frank was to have in the story.

Haven: It must have been a controversial choice, since she has held a somewhat sacrosanct space in our collective psychic life – even more so in 1979, when the book was published, and even more than that in 1956, when the action of your book takes place, a little over a decade after the war’s end. Were you criticized for this portrayal? How has the perception of her changed in the years since the book was published, especially given Cynthia Ozick‘s landmark 1997 essay, “Who Owns Anne Frank,” which decried the kitschification of Frank?

Roth: I could have had Amy Bellette be Anne Frank, and don’t think I didn’t put in some hard time trying to pull that off. The attempt wasn’t fruitful because, in Cynthia Ozick’s words, I did not want to “own” Anne Frank and assume a moral responsibility so grand, however much I had been thinking about bringing her story, which had so much power over people, particularly Jews of my generation –her generation – into my fiction as early as 10 and 15 years earlier. I did want to imagine, if not the girl herself – and in truth, I wanted to imagine that too, though in some way others had ignored – the function the girl had come to perform in the minds of her vast following of receptive readers. One of them is my protagonist, young Nathan Zuckerman, trying to get used to the idea that he was not born to be nice and for the first time in his life being called to battle. One is Newark’s sage Judge Wapter, watchdog over the conscience of others. Another is Zuckerman’s poor baffled mother, wondering if her own son is an anti-Semite dedicated to wiping out all that is good.

I portrayed some who, as you suggest, had sanctified Anne Frank, but mainly I decided to let the budding, brooding writer (for pressing reasons having to do both with the wound of remorse and with the salve of self-justification) do the imagining. He endeavors to forgo piety and to rehabilitate her as something other than a saint to be idolized through a close textual reading of her diary. For him the encounter with Anne Frank is momentous not because he is meeting her face-to-face but because he engages in the sympathetic attempt to fully imagine her, which is perhaps an even more exacting dramatic engagement. At any rate, that is how I solved the “owning” problem that plagued me at the outset.

978-0-679-74898-4Was I criticized for this portrayal? Of course there were flurries. There are always flurries. The worthy are always ready to deplore a book as the work of the devil should the book happen to take as its subject an object of idealized veneration, whether it is a historical event placed under fictional scrutiny, a political movement, a contemporary social phenomenon, a stirring ideology, or a sect, group, people, clan, nation, church that spontaneously idealizes itself as an expression of self-love that is not always shored up by reality. Where everything is requisitioned for the cause, there is no room for fiction (or history or science) that is seriously undertaken.

Haven: Many consider you the preeminent Jewish American writer. You told one interviewer, however, “The epithet ‘American Jewish writer’ has no meaning for me. If I’m not an American, I’m nothing.” You seem to be so much both. Can you say a little more about your rejection of that description?

Roth: “An American-Jewish writer” is an inaccurate if not also a sentimental description, and entirely misses the point. The novelist’s obsession, moment by moment, is with language: finding the right next word. For me, as for Cheever, DeLillo, Erdrich, Oates, Stone, Styron and Updike, the right next word is an American-English word. I flow or I don’t flow in American English. I get it right or I get it wrong in American English. Even if I wrote in Hebrew or Yiddish I would not be a Jewish writer. I would be a Hebrew writer or a Yiddish writer. The American republic is 238 years old. My family has been here 120 years or for just more than half of America’s existence. They arrived during the second term of President Grover Cleveland, only 17 years after the end of Reconstruction. Civil War veterans were in their 50s. Mark Twain was alive. Sarah Orne Jewett was alive. Henry Adams was alive. All were in their prime. Walt Whitman was dead just two years. Babe Ruth hadn’t been born. If I don’t measure up as an American writer, at least leave me to my delusion.

Haven: At one point in Exit Ghost, your 2007 coda to The Ghost Writer, Amy Bellette says to Nathan Zuckerman that she thinks Lonoff has been talking to her from beyond the grave, telling her, “Reading/writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the end of a literary era.” Are we? At times you have thought so – I refer to your conversation with Tina Brown in 2009, when you said you thought the audience for novels two decades from now would be about the size of the group that reads Latin poetry. This is about more than just Kindle, isn’t it?

Your comments were even broader in 2001, when you told the Observer, “I’m not good at finding ‘encouraging’ features in American culture. I doubt that aesthetic literacy has much of a future here.” Is there a remedy?

Roth: I can only repeat myself. I doubt that aesthetic literacy has much of a future here. Two decades on the size of the audience for the literary novel will be about the size of the group who read Latin poetry – read Latin poetry now, that is, and not who read it during the Renaissance.

Haven: You won’t be attending the Feb. 25 “Another Look” event for The Ghost Writer, which is a shame, because it’s Stanford’s effort to discuss great, short works of fiction with a wider community, bringing in guest authors as well as Stanford scholars. Book clubs have proliferated across the country. Do they offer the possibility of extending and deepening interest in the novel? Or are we kidding ourselves?

Roth: I’ve never attended a meeting of one. I know nothing about book clubs. From my many years as a university literature teacher I do know that it takes all the rigor one can muster over the course of a semester to get even the best undergraduates to read precisely the fiction at hand, with all their intelligence, without habitual moralizing, ingenious interpretation, biographical speculation and, too, to beware of the awful specter of the steamrolling generalization. Is such protracted rigor the hallmark of book clubs?

Haven: You told Tina Brown in 2009, “I wouldn’t mind writing a long book which is going to occupy me for the rest of my life.” Yet, in 2012, you said emphatically that you were done with fiction. We can’t bring ourselves to believe you’ve completely stopped writing. Do you really think your talent will let you quit?

Roth: Well, you better believe me, because I haven’t written a word of fiction since 2009. I have no desire to write fiction. I did what I did and it’s done. There’s more to life than writing and publishing fiction. There is another way entirely, amazed as I am to discover it at this late date. 

Haven: Each of your books seems to have explored various questions you had about life, about sex, about aging, about writing, about death. What questions preoccupy you now?

Roth: Currently, I am studying 19th-century American history. The questions that preoccupy me at the moment have to do with Bleeding Kansas, Judge Taney and Dred Scott, the Confederacy, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, Presidents Johnson and Grant and Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, the Freedman’s Bureau, the rise and fall of the Republicans as a moral force and the resurrection of the Democrats, the overcapitalized railroads and the land swindles, the consequences of the Depression of 1873 and 1893, the final driving out of the Indians, American expansionism, land speculation, white Anglo-Saxon racism, Armour and Swift, the Haymarket riot and the making of Chicago, the no-holds-barred triumph of capital, the burgeoning defiance of labor, the great strikes and the violent strikebreakers, the implementation of Jim Crow, the Tilden-Hayes election and the Compromise of 1877, the immigrations from southern and eastern Europe, 320,000 Chinese entering America through San Francisco, women’s suffrage, the temperance movement, the Populists, the Progressive reformers, figures like Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, President Lincoln, Jane Addams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, etc. My mind is full of then.

I swim, I follow baseball, look at the scenery, watch a few movies, listen to music, eat well and see friends. In the country I am keen on nature. Barely time left for a continuing preoccupation with aging, writing, sex and death. By the end of the day I am too fatigued.

Obituary at The Guardian here.

The “Revocation”: how a Stanford historian uncovered the story of Huguenot family escaping France

Monday, May 21st, 2018

Henri IV signs the edict that brings religious tolerance to France… for awhile.

The work of an historian does not exhale dust – at least not all the time. It can also involve exciting detective work. Such is the case for Carolyn Lougee, who was awarded the 2016 David H. Pinkney Prize and the 2017 Frances Richardson Keller-Sierra Prize for her book, Facing the Revocation: Huguenot Families, Faith, and the King’s Will. She spoke about the book at last month’s A Company of Authors event, and this post excerpts her talk.

The “Revocation” refers to the Edict of Nantes, which Henri IV had introduced in 1598 to end the Catholic-Protestant strife between Catholics and Calvinist Protestants. It was the first time two religions were formally approved in a single political entity, introducing a measure of religious tolerance. And it worked. 

Louis XIV revoked it in 1685, requiring all the French to be practicing Catholics. Moreover, Protestants were not allowed to leave the kingdom and if they were caught doing so they would be prosecuted and imprisoned.

So where does the detective work take place? With the story of one Protestant family who faced a choice: convert, pretend to convert and remain secretly Protestant, defy the king and risk prosecution, or escape. The family decided to flee to Holland in 1687.

From her talk:

Before dawn on an April day in 1687, six children of the Protestant noble family Robillard de Champagné slipped among the wine casks below decks of an English 18-tonner and made their escape from La Rochelle to Devon. Their mother and eldest brother traced the same route to exile in June. Eleven months later the father fled overland to Holland. A baby sister was left behind, never to see her family again. Who were the Champagné, and why did they leave France? How did they manage to escape? And what became of these emigrants abroad, by contrast with those who stayed?

Interestingly, my study did not originate in an interest in Huguenots, but rather in autobiography. I was at one time on the lookout for memoirs and autobiographies written by French women in the seventeenth century, and I came across a 1928 publication of an autobiographical memoir written in 1687 by a Huguenot woman, Marie de la Rochefoucauld, Madame de Champagné, and what intrigued me was that there was an indication in the footnotes that a manuscript of the memoir existed in the hands of her descendants, of whom the person who published the memoir was one.

Author, author!

I want to say a bit about what happened after this discovery and led to the book, both because it will give you some insight into what historians go through in their investigations of the past and because it leads to an understanding of what is important about this book I have written.

First I had to find the person who published that memoir in 1928. That wasn’t too hard: within a year of searching I had found his will, which mentioned that having no living descendants, he left his family papers to the children of his sister, Mrs. Parry-Jones. So now I only had to track down one Mrs. Parry-Jones and her children. That took time and ingenuity. My good colleague Paul Seaver helped me by looking through the London phonebook and sending me all the Parry-Jones listing, with and without hyphen between the Parry and the Jones. To no avail. Eventually I found Mrs. Parry-Jones in Valparaiso, Chile, and the will she wrote there in 1951 named her three daughters. So now I only had to track down one or more of her daughters. To make a long story short, I found one of them in a chocolate-box village in North Yorkshire; she had the Marie de la Rochefoucauld memoir along with some 100 other manuscripts that the family had carried with them when they escaped from France in 1687-88 and which the daughter of Mrs. Parry-Jones stored in a small room next to her garage. For the next five years I trekked whenever possible to that small, unheated room to study the papers.

Here I found what I had been looking for and more: not only a memoir for my study of memoirs, but a family that fit perfectly the way the emigration provoked by Revocation of the Edict of Nantes is generally understood: a family that in France had been well-rooted, secure, and prosperous who decided to give it all up for the sake of religion and escape to a freer country at great peril.

What Henri IV giveth, Louis XIV taketh away…the Revocation

So I decided to look further into this exemplary family by going to their place of origin in France: in Southwestern France, just outside the coastal city of La Rochelle. I managed to visit the chateau they had left in 1687, never to return, which had been inherited by Marie de la Rochefoucauld from her grandmother and was the source of the Champagné family’s economic and social standing. The current occupants knew nothing of the Champagné or that the family inhabiting the chateau in the seventeenth century had been Protestants. But it was moving for me to be in the chateau, and the occupant mentioned to me that a bookseller had come by some years previously offering to sell a bundle of documents about the 17th-century occupants. Here again, to make a long story short, I wanted those documents desperately, and within 5 years of traveling around the area, finding and bribing the bookseller, visiting the current holder of the bundle of documents no fewer than three times I finally acquired them from him.

And this changed everything. These documents were the records of the lawsuit by Marie de la Rochefoucauld’s aunt (her mother’s sister) that claimed the chateau and estate should be hers rather than Marie’s and that set off a chain of family conflict, mixed by now with religious conflict since some members of the family including the aunt had converted to Catholicism.

It was here that my exemplary family discovered in Yorkshire turned out not to be telling the full story of their emigration. By the time of the Revocation, the Champagné had lost their chateau and with it the foundation of their economic and social standing. This was not a family that was well-rooted, secure, and prosperous in France that decided to give it all up for the sake of religion but one in a sense compelled by a collapse of family solidarity and harassment into leaving.

There are two major conclusions to be drawn from this transformation of the story.

First, any understanding of the emigration of Huguenots at the Revocation needs to look at the circumstances of the emigrants in France. If the Champagné case is any indication – and further research is of course needed in order to ascertain the extent to which it is – the emigration of Huguenots was more like other emigration streams than like the uniquely religious movement it had previously been understood to be –originating in a convergence of social and economic insecurity, family license to leave, and opportunity perceived in a new place.

And since I have mentioned opportunity in a new place, let me mention that the refugee family Champagné had a glorious afterlife. Entirely obscure in France outside their immediate locality, their near-term descendants would attain fabled wealth and fame in two countries of the Refuge that they could never have attained in France. The grandson of Marie de la Rochefoucauld would grow up to be one of the principal generals of Fredrick the Great of Prussia; his grandson would be the famous poet author of Ondine La Motte Fouqué. In Britain, the great-grandson would head the English cavalry at the battle of Waterloo against Napoleon and be made a marquess for his successes. His daughter would marry a Spencer and hence number among her descendants not merely Winston Churchill but Diana Spencer, hence the heir to the British throne, Prince William. [Marie de la Rochefoucauld an ancestor of Prince William!—I had no idea of any of this when I embarked on my search for that first memoir]

The second major implication of my findings about the Champagné before their emigration takes us back to the origin of my study – autobiography. The picture of the family available in the Yorkshire documents was crafted by Marie de la Rochefoucauld in her memoir and, interestingly enough, crafted by the choice of documents her husband decided to bring with him when he escaped. Marie mentioned none of the family disintegration or the lawsuit that wrested her chateau and estate from her. Her husband chose to bring only the confirmations of nobility and land ownership that portrayed the Champagné as secure in their standing in France. Editing the record as they did was typically done by other Huguenot emigres at the time. Huguenots writing memoirs in exile edited memory, decided what to forget and what they wanted remembered for two main purposes: to convey to their children how they wanted them to understand their displacement out of France and to persuade those in their new places of residence that their motives for coming were reputable and trustworthy – that they were religious refugees. And those memoirs bequeathed a view of the Huguenot emigres that became the canonical story of religious migration that has prevailed to date and to which my rediscovery of the Champagné seeks to provoke further investigations for revision.

A poetry prize for Dana Gioia, and a reading in an “otherworldly setting”

Saturday, May 19th, 2018


Dana Gioia has won so many honors, awards, positions, distinctions, that it’s hard to keep track of them, but we can begin with his current appointment as poet laureate of California, and his earlier appointment as National Endowment of the Arts chair. As of yesterday, he has a new one: he was awarded this year’s Poets’ Prize for 99 Poems: New & Selected (Graywolf). The ceremony took place in New York City’s Nicholas Roerich Museum.

The winning book

“Dana has won many honors, but he has never won one of the ‘major’ poetry prizes,” said R.S. Gwynn, thinking of the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize. “His well known role as an advocate for the arts has perhaps overshadowed his excellence as a poet. Our award is not, however, for lifetime achievement or extra-literary work; it is an award, pure and simple, for what the members of the committee consider the best poetry collection of the year.” (Sam Gwynn is stepping down after ten years as chair of the event. He will be replaced by poet Robert Archambeau, with Marc Vincenz, editor of Plume and MadHat Press, stepping in as the new co-chair. have stepped forward to keep the prize alive.”

A committee of 20 poets selects the winner of the $3,000 prize, which is administered by Lake Forest College. The award is offered annually for the best book of verse published by a living American poet two years prior to the award year. The $3,000 annual prize is donated by a committee of about 20 American poets, who each nominate two books and who also serve as judges. Previous winners include A.E. Stallings, X.J. Kennedy, Marilyn Nelson, and Adrienne Rich. In fact, Dana shared the award with Rich way back in 1992.

I cannot find my own copy of 99 Poems to search for a poem – however, I do have a broadsheet of this one, which is included in the volume. It’s among my personal favorites, and somehow fits the Roerich Museum:

The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves

The stars now rearrange themselves above you
but to no effect. Tonight,
only for tonight, their powers lapse,
and you must look toward earth. There will be
no comets now, no pointing star
to lead you where you know you must go.

Look for smaller signs instead, the fine
disturbances of ordered things when suddenly
the rhythms of your expectation break
and in a moment’s pause another world
reveals itself behind the ordinary.

And one small detail out of place will be
enough to let you know: a missing ring,
a breath, a footfall or a sudden breeze,
a crack of light beneath a darkened door.

The verdict from one of the poets attending the event, Susan de Sola Rodstein: “Wonderful event in an otherworldly setting, with touching tributes to Colette Inez and Dick Allen, and memorable readings by prize-winner Dana Gioia and finalists” – the finalists were James May and John Foy. Susan also took the photos above and below.

Sam Gwynn, Dana Gioia, and Robert Archambeau

“I Am Not a Man, I Am Dynamite” : Peter Sloterdijk on Nietzsche

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

He saw a deep connection between moral philosophy and public relations.



Peter Sloterdijk is one of the most controversial thinkers in the world. In many ways, he is the heir of Friedrich Nietzsche, who is sometimes said to have inaugurated the 20th century. On Entitled Opinions, host Robert Harrison opens his discussion with Sloterdijk with the sound of an explosion, and Nietzsche’s words, “I am not a man, I am dynamite.” The podcast is up today at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

Sloterdijk says the words had helvetic echoes, since Switzerland was the first to blast a passageway through the Alps to tunnel new passages to Greece: “That is the metaphysical question for all these northern peoples. How can we win back an easier access to the Mediterranean truth, the really big dream-essence?”

The enfant terrible of philosophy (Photo: Rainer Lück)

Yet Nietzsche had his own access to the Greeks — and had the dynamite within him. In particular, he was the first to ask what meaning Dionysius might have for us. Nietzsche’s whole life work was an effort to uncover the meaning of the non-Olympic god who is “something to come, and something already present.” Nietzsche sought to discover how “the dismembering of Dionysus and his suffering recreates the world and makes a new form of social synthesis possible,” according to Sloterdijk (who was bravely battling a cold during the conversation).

“Nietzsche was right, to certain extent, when says ‘my soul should have been a singer rather than a writer.’ What he did in his later days was exactly that. That’s why Nietzsche later became, especially in Zarathustra, ‘the singer of a metaphysics of high noon.’” Sloterdijk calls that passage a European answer to the enlightenment of Buddha under the bodhi tree: “He describes the messenger as a person sleeping in the grass under tree and tied to life only with a very thin thread. You must not move. Dionysus is there. Don’t even breathe. The world has become perfect. He’s looking for the moments when he was even able to bear the burden of his divine predicament.”

“Nietzsche was among the very rare thinkers who had a feeling that there is a deep connection moral philosophy and public relations. This can be shown in the subtitle of Zarathustra — a book for all and nobody. Ein buch für alle und keinen.” It’s a mark of Nietzsche’s genius. He was acting as a kind of “action teacher,” and discovered a higher morality in writing a book for everyone and no one, a path between animal and the superman. Nietzsche likens it to a rope-walker.

More than a party guy.

“He sees the ropewalker, he has fallen down. He says, out of danger you made your profession. There is nothing despisable in that. And for that reason I am going to bury you with my own hands. It’s not success that decides everything, it is the will to remain within the movement and to walk on the rope.”


Philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk has been called a “celebrity philosopher,” and is one of Germany’s foremost thinkers. From 2001 to 2015, he was the rector of the State Academy of Design at Karlsruhe, where he has been a professor of philosophy and media theory since 1992. From 1989 to 2008 he was director of the Institute for Cultural Philosophy at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He co-hosted the German television show Im Glashaus: Das Philosophische Quartettfrom 2002 to 2012.

His books include: Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism (1986), The Spheres Trilogy (1998, 1999, 2004), Rage and Time (2010), Nietzsche Apostle (2013), You Must Change Your Life (2013), and Not Saved: Essays after Heidegger (2016).

In 2016, he taught a four week seminar at Stanford University on the philosophical implications of cynicism, with particular focus on his book Critique of Cynical Reason, a thousand-page book that sold more copies than any other postwar book on German philosophy.



More potent quotes:


“Modernity is all about disillusionment.”

“We rarely meet a person who such a high opinion of himself.”

“We live in the dust of deconstruction of metaphysical traditions.”

“In my ordinary voice I’m a baritone, but in my writing I’m a tenor. That is absolutely the case with Nietzsche.”


“Everyone adored him.” Remembering legendary publisher Peter Mayer, a free-speech hero.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

A charismatic enfant terrible: “As gracious as he was wise.”

Publisher Peter Mayer has died at 82. “Everyone adored him,” a friend wrote to me.

I interviewed him briefly, by phone in 2002, for an article in the Times Literary Supplement (republished by  The Los Angeles Times Book Review), at the time Ardis Publishers was acquired by Overlook Press, the independent publisher that he founded with his father, Alfred Mayer, and ran for nearly fifty years. He was a charming and intelligent interviewee, but I didn’t know then he was a legend.

From Publishers Weekly: “Once one of the most charismatic publishers, known for his penchant for smoking wherever he was, Mayer had suffered a number of injuries and illnesses in recent years.

“Born in London and raised in New York, Mayer began his publishing career as an editorial assistant at Orion Press in 1961, then quickly moved to Avon Books, where, over the course of 14 years, he rose to the position of publisher. After serving as publisher of Pocket Books from 1976 to 1978, Pearson chose Mayer to run its troubled Penguin Books division. When he left in 1996, the company had become one of the world’s largest, and most profitable, publishers.”

Praising a life “at full tilt”

Steve Wasserman now heads Berkeley’s Heyday Books, but back in 2002, he was my editor at The Los Angeles Times Book Review. He also knew the publisher well. Apparently everybody did. “Peter Mayer lived at full tilt,” he wrote. “I adored him. As generous with his smokes as he was with his advice, he always had time for me, was always encouraging, and was a deep well of marvelous stories. He was a bridge spanning the past and my own present. And somehow he was one of the most handsome men even into old age I ever met. As gracious as he was wise.”

Andy Ross, now a literary agent but then proprietor of Cody Books in Berkeley, has a special reason to remember Mayer. “I’m thinking good thoughts for Peter and his family,” he told me. “When I first became a bookseller in the 1970s, Peter was considered the enfant terrible of book publishing. It was a pretty stodgy business back then. Peter broke the mold when he became head of Pocket Books. He was young. He wore jeans. He was brilliant and charismatic. Every woman I knew had a crush on him.”

It survived the fatwa. (CreativeCommons)

When, in 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini put a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie‘s head for his book, Satanic Verses, Peter Mayer’s heroism – and Andy’s – came to the fore.  Andy’s bookstore Cody’s, which refused to drop the book, was bombed in the middle of the night, two weeks after the fatwa was announced – I wrote about that here.

“Peter was the head of Viking Books, Rushdie’s publisher. At the time of the bombing, Satanic Verses had sold out and there were almost no stores that had copies left. Peter called me to express his support for us and told me the new printing was coming out the following Monday. He was going to air freight our copies so that we would be the first and only store in America with the book. Oy vey!”


One of the women who had a crush, and admits it, is book editor and media journalista Maureen O’Brien. “They don’t make publishers like that no more. He was the coolest,” she said. “Peter Mayer. I always had a big crush on him. From NYC cab driver to the head of Viking/Penguin Books Worldwide, he pretty much invented the publishing of trade paperbacks and kept Salman Rushdie safe and mostly sound during his time in hiding after the release of his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses.

“I will always remember covering the American Booksellers Association in Washington, D.C. and interviewing Peter at the Penguin exhibit while bomb-sniffing German Shepherds roamed the aisles of the convention center in search of Islamic terrorists. To me, he was the best kind of great.”


From The New York Times obituary:

“I was advised by many to live like a hunted man,” he said in an oral history for the online collection Web of Stories, “and to change my address, change my car, move into a hotel.”

The controversy put not only him in jeopardy but also anyone else who worked for Penguin, but Mr. Mayer said the principles involved were important.

“Once you say I won’t publish a book because someone doesn’t like it or someone threatens you, you’re finished,” he said. “Some other group will do the same thing, or the same group will do it more.”

My “Joseph Brodsky: Conversations” – now in Portuguese!

Sunday, May 13th, 2018

The Brazilian edition of my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations has just been published by the tony new house Editora Âyiné, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

That’s the third language for the collection of interviews. It made its Italian debut with Milano’s first-rate Adelphi in 2015 (we wrote about that here), and of course the English language edition with the cover photo by Richard Avedon was published a dozen years ago.

Do you speak Portuguese? Now’s your chance. Order your copy on Brazil’s amazon site here. From the website:

Como nasce a poesia? De qual misterioso labor é êxito? Qual é sua tarefa? Quem se colocou, ao menos uma vez, uma dessas perguntas poderá enfim encontrar nestas entrevistas – que cobrem a vida de Brodsky no exílio, desde o início da década de 1970 até poucas semanas antes de sua morte súbita em New York em 1996 – respostas de uma clareza audaz. Descobrirá que a poesia é «um acelerador incrível do processo cognitivo», «nosso objetivo antropológico, nosso objetivo genético», e que não há melhor instrumento para «mostrar às pessoas a verdadeira versão da escala das coisas». Descobrirá também que o que sempre considerou artifícios técnicos inescrutáveis – esquemas métricos, por exemplo – são, na verdade, «padrões mágicos», «ímãs espirituais», capazes de afetar profundamente a poesia, fazendo com que um conteúdo moderno expresso segundo uma forma fixa (um soneto, por assim dizer) possa assustar tanto quanto «um carro indo pela pista errada numa rodovia». Brodsky sabia iluminar o trabalho dos poetas que amava – Auden, Frost, Kavafis, Mandelstam, Akhmátova, Tsvetáeva, Miłosz, Herbert, para limitarmo-nos a seus contemporâneos – com uma lucidez sempre acompanhada de uma vibrante participação: «Eu dificilmente extraio tanta alegria da leitura como quando estou lendo Auden. É uma verdadeira alegria, e, com alegria, não quero dizer simplesmente prazer, pois a alegria é algo muito sombrio em si mesmo». Essas conversações servirão também como um guia à melhor poesia: esse «esforço estético» capaz de frear «nossa bestialidade».