Archive for June, 2018

San Francisco Chronicle reviews “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.” We’re in the pink!

Saturday, June 30th, 2018

We’re in the pink! I biked down to the landmark Mac’s Smoke Shop on Emerson Street shortly after dawn this morning, to get my copy of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle. And here it is: “A Life of the Mind,” a review of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard by esteemed blogger, author, and critic Rhys Tranter. This is the first time René Girard’s work has appeared in The Chronicle since … oh, well, since I reviewed Battling to the End a decade ago. And there I am, on page 32 in the pink pages of the Chronicle‘s “Datebook” section, jostling for space right next to Bruce Lee (and, curiously, tucked away in a corner next to the review, Édouard Louis’s History of Violence). We’ll post a link when it’s up (POSTSCRIPT – link is here), meanwhile a few excerpts:

Cynthia L. Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is the first full-length biography of the acclaimed French thinker. Girard’s “mimetic theory” saw imitation at the heart of individual desire and motivation, accounting for the competition and violence that galvanize cultures and societies. “Girard claimed that mimetic desire is not only the way we love, it’s the reason we fight. Two hands that reach towards the same object will ultimately clench into fists.” … But it is the author’s closeness to the man once described as “the new Darwin of the human sciences” that brings this fascinating biography to life.


Haven was a friend of Girard’s until his death in 2015, and met with family members, friends and colleagues closest to him to prepare for the book. She recalls a calm and patient man who was generous with his time. “I came to his work through his kindness, generosity, and his personal friendship, not the other way around.”

He lived with his wife, Martha, on the Stanford University campus, and followed a strict working routine: “Certainly his schedule would have made him at home in one of the more austere orders of monks. His working hours were systematic and adamantly maintained.” He began his day at his desk at roughly 3:30 in the morning, broke for a walk and relaxation sometime around noon, and spent his afternoons either continuing what he had begun that day or meeting his responsibilities to students.

At home with Martha. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

One of the abiding questions that drives the book is how a man who appeared to lead such a quiet and ordered life was animated by some of the most troubling these in human history.

Adopting the lively and accessible style of an investigative reporter, Haven looks to Girard’s formative experiences for an answer. The reader is along for the ride as she drives a rented Citroën through southern France, or pores over archival images and family photographs. Her research is rich in important and surprising details, and there are entertaining tidbits of juicy academic gossip along the way.

In conclusion: 

Evolution of Desire is the portrait of a provocative and engaging figure who was not afraid of pursuing his own line of inquiry. His legacy is not so much a grand theory as it is a flexible interpretive framework with useful social, cultural and historical applications. At a time when religious fundamentalism, violent extremism and societal division dominates the headlines, Haven’s book is a call to revisit and reclaim one of the 20th century’s most important thinkers.

Read about Evolution of Desire in the Wall Street Journal here.  Or better yet, order a copy of the book itself here. Now in its second printing.

Postscript: the full link has been added here.


Did she create the first graphic novel? Charlotte Salomon did much more than that.

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

“It has always been easier for women to enter museums in the nude than clothed and wielding a paintbrush.”

The miracle was she survived.

The aunt she was named after died by her own hand. So, she learned years later, did her mother. Her grandmother, great-grandmother, and a number of other relatives died by suicide. But she did not.

And this little girl who had been “not very gifted, not very pretty, not very energetic, rather indolent, lacking in self-control, and egoistic” became one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, with a bold and energetic independence of spirit and style. In unimaginable circumstances, the German Jewish Charlotte Salomon fought the suicidal impulses of generations, responding to “the question: whether to take her own life or undertake something wildly unusual.” She opted for the latter, creating Life? or Theater?, a somewhat fictional, largely autobiographical operatic series of gouaches combining text and images and, by the extension of imagination, music, too.

So she lived until 26, when, as a newlywed several months pregnant, she was taken by the Nazis and gassed at Auschwitz in 1943. Rather than die by her own hand, she was killed at the hands of others. Her tragic biography is also a story of existential triumph.

In some sense, she created the first “graphic novel” – in blues, yellows, and reds, wielded with a fierce exuberance. As novelist Jonathan Safran Foer wrote: “Beautiful things are contagious, and no work of art has inspired me to strive to make art more than Life? or Theater? has. No work is better at reminding me what is worth striving for. The images … are simply my antidotes to indifference.”

An excerpt from Lisa Appignanesi‘s “Painting on the Precipice” in a recent issue of the New York of Books traces how we got to know her work at all:


It may have been the Salomons’ acquaintance in Amsterdam with Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, that encouraged them to make Charlotte’s work public. The process took time. It was inevitably mired in the family’s grief and desire to forget, a now recognized unwillingness or inability of survivors to share painful matters. The first Salomon exhibition was held in 1961 at the Fodor branch of the Stedelijk Museum. A catalog entry written by Charlotte’s father calls her book “an analytical diary written from memory.” The word “diary,” combined with the book’s association with the Holocaust, led to a shallow analogy between Anne Frank’s moving chronicle of daily life in hiding and Charlotte Salomon’s radical and tormented pictorial examination of her own life and that of Berlin’s Jews from World War I through the rise of Nazism.

Another factor that may have suppressed Salomon’s reputation is the general modernist distaste for art embedded in story, even though in past centuries so much art used to be. Artists such as Paula Rego and Kara Walker have gradually altered our ways of seeing. But the trouble with Salomon’s Life? or Theatre? is that it can’t be divided and sold as individual pieces in the gallery world so effective at creating value.

She speculates that current interest may be fueled by the rise of the graphic novel. “Then, too, after Jean-Michel Basquiat we’ve grown accustomed to bursts of text on image. But it may also be that the very conditions of Salomon’s life have swallowed her work up into the greater story of the Holocaust—ever anxious about the possibilities of its own representation.”

The reason for my own interest tonight is that I was leafing through the excellent new Taschen volume, lavishly presenting and reproducing 450 of Salomon’s most important pieces – according to the publisher, “an unrivalled magnum opus from a great and ambitious artist, overshadowed by her early death, but luminous with her precision, her lyricism, and her courage.”

She famously put entrusted the magnum opus to the keeping of a friend, with the instructions, “Take good care of it. It is my life.” It is a life, though light years beyond autobiography – and somehow it even makes the term  Gesamtkunstwerk, a Wagnerian “total work of art,” sound chilly and merely aesthetic. It is also a powerful reminder, should we need one, that a life looks very different driving forward than it does in the rearview mirror.

Martin Amis: “I think you have to be suspicious of any instant cult book.”

Monday, June 25th, 2018

A talker (Photo courtesy Knopf)

My goodness. Does this man ever have a bad interview? Like him or hate him, agree with him or not, Martin Amis is always fascinating, incisive, opinionated, controversial. The current Q&A at The Los Angeles Review of Books is proof.

“Despite the variety of subjects, the guiding theme of most of these pieces is the impact of time on talent and the rarity of a long, multichaptered literary career,” said interviewer Scott Timberg.

The Book Haven was greedy and wanted to quote everything, but we calmed down and settled for two excerpts. The first discusses poet Philip Larkin‘s appeal for novelists. A timely topic, because Stanford’s Another Look book club recently featured Larkin’s little-known novel, A Girl in Winter:

Timberg: You have a great line on Larkin in one of your essays, where you say he’s not exactly a poet’s poet — he’s too widely embraced for that — but a novelist’s poet. Tell me what you mean by that.

Martin Amis: Well, it was suggested to me by the poet-novelist Nick Laird. We were talking about Zadie [Smith, Laird’s wife] loving Larkin, and Nick said, “All novelists love Larkin.” That resonated for me, and when I came to write that piece I saw just how true it was — that he belongs with the novelists rather than the other poets. “A poet’s poet” is usually very much in danger of being precious, or exquisitely technical. Larkin is technically amazing, but he doesn’t draw attention to it. It’s his character observation and phrase-making that put him in the camp of the novelists, I think.

A grasp of ordinary people

There’s something oddly visual about Larkin too, for someone who squinted his life away through thick glasses. I feel like I can see those poems, the curtains parting and the little village and the ships on the dock.

Yes — and very thickly peopled. He has a grasp of ordinary character — which is very hard to get. The strangeness of ordinary people.

That may be why people who don’t read a lot of poetry respond to Larkin, if they read him at all. It’s like Auden. You might not understand everything in those guys’ work, but you get something out of it if you try.

Yes — though Auden is a lot more difficult. And a greater poet, I think, in the end. But — yes — Larkin doesn’t need much interpretation from critics in the way other poets do.

The authors you write about in your book are mostly novelists. Do you read much poetry, contemporary or otherwise?

Yeah, I do. It’s much harder to read poetry when you’re living in a city, in the accelerated atmosphere of history moving at a new rate. Which we all experience up to a point. What poetry does is stop the clock, and examine certain epiphanies, certain revelations — and life might be moving too swiftly for that.

He reads “The Greats.”

But I still do read, not so much contemporaries, as the canon. I was reading Milton yesterday, and last week Shakespeare — it’s the basic greats that I read.

It’s amazing how much poetry dropped out of the literary conversation in the States over the last few decades. It’s not gone entirely, but it doesn’t show up very much. I find British and Irish people, especially those born in the 1940s and ’50s, much more engaged with verse. It’s really changed over time.

It really has, and also the huge figures are no longer there, in poetry. Lowell, Seamus Heaney was one of the last. And I’m convinced, for that reason, that we live in the age of acceleration. Novels have evolved to deal with that, as the novel is able to do — just by moving a bit faster. Not being so speculative, digressive, intellectual. But poetry moves at its own pace, I think — and you can’t speed that up.


Your book is about the effect of time on talent — you take the long view on Nabokov and others. Each career is different, but did you perceive any patterns in the way these things go? Bellow, Nabokov, Roth — they all had robust careers. But we could contrast those with shorter or less successful ones — Joseph Heller, maybe, or Alex Chilton. Musicians, artists, writers who seemed exciting at first, but didn’t really keep up.

Indefatigable Nabokov

You get a sense reading a novel sometimes that this novelist has a big tank. A huge reserve. And some people don’t — and they exhaust it quite quickly. You can watch that process in any artist, I think. They arrive fresh, and then they use up, sometimes, their originality, and then are reduced to rephrasing that. You only see it fully when they’re coming to the end of their careers; then you can assess the size of that tank.

But you do go from saying hi, when you arrive on the scene, to saying bye, making your exit. Medical science has given us the spectacle of the doddering novelist. As I say in the first of the Nabokov essays, all of the great novelists are dead by the time they reach my age [68]. It’s a completely new phenomenon, and it’s a dubious blessing. Novelists probably do go on longer than they ought to, now.

Philip Roth has done the dignified thing, just quit. I know others who’ve done that. It seems to me that rather than gouging out another not-very-original book, you should just step aside.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell, but sometimes it’s harder. If we were reading, back in the 1960s, Goodbye, Columbus alongside Catch-22, would we have been able to tell which of the careers would last six decades and which would peak right out of the gate?

Catch-22? Embarrassing.

It’s hard to predict. But again, you do get an idea of the size of the reserves. Writers who start late sometimes go on longer, because the tank stays full longer.

My father and I used to disagree about Catch-22. He thought it was crap. He used to say of me that I was a leaf in the wind of trend and fashion.

Every father says that about his son!

I think you have to be suspicious of any instant cult book. See how it does a couple of generations on.

I looked at Catch-22 not long ago and I was greatly embarrassed — I thought it was very labored. I asked Heller when I interviewed him if he had used a thesaurus. He said, “Oh yes, I used a thesaurus a very great deal.” And I use a thesaurus a lot too, but not looking for a fancy word for “big.” I use it so I can vary the rhythm of what I’m writing — I want a synonym that’s three syllables, or one syllable. It’s a terrific aid to euphony, and everybody has their own idea of euphony. But the idea of plucking an obscure word out of a thesaurus is frivolous, I think.

Read the whole thing here

A “warm and magnanimous” biography: “Anybody interested in René Girard will want to read this work.”

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018

Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has earned fans in some unexpected places, including the influential economist Tyler Cowen in his blog Marginal Revolution, which featured my biography of the French theorist. Tyler is a columnist for the New York Times and considered a “top global thinker.” I’ve gotten letters and emails from many others – and a nice tweet from the National Book Critics Circle this morning! (See below.)

But I always knew my toughest critics would be the “Girardians” of academia.  Of course, they are not my target audience. Rather it is you, Gentle Reader, and all the others who have resisted getting to know this extraordinary 20th century thinker who wrote about desire, envy, competition and violence, because you thought taking on his ideas would be abstruse and theoretical and “hard.” Nonetheless, among the academics are many friends, so I crave their applause as well!

Two Girardians weighed in this month, one in the newsletter of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion, which called Evolution of Desire a “wonderful and moving biography.”

Andrew McKenna, professor emeritus of Loyola University in Chicago, has known René since his days as a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University. He had this to say:

René Girard describes to his biographer his own life as “a banal enough existence for the second half of the twentieth century,” and in an earlier interview with Jim Williams, he states “I am an ordinary Christian.” Remarks such as these pose a formidable challenge to any biographer. Haven meets that challenge with ample evidence of the man’s wit, erudition, and beguiling sense of humor, which galvanized the enthusiasm of his students and colleagues when he taught at Johns Hopkins; nearly everyone in the Department of Romance Languages wanted him to direct their dissertation, whether in French or Spanish or Italian literature. After brief stints at Indiana, where he got his doctorate in history and where he was denied tenure in our “publish or perish” gristmill, and at Duke, where this virtual refugee from previously occupied France could not help to be struck by the Jim Crow culture, Hopkins became the launching pad for the dazzling achievement of his intellectual and spiritual excursion through literature, anthropology, and biblical revelation, in that order. 

A longtime colleague

Haven likens him, rightly I think, to Tocqueville, whose travels through vast swaths of our younger country, under the pretense of studying our prison system, shed enduring light on American attitudes and institutions in a way that explains modern world tensions altogether, and especially our benighted individualism, a word of his genial coinage. Girard cited him tellingly a number of times. But Girard’s research exceeded his compatriot’s purview by several orders of magnitude, resulting in a hypothesis on the violent origins and sacrificial organization of human culture as such …

This is a life story, beginning with Girard’s Avignonais roots.  Among Girard’s papers some gestures toward an autobiography have been found. But Haven rightly avers that we already have such a work in the form of his groundbreaking writings. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel Girard argues that a literary masterpiece is the spiritual autobiography of its author, who undergoes a humbling conversion from a view of his or her compact righteousness over against what’s wrong with everybody else. To use Trevor Merrill’s resonant formula in his book on Kundera (who has acknowledged his debt to Girard), a great novel is a “satire gone wrong.” We already get an inkling of this autobiographical feature from the apocalyptic and prophetic conclusion of his very first book. We get it in thematic statements he makes to his interlocutor, Benoît Chantre, in his last book, Battling to the End, a fulsome incursion into mimetic history. But it is significant that he makes them here as elsewhere (Evolution and Conversion, When these Things Begin) in conversation. For Girard, it’s relations all the way down and every which way, and it’s not about him, it’s about truth …

Grant Kaplan of St. Louis University wrote “those invested in carrying on Girard’s legacy should welcome a book that traces Girard’s appeal so broadly.” The publication is the journal Pro Ecclesia. But perhaps the best thing is that he wrote me later that “it passed the mom test.” His mother read and loved the book.  An excerpt from his review:

He teaches prison inmates, too.

It would be hard to exaggerate the accessibility of Evolution of Desire. Anyone who writes or talks about Girard has to do the three-step dance: first, explaining how mimetic desire works for good and for ill; second, positing the invention of the scapegoat mechanism as the foundation for society; third, the emergence of biblical religion as the unveiling of the mythic cover up. Haven does this dance with remarkable deftness. In addition, her brief accounts of post-structuralism and other intellectual movements display almost Platonic distillation. It is also a personal book. Haven talks about herself, at times frankly, and it sometimes reads as “Girard As I Knew Him.” These features do not detract in any way. As Haven portrays him, Girard was a man of decency and humility, who loved his wife and displayed almost none of the unattractive qualities that mark so many academics.

Anybody interested in Girard will want to read this work. The book is so readable, meant in the most complimentary sense, that one might even hope that it renews interest in Girard. The man claimed on more than one occasion that his theory sought to give Christianity and Christian theologians the anthropology that it deserved. Haven has provided a warm and magnanimous biography that Girard most certainly deserves.

I make one qualifier, about “one might even hope that it renews interest in Girard.” It was more than my hope: it was my intention.


“A Metaphysics of Negativity”: Brothers Robert and Thomas Harrison discuss Expressionism and the Year 1910

Thursday, June 21st, 2018


Thomas Harrison

When Halley’s Comet passed over the world in 1910, newspapers prophesied doom. The era was already overshadowed by social, spiritual, and political unease. That year, Sigmund Freud published Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis and formulated his first sketch of the Oedipal complex. Rainer Maria Rilke published his only novel, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Writer and philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter completed his thesis and shot himself, one of the era’s many suicides. Meanwhile, Arnold Schoenberg was emancipating dissonance with his Theory of Harmony, which was written in the summer of 1910. The following year, Oswald Spengler would begin his landmark Decline of the West.

“The nihilism of the First World War was presaged, summarized, and mourned in the music, poetry, and thought which a great many artists and thinkers produced in the year 1910,” said Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison. “It seemed to play out all the worst nightmares that had obsessed the Expressionists.”

Just warming up with Oedipus

This episode of Entitled Opinions at the Los Angeles Review of Books is a family affair. Said Robert Harrison, “Brothers punctuate cultural history. We have the Brothers Grimm, the Marx Brothers, the Schlegel brothers, the Goncourt brothers. It so happens I have a brother, too, who like me, is a professor of literature who has written a few books.”

In the introduction to his 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance (University of California Press, 1996), UCLA professor Thomas Harrison wrote, “Nineteen ten is the spiritual prefiguration of an unspeakably tragic fatality, heard in the tones of the audacious and the anguished, the deviant and the desperate, in the art of a youth grown precociously old, awaiting a war it had long suffered in spirit.”

First and only novel

In this fraternal conversation, Thomas and Robert Harrison discuss leading figures in the umbrella movement called “Expressionism,” including poet Georg Trakl, painter Wassily Kandinsky, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Filippo Marinetti, as well as Rilke, Spendler, Schoenberg, and others.

What do the Expressionists say to us today? “Of course, the darkness of their vision didn’t turn a lot of people on,” explains Thomas Harrison. “During the reconstruction of Europe after World War I, we had to forcibly leave that stuff behind. But don’t forget that every time you leave something behind it comes back. So it came back in World War II. Human nature does not change, although we think we’re getting better and more rational. The depths of the soul that they probed are the same depths that people try to keep hidden and secret, over and over and over. While it may not be not much fun to listen to Schoenberg’s atonal music, it’s a reminder that the beast we have within us will stick its head up the minute he can get away with it.”

Listen to the podcast of this fascinating Harrison-on-Harrison discussion here.


More potent quotes from Thomas Harrison:

“These artists were perhaps the most ethically and philosophically committed generation of artists since the Romantics.”

“They developed a metaphysics of negativity. Being itself was considered a rotten set-up.”

“We no longer share this negative metaphysics today. We do everything we do to ignore it and forget about it and put it under the rug – to repress it again.”

What’s next for Man Booker winners Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft? A 900-page epic – in English next year.

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

Author Olga Tokarczuk and translator Jennifer Croft (Photo: Janie Airey/Man Booker Prize)

We posted about last month’s big win for Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft, winners of the Man Booker International Prize for the Polish author’s Flights (Fitzcarraldo Editions). Croft is the translator. She also translates from the Spanish and Ukrainian and is the founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review. In a new interview in Scroll, she discusses her craft. A few excerpts:

The original Polish title of Flights, which is Beiguni (or Wanderers), gestures to the Slavic sect who have rejected settled life. I also read elsewhere that an early title for the book was Runners. Tell us about your choice for the English title – and how this captures the book’s central themes.

Signing books in London.

The original title of the novel is Bieguni, which comes from a Slavic root that means “to run”. But the word in Polish is a strange one – not a word people use, though they would recognise the root. The word “runners” in English is much more prosaic, much less evocative. I chose a word I thought would accurately reflect Olga’s tendency throughout her work to create networks of associations, a tactic that is especially important in a book like this one, where fragments may appear at first glance to be disconnected from one another, yet in reality they’re linked conceptually as well as though subterranean formal bonds, including the resurgence in different sections of related words. “Flights” suggests plane travel, imagination (“flights of fancy”), fleeing (which is closer to the original Polish title), etc.


It’s taken a decade for the English-language version to hit the bookshelves since the book was first published in Poland. And for this reason Tokarczuk has said that while she’s pleased it has gained renewed pertinence, she also feels “conversationally jet-lagged” talking about it now. With this distance in mind, what are your thoughts on translations as the after-lives or second-lives of a book?

This is a fascinating topic that also gets at the question of what a translation is, whether it constitutes its own artwork, how independent it can be from an original, how independent an original can be from it. I’m planning to write more about this in the future.


You’re also translating Tokarczuk’s magnum opus, the 900-page epic The Books of Jacob, which won the “Polish Booker” [That would be the Nike – ED.], and which is slated to be released in 2019. What can readers expect?

Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob is a monumental novel that delves into the life and times of the controversial historical figure Jacob Frank, leader of a heretical Jewish splinter group that ranged the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, seeking basic safety as well as transcendence. Tokarczuk’s twelfth book, considered by many critics to be her masterpiece, The Books of Jacob is also a suspenseful and entertaining novel that remained a national bestseller for nearly a year after its November 2014 release.

Although set in the eighteenth century, The Books of Jacob invokes a decidedly twenty-first century zeitgeist. It encourages its readers to reexamine their histories and reconsider their perspectives on the shape Europe will take in coming years. It celebrates and problematises diversity in its plot and characters. It subtly participates in the debates dividing Europe – and the world – on how to protect tolerance, how to define intolerance, how to set and abide by the limits of contemporary sovereignty, and on specific issues such as how to handle an influx into Central Europe of refugees in both practical and moral terms.

Read the whole Q&A here.

A night at the opera with Andy Ross – actually, four nights, because it’s Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Sunday, June 17th, 2018

“I’ll be at Das Rheingold tonight at the San Francisco Opera,” Andy Ross told us. He’s a literary agent and former proprietor of Cody’s Books in Berkeley. We’ve written about his face-off with a fatwa here, but now he’s facing another battle: the San Francisco’s Wagner fest, which continues into July (read about it here). Andy is a longtime fan of Richard Wagner’s corpus: “I discovered it in college. Most people liked the Beatles. I liked Wagner. People thought I was weird.” Now there’s no turning back.

“I’ve got my spear and horned helmet and I’m ready to go.” Let’s go with him. Here he is on the first night.

“Just got back from Das Rheingold. It was great.”

Night 2: At Die Walküre last night. My favorite Ring opera. Magnificent performances by the artists and the orchestra. It even managed to distract me from the weird post-modern staging. (Although I have to admit to a certain admiration in the third act with the Valkyries dropping onto the stage from parachutes looking like Amelia Earhart).

Walküre is the most human of all the Ring operas. The Ring is myth, and the characters sometimes become more symbolic of universal qualities than than flesh and blood human beings. Moreover, Wagner’s tendency to overlay the story with Schopenhauerian philosophical musings means that the opera doesn’t always find its way to the heart. But not so in Walküre. The first act is, in my mind, the greatest love scene in all of opera, from the glimmering recognition of Siegmund and Sieglinde to the climactic moment when Siegmund pulls Wotan’s sword from the tree as Sieglinde looks on in ecstasy. Its emotionality is amplified by the vulnerability of the characters and the knowledge of their impending doom. In the following acts, the immortals, Brunnhilde and Wotan, find their own humanity – literally for Brunnhilde, who, in the heartbreaking final scene of the opera, is banished from Valhalla, deprived of her immortality, and laid to rest by Wotan, who surrounds her with the magic fire that can only be penetrated by a hero who is without fear. Not a dry eye in the house.

Night 3: Last night, David Ross and I saw Siegfried, the third opera of Wagner’s Ring. Siegfried has always seemed to me the Ring’s problem child. I find the music and the drama in the first two acts disappointing. The biggest disappointment is the character, Siegfried. That’s a problem because he is on stage for most of the four hours of the opera. Wagner’s hero seems more like a cross between a boy scout and the lug who played JV guard in high school. Moreover, Wotan comes on stage very early on, always a sign that maybe it’s time to go out to the lobby and check your email. True to form, he goes on a long unmusical backstory exposition. The second act is just plain boring. The music is thin and unmemorable. The shimmering “forest murmurs” sound a little like mediocre Debussy. Even Fafner, the dragon, is something of a bore. I’ve always felt Wagner had simply run out of steam by Act 2 of Siegfried. He had lost his mojo.

Then the orchestra begins the prelude to Act 3, and something miraculous happens. To backtrack a little, Wagner put down the score to The Ring after composing Act 2 and didn’t go back to it for a decade. During that time, he composed his two great mature masterpieces, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. When he returned to Siegfried, you see the transformation right away. The orchestra, always Wagner’s strong suit, is fuller, richer, deeper, more complex. The music is powerful and evocative. Even Wotan, who makes his final appearance in The Ring, has compelling music. And nothing quite prepares us for the electrifying and triumphant love duet that ends the opera. Wagner composed three great love scenes: the second act duet of Tristan, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s duet in Act 1 of Walküre, and this final scene of Siegfried’s awakening of Brunnhilde. This love duet lacks the eroticism of Tristan, and the heartbreaking tragic quality of Walküre. It isn’t even particularly romantic. But it puts forth a kind of heroic, triumphant message that love will change the world. It was a thrilling end that brought the entire house to its feet. There’s really only one other ending in opera packing that kind of titanic power. We’ll be hearing it on Sunday.

David Ross and I spent the last six hours seeing the final opera of Wagner’s Ring. Götterdämmerung isn’t the most popular opera in the Ring. That would be Die Walküre with its heartfelt humanity. Götterdämmerung‘s characters do not engage the listener in the same way. The music is relentlessly dark and foreboding. But this is the opera that best expresses Wagner’s musical vision of a completely integrated work of art. If you were able to ask Wagner what his most perfect work was, I have no doubt he would say it is Götterdämmerung. More than in any of the preceding operas, the orchestra dominates the story to the point where it becomes the most prominent voice. This is best seen in the incomparably glorious final scene, Brunnhilde’s immolation.

Wagner’s place in the pantheon of great composers is permanently established. But he stands apart, not because of his greatness, but because of his flaws. One would be hard-pressed to identify a flaw in any of Mozart‘s work. They are perfect. Wagner’s works are all flawed masterpieces. But he maintains his place because of the splendor of his greatest moments. The Ring, flawed though it is, is perhaps the most monumental work in Western Art. I suppose you could include Dante‘s Divine Comedy, and maybe Michelangelo‘s Sistine Chapel with that. And after seeing the complete Ring, one must admit that the music has done what was seemingly impossible, living up to the grandiosity of Wagner’s vision. Seeing it was special. We are glad we went.

And we’re glad we went with him. Read more about the San Francisco Opera’s Wagner festival, which continues into July, here.

Timothy Murphy may be the most prolific lyric poet in English ever – and he’s dying.

Friday, June 15th, 2018

Tim in North Dakota

Update on June 30: Tim Murphy’s last email to me said that we would talk when he got over his thrush, which made conversation difficult. “Hell of an affliction for a poet,” the Dakota poet added in an email on June 2.  

His body was riddled with what he called “six warring cancers.” Then he broke his hip, too. I tried calling some time later, and he said, “I am in agony.” A few days ago, his family had silenced his phone and were not answering messages. “There are scores of unanswered emails. His family is deluged,” wrote Jennifer Reeser, who, as his executor, says she is now “Tim’s agent on earth.” He died in his home in the early hours this morning – peacefully, she says. I don’t doubt it. He had earned it.

His Last Poems? was 168 pages long when he sent it to me in mid-May, but had grown to some 230 pages by the time we last communicated – he said he’d send it. He signature line: “so yes, I’m writing better and faster than I ever have.  fondly, Tim”

Tim Murphy is dying and he knows it. He received the news on January 10, his 67th birthday. Now the poet is in advanced stages of cancer at his North Dakota home, and he is writing quickly, feverishly,  fiercely, a poem or two a day, despite physical limitations, heavy medications, and overwhelming setbacks. He is racing against extinction.

North Dakota State University Press is preparing to issue a Collected.  It’s a daunting effort: his fourteen collections total something like 1,400 pages. “That makes me the most prolific lyric poet in English,” he crowed in a recent email. His Last Poems collection followed his diagnosis (the version I have totals 168 pages) and describes his grim predicament, its origins and inexorable destination:

Owning It

Family history is just so clean
cancer never intruded on my thought.
I’ve hunted hard each fall, I’m whippet lean,
but my twin vices have been dearly bought.

My brother Jim embraced a grimmer view:
“No Murphy ever drank and smoked like you.”

We met at the West Chester Poetry Conference, at the turn of the century, and kept up a sporadic correspondence. I published a long Q&A with him, and I still think it reads rather well. He did, too, when he recently reread it. From my introduction:

Timothy Murphy, all dressed up.

Photos don’t do him justice. Tim Murphy is harder, leaner, smaller, and more prominently beaked than any news photographer has caught to date. Moreover, his brilliant red hair, set off by a welter of freckles, softens to a dull, inexpressive gray in newsprint black-and-white. Face to face, Murphy brings to mind a fierce, small hawk over the North Dakota wheat fields of his native Red River Valley.

In addition to being a poet of note, Murphy is also a venture capitalist and partner in a farm that produces 850,000 hogs a year. “I do the dirtiest, most difficult job on a farm,” he often quips to reporters. “I borrow the money.”

His poems have received kudos from high sources, including Pulitzer prize-winning poet and former U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur, who praises Murphy’s wide learning, the elegance of his writing, and his “extraordinary conversancy with a lot of the poets of the past, in many languages.”

“Tim uses rhyme and meter in a songlike way––which a great many modern poets have forgotten how to do. Most poets nowadays are not lyric in that sense. Tim writes poems that a composer could set to music,” says Wilbur. Moreover, “his poetry is lucid. When he is subtle, it’s the kind of subtlety that leads you into understanding. He uses forms without showiness and always with a point.”

At Yale University, where Murphy was Scholar of the House in Poetry, he studied with Southern agrarian poet Robert Penn Warren (another Pulitzer prize-winner and former poet laureate), who had grown up on a Kentucky tobacco farm.

Warren, however, refused to give him a recommendation after Yale. Murphy was courting the East Coast literary world and aiming for a poet-in-residency at a prestigious academy. “I needed to cultivate the sense of place which I so fervently admired in Yeats, Hardy, and Frost, but which I had not yet found in the land of my own birth,” Murphy wrote in Set the Ploughshare Deep. “Go home, boy,” Warren had told him. “Buy a farm. Sink your toes in that rich soil and grow some roots.”

Richard Wilbur and “Charlee” were friends.

Murphy took the advice. Twenty years later, he published The Deed of Gift (Story Line Press, 1998). During the intervening two decades, he distilled his blowsy iambic pentameter narrative lines to the briefest of dimeters and trimeters, often in poems of a dozen lines or less.

The openly gay Murphy describes himself as a “Faggot Eagle Scout Libertarian Factory Farmer Carnivore Poet.”

Well, read the whole Q&A over at the Cortland Review here.

His story didn’t end there. Alan Sullivan, his beloved friend, as well as editor, translator, and collaborator, succumbed to cancer seven years ago. Both underwent late-life conversion experiences. I haven’t had a chance to read thoroughly and thoughtfully the manuscript Tim sent me a few months ago, but I flagged this as a personal favorite, having met the late great poet Richard Wilbur and his wife “Charlee” at that same West Chester Poetry Conference, seventeen years ago (Pistis, elpis, agape – St. Paul’s faith, hope and love):

Prayer to Charlotte Wilbur

Your death day Holy Tuesday, Charlee, pray
.   hard for your “young” friend
 facing a painful end,
chemo and radiation. Day by day

I trudge to treatment, trailing my slender hope,
 wishing only to write.
 Burdened, I wake at night
weighed by an anchor eye-spliced to a rope,

symbol of elpis. Pistis, agape too,
.   with these must I surround
 my soul and stand my ground,
trying to die unbowed. I pray to you,

much cherished matron in the Heavenly Host.
Put in a warm word with the Holy Ghost.

Postscript on July 1, from poet and translator A.M. Juster on Twitter:

Can’t get a copy of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard? Here’s why.

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

Can’t get a copy of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard? Here’s why: they’re gone. No copies at the publishing house. Or the warehouse. And certainly not at Amazon. We’re sold out. Completely.

Second printing should be here next week. Stay tuned, or pre-order on Amazon, or check your local bookstores.

(Update: There appear to be a few copies available on European Amazon sites. You could fly to Warsaw and pick up a copy. But honestly, it might be better to wait till next week.)

How Andrei Sinyavsky’s papers wound up at Stanford – and a long-ago trip to Fountenay-aux-Roses to get them.

Monday, June 11th, 2018

Mother, son, and wisteria at the rue Boris Vilde.

It’s a small world, of course. And even smaller if you’re at Stanford. No sooner had I posted yesterday’s thoughts about the Russian writer Andrei Sinyavsky (pen name Abram Tertz), then a tweet surfaced in cyberspace from a dear friend: “”Cynthia Haven brought back memories of reading Abram Tertz, then meeting him in the Hoover Archives reading room as Sinyavsky. Both he and his wife Maria Rozanova were regulars in the Hoover Archives reading room in the 1990s. They just could not stay away.” No wonder. With its extensive collections on the Soviet era, it would have been a miracle to them.

Elena Danielson, the friend, and also the former director of the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, told me that Hoover had, in fact, acquired the papers of Sinyavsky, and she herself had collected them from France.

I noodled around google a bit and found the Stanford press release from October 1998. It’s another story of Hoover’s truly remarkable archival rescue efforts:

The Hoover Institution has acquired the papers of the Russian writer and human rights activist Andrei Siniavski. Siniavski’s writings and his trial for allegedly publishing anti-Soviet slander in foreign countries are considered key in mobilizing the human rights movement that contributed in significant ways to the forces that discredited and toppled the Soviet system. “Siniavski was a writer whose fiction provoked the regime to frenzy and galvanized the movement that eventually brought it down,” said Hoover Institution Senior Research Fellow Robert Conquest after hearing about the acquisition.

Beginning in the 1950s, Siniavski sent abroad writings under the pseudonym Abram Tertz that he could not publish legally in the Soviet Union. He was arrested in 1965, tried in 1966 and sentenced to forced labor.

Demonstrations against the trial galvanized young intellectuals, among them Vladimir Bukovsky and Alexander Ginzburg, and inducted them into the human rights movement. In response to international protests at Siniavski’s mistreatment, the regime allowed him to emigrate to France in 1973.

Siniavski’s wife, Maria Rozanova, also publicized her husband’s plight and refused to leave the Soviet Union without his papers. Authorities relented in order to dispatch her abroad, and she was able to save the record of her husband’s life and work.

Once in the west, Siniavski taught at the Sorbonne, served as a visiting professor at Stanford and received an honorary doctorate from Harvard. He died in 1977. [Correction: it was 1997.]

The collection contains biographical information on Siniavski and his father, who was arrested for political activity; unpublished manuscripts and correspondence from before his arrest; materials on smuggling his manuscripts abroad, including secret codes he used; evidence of his influence on students at Moscow University; evidence of people spying on him; materials on his arrest and trial; a copy of the KGB interrogation files, notes on the search of his home and photographs from the early days of the human rights movement; papers from the emigration and continuing human rights activities abroad, including broadcasts for Radio Liberty and tapes of complete interviews and sections not broadcast; and papers on emigre politics.

“The trip to rue Boris Vilde was such fun, about 1998 I suppose,” Elena recalled. “The wisteria covered house was classic French, and the interior, stuffed with papers on make-shift shelving, was so very Russian. The son, Iegor Sinyavsky Gran, is a novelist and a charming guy.”

She went back to her notebooks and files to find some photos for me.

“Maria Rosanova and Iegor Sinyavsky, rue Boris Vilde, Fountenay-aux-Roses,…I’ve just found the wisteria-covered house, stuffed with the late Andre Siniavsky’s papers in boxes, on shelves, overflowing the furnitures…Maria looked around in despair ‘Bumagi, bumagi, bumagi…'” (That would be бумаги, бумаги, бумаги. Or “papers, papers, papers…” to the rest of us.)


“The widow was totally bewildered by the huge stacks of papers,” she recalled. “But we got it all shipped and cataloged.” Then, a little later, “Such charm. The two of them made the collecting trip into one of the highlights of my career.” I could almost hear her sigh, all the way from Twitterland.

And she had another souvenir in her house from his days at Hoover, way back in the 1990s. She explained: “I bought The Trial Begins with an intro by Czesław Miłosz for a class at Berkeley, so in the 1965-1969 era. I just found the book which he autographed for me in the Hoover Archives reading room, dated 1992. He signed it Abram Tertz.

More from Elena’s albums: