Archive for 2020

San Francisco’s Diane di Prima is dead at 86: she decided to be a poet at 14, and wrote every day for the rest of her life.

Sunday, October 25th, 2020
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Onstage in 2013 at Stanford

Beat poet Diane di Prima died today after long illness at 86.  She was born in Brooklyn, a second-generation American of Italian descent. She went to Swarthmore, then Greenwich Village, and joined Timothy O’Leary’s community in upstate New York, made a lifetime move to San Francisco. She published more than 40 books, including This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards, Revolutionary Poems, and the semi-autobiographical Memoirs of a Beatnik. Seven years ago, she came to Stanford to read her poems and have one of the legendary “How I Write” onstage conversations with Hilton Obenzinger. Below, she and Hilton relax before the November 6, 2013, event. You can listen to the recording of the conversation over at iTunes “How I Write” (it’s #53) here.

His recollections of the conversation below, excerpted from How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experience (by Hilton Obenzinger, published by the “How I Write”  Project at Stanford):

It’s hard to imagine a more independent writer than poet Diane di Prima. She emerged as part of the beatnik scene at a very early age in the 1950s, although the beatniks never called themselves that until somebody else came up with the term. Once she decided that she was going to be a poet at the age of fourteen, “it wasn’t really a happy moment, because I knew immediately what wasn’t going to happen.” As she put it, she was forgoing “matched dishes, a washing machine, a regular consensus lifestyle of any sort” in exchange for the freedom to create any way she chose.

She had been caught writing when she was in summer school, and the teacher made her read a poem out loud: “It was all downhill from then,” she joked. Once di Prima decided to be a poet, she also made sure to write every day. She had a lined composition book that had the slogan “No Day Without a Line” in Latin on the front, and she maintained that practice throughout her life. She went to Hunter College High School in Manhattan, where she read the romantics, but her school was so intellectual that “reading and loving the romantics was a no-no. You would rather be caught reading a comic book than Thomas Wolfe’s novels. I would lie and say, ‘Well, oh no, I’m reading Archie.’” But she met with a like-minded group of girls before class, including the future poet Audre Lorde, and they would read their poems to each other. That was her “first “workshop.”

She visited him in the hospital.

She dropped out of college after her first year, and was largely self-taught, initially through a combination of three influences: “I studied with Keats and Pound,” she said. “Keats’s letters told me everything I needed to know until I found [Ezra Pound’s] ABC of Reading.” She needed to learn a bit more, such as mastering “the building blocks of poetry—the image, the dance of the language, and the music of words.” Those three elements— Keats, Pound, and the building blocks—constituted her initial education, along with her sessions with Ezra Pound himself.

At that time, Pound was confined as a patient at St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington, D.C. rather than face a trial as a traitor for making radio broadcasts in support of Mussolini during the war. Despite being very shy, di Prima decided to go visit the poet: “I’m not going to lose the opportunity to look this man in the eye and talk to him.” She had sent him some poems in advance, and he wrote back: “They seem to me to be well written. But—no one ever much use as critic of younger generation.” She took this as encouragement, but this was an important lesson that gave her direction for how to teach later in life: “Keep my hands off younger people’s work. Try to grasp what they’re after, and if I can get that out by hanging out with them, then I could nudge them in that direction.”

She could suggest books to read, but she kept to that idea: Not much use as critic of the younger generation. Di Prima went to St. Elizabeth’s with a friend and stayed at the house of Pound’s lover, Sheri Martinelli, visiting with the poet every day for four or five days. The hospital staff knew she couldn’t be there for long, so they let her in frequently.

After she dropped out of college she spent half the day writing and half studying. “I took the agenda, more or less, that Pound proposed, and taught myself some Homeric Greek so I could sound out the poems.” She also studied classical Greek grammar and Latin. “I’d study usually at home, and then I’d take my notebook and go out and write, run around the city and write. And then the typing and revising happened at home in the evening. We needed very little, so $70 a month covered the rent. The house was $33, the apartment—four of us lived in it. It was a cold-water flat. No heat. Bathroom in the hall.” Her bohemian lifestyle flowed from her commitment to her art—not the other way around.

Thinking or composing “as it happens” is something that poet Diane di Prima tried early in her career. Jack Kerouac stayed at her place in New York on the way to India in February 1957. With Ginsberg, Kerouac, and others in her small apartment, everyone started to read their poems out loud.

They read their poems together.

After she read one of hers, Kerouac asked, “What did it look like when you first wrote it?” She looked at her early draft, and to her surprise she liked it. What she got from that experience was the knowledge that “you could always go back to those drafts and pull something out when you got stuck, you know; and then I got the sense of how your mind worked in the first place, and that was very interesting.” She had taken a class on dance composition with a choreographer, who implanted the idea that everything has a form—everything. “He said nothing else. After about ten minutes we all started to go out the door,” di Prima said. “We were looking at everything. Oh, that has a form; that has a form. He was telling us that all forms are okay. Leave your mind alone. Don’t mess with everything all the time.” As a consequence, she began following her mind in her writing wherever it went: “Write exactly what’s happening as closely as you can.”

She wanted to write something longer, and she took what she learned from that dance class, “taking a structure and then hanging absolute freedom on the structure.” She took the eight trigrams (three-line symbols) that make up the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, and she would immerse herself in the qualities of each trigram: “I listened to that kind of music. I’d just be in that kind of state for a couple of months. And then I’d start writing. And I’d just write. And I’d write whatever showed up on the wall in front of my big IBM typewriter.” In this way, in a kind of mystical state, she wrote The Calculus of Variation.

Di Prima was wondering how to revise the book, “how to make it smooth and really hip or kind of avant-garde prose. And I knew that if I did that I would be violating this book, so all of a sudden I decided, ‘Hmm, I can’t touch this. I’m going to leave all the flaws in it.’” She got an offer from New Directions to publish it, but they wanted to assign her an editor, and she declined, explaining, “This is in the nature of a received text. I can’t touch it. And I never did. And so I published it myself. And never did publish with New Directions.” For a poet to get published by New Directions was (and still is) a major accomplishment, but given her “calling,” her artistic purpose outweighed whatever she would gain for her “career.”

After The Calculus of Variation, Diane di Prima returned to revision in her other works, although much of her poetic method would be to transcribe what she would see before her as a “received text.”

At Stanford in 2013. (Photo: Les Gottesman)

Join us for a (virtual) “Company of Authors” event this Saturday! Catch up on a year of Stanford books.

Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
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A Company of Authors will be a virtual event this year, but please join us on Zoom to catch up with the latest Stanford books. I’ll be there, with this year’s Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy (Bloomsbury). I’ll be joined by some amazing people – Norm Naimark on Stalin and the Fate of Europe, medievalist Elaine Treharne on Text Technologies, and many more.

The seventeenth annual A Company of Authors, sponsored by Stanford’s Continuing Studies, will run from 1-5 p.m. this Saturday, October 24 (poster below). As always, the event is hosted by Stanford’s Peter Stansky, Frances and Charles Field Professor of History, Emeritus, who promises “an exciting display of the richness, depth and variety of the books written by members of the Stanford community.” He’ll also be winding up the afternoon by presenting his own book, Leonard Woolf: Bloomsbury Socialist, with co-author Fred Leventhal.

At least one of your friends will be in the line-up of authors – me, and I’ll be featured on the first panel at 1 p.m. Go to the site here to find the list of books and presenters (or check out the poster below, if you can read the fine print); and click register for the event. It’s free, and all listed titles are available for sale at a 10% discount from the Stanford Bookstore online.

Can chess making a gripping film? Watch Walter Tevis’s “Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix this Friday, October 23

Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
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Silence and staring, winners and losers – and it’s definitely been a man’s world. (Phil Bray/Netflix)

Last year, Stanford’s “Another Look” – a public events series that focuses on forgotten, out-of-the-way, overlooked books – sponsored an event on Walter Tevis’ Queen’s GambitThe idea came from Another Look’s founding director, the eminent American author Tobias Wolff, always a keen watcher of American fiction. It turned out to be one of our most popular selections ever. Thanks to the cooperation of Tevis’s daughter, Julia Tevis McGory, we published a number of photographs on the Another Look website, and even a mini-memoir from son Will Tevis about playing chess with his father here.  The January 29, 2019, panel featured Tobias Wolff, Robert Pogue Harrison, and Inga Pierson.

Author Walter Tevis played chess, too.

It’s an overlooked book no more. It will be a seven-part mini-series on Netflix beginning on Friday, October 23. Did Another Look make a difference? We hope so. Our crusade for books that haven’t received the attention we think they merit has moved the needle on several books. We hope we’ve done the same this time, though there’s a story that goes way back before last year’s Stanford event. In the early 1990s, screenwriter Allan Scott acquired the rights to the novel and wrote a script. More recently writer and director Scott Frank took an interest.

So far the reviews are glowing. (Google it.) The film stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the chess-mad heroine (she was the star of this year’s acclaimed Emma, too). Garry Kasparov, one of the best chess-players ever, was a consultant for the film. 

More from the story by The New York Times:

The novel is brief. Dialogue is spare and the action beyond the gameboard minimal. … “If you did it as a movie, it becomes a sports movie: ‘Is she going to beat the Russian guy?’” Frank said. “And that’s not what the book is about. For me, it’s about the pain and cost of being so gifted.”

For Beth, abandoned first by her birth parents and then by her adoptive family, the stakes tower. Only while playing does she feel a sense of purpose and belonging. In a later episode, Beth overhears some Russian champs discussing her. “She’s like us,” a grandmaster says. “Losing is not an option for her.” (This was dialogue Kasparov suggested.)

***

It’s also exceedingly faithful to its source material, a slender 1983 novel written by Walter Tevis, an author with a knack for books that Hollywood wanted: The Hustler, The Color of Money, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tevis, a respectable club player, could delight even non-players with chess’s rhythms and language: the Sicilian Defense the Semi-Slav Variation, the Falkbeer Counter Gambit, the Ruy Lopez. The book borrows its name from an opening move in play since the 15th century.

***

A glamorous and wrenching view of chess, set in the 1950s and ’60s, it centers on the fictional character Beth Harmon (first Isla Johnston, then Anya Taylor-Joy), a child prodigy who discovers the game in a Kentucky orphanage. Despite punishing addictions to alcohol and tranquilizers, Beth, clad in Gabriele Binder’s elegant period costumes, plays and trains obsessively, rising through the rankings until she faces the world’s best. Which makes her something like the thinking woman’s Rocky.

Join me in tuning in this Friday. Until then, there’s a podcast of the Stanford discussion of the book here.

Postscript on 10/21 (hat tip David Schwartz): The review is in from the Wall Street Journal today, it’s here, and not even behind the usual paywall. An excerpt:

It took this viewer about seven consecutive hours to watch all seven episodes of “The Queen’s Gambit,” and while this may constitute all the review some readers need to get on board, others might also like to know what the miniseries is about. In a word, chess—though that’s a bit like saying “Hamlet” is about Danish royal succession, or “The Wizard of Oz” is about meteorology. … “The Queen’s Gambit” is novelistic in the best sense, using chess as a kind of metaphoric Swiss army knife to open up a tale of obsession, addiction, adoption and the solitude of genius. That genius is Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch”), an orphan, tranquilizer enthusiast and budding alcoholic. Eventually, she becomes a reluctant propaganda tool in the Cold War. From birth, it seems, she’s been a chess savant.

For all the series’ successes, especially as fictional biography and a portrait of an era (the ’50s and ’60s), what may haunt the viewer is the image of Ms. Taylor-Joy’s face, furtively doe-eyed, peering upward, moving shadowy pieces across the imaginary chessboard of her bedroom ceiling as she plots the next day’s attack, or locking eyes with a grandmaster before reducing his game to rubble. Despite the cerebral nature of the sport and its less-than-breathtaking pace, “The Queen’s Gambit”—a title that refers to one of the oldest openings in the history of the game—is a thriller. It absorbs the viewer into the rarefied realm of world-class competition and acquaints the nonplayer with enough of the mechanics to make the outcomes accessible and meaningful. The very idea of a chess epic might suggest to some the old saw about academic politics—that they’re so vicious because the stakes are so low. Can chess mean so much? To Beth Harmon—and therefore to her audience—chess is everything. And for reasons that make her both heroic and heartbreaking.

You think you have a messy desk? You have competition! Here are some famously messy ones.

Saturday, October 17th, 2020
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Robert Silvers of New York Review of Books fame. Is he a master or a prisoner of this space? Love to spend an afternoon there.

It’s one week before I go on Zoom for Stanford’s 17th annual Company of Authors event at 1 p.m. next Saturday, October 24. My mission: to tell you about my newest book Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy. (Get your free tickets for a reservation here.) Then you will see my messy, messy workspace behind me. The ziggurats of books and papers. The archive that has yet to find a home except in plastic bins spread out across the floor. The huge oak roll-top desk overflowing with rough drafts and pencils and a small clay owl. (A sneak preview at right.)

Home sweet home.

If you wonder why the Book Haven has been so quiet of late, it’s not because we’ve been tidying up. With multiple book deadlines of varying severity rolling over us, we’ve been working 24/7. But we thought we’d take a moment to complain about our bad habits.

I take comfort knowing that I am not alone. At least not in the era of the Google Search. I typed in “famous messy desks” and here’s a few that I found.

My favorite is above, the late, legendary Robert Silvers, one of the founding editors of the New York Review of Books. Though it’s not exactly messy – they are orderly piles, after all – just crowded. I wouldn’t mind spending an afternoon there. in

Immediately below, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget is sprawled in this truly messy space. Clearly, he’s not in California. A good 3.9 earthquake would bury him. But what a way to go!

Chilean poet, essayist, and short story writer Roberto Bolaño looks sad, but at ease, among his piles of unanswered correspondence and his old-style computer.

Genius theoretical physicist Alfred Einstein has vacated the premises entirely. In a very literal way. The photo was taken on the day he died in 1955. So He never had to clean it up. Looks homey, though.

Below that, Steve Jobs prowls around what looks like a home office. There are vials with eyedroppers on the shelves.

And finally, always, Mark Twain at ease in 1901. Mess be damned. Who would tell him otherwise?

Feel free to send me the own evidences of your disorganization. I might even publish them as a postscript. It will make me feel better somehow. Because I won’t get around to moving my piles of stuff anytime soon.

 

Consolation in hard times: Boethius knew all about it.

Saturday, October 10th, 2020
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Boethius in better days, as imagined almost a millennium after his execution.

You think you have it bad, huh? All you are dealing with is a worldwide plague that won’t let up, financial catastrophes one after another, and cabin fever from enforced confinement.

Try living at the nasty tail-end of the Roman Empire, when the barbarians were taking over, and then being thrown into prison by the Ostrogoth Emperor Theodoric for doing nothing at all, really. Then imagine having more of nothing to do, except write, while awaiting a grisly execution. Welcome to the world of Boethius (c. 476-524 A.D.), author of the The Consolation of Philosophy, a bestseller throughout Europe for almost a millennium. According to John Marenbon writing in  “Why Read Boethius Today?” over at Aeon: “Although Aristotle’s texts shaped the university curriculum, and Augustine’s thought was ubiquitous, in the period from 800 until about 1600 no other philosophical text could compete with the Consolation in its appeal – not just to the intellectual elite but to a much wider audience too.” How did it disappear from our public conversation, unlike Plato’s dialogues or René Descartes’s Meditations?

Some background from the Aeon article:

Boethius belonged to a rich, prestigious Roman family, and he lived most of his life enjoying the privileges of his class, participating in the ceremonies of the Senate, writing works and commentaries on mathematics, music and logic with the help of his education in Greek culture, and, though not a priest, taking part in theological controversies. But his birth had coincided with the beginning of Ostrogothic rule in Italy. Theodoric, the Gothic king, wanted good relations with the native Roman aristocrats, but they remained a threat to him. In the early 520s, he invited Boethius to become Master of Offices, his most important official. Boethius accepted, but his determination to root out corruption soon made him enemies, and Theodoric was willing to believe that Boethius was plotting against him. Found guilty of treason and other charges, Boethius was imprisoned, awaiting execution. This was when he wrote the Consolation, with his own circumstances as a condemned prisoner providing the setting.

Kind of a writer’s retreat, without the swag bags.

The work is a dialogue between Boethius the Prisoner and a personification of Philosophy, in the shape of a beautiful woman who appears to him in his cell. The discussion is in prose, but it is interspersed with poems that summarise, comment on, take forward or provide another perspective to, the main line of the argument.

At the beginning, Boethius the Prisoner can do nothing but lament his sudden fall from prosperity and explain at length to Philosophy the injustice of the charges against him. Philosophy is not at all sympathetic. She tells him that, if he remembered her teachings, he wouldn’t be complaining, as he does, that God has no concern for humans, and that the good suffer and the wicked prosper. She sets out to answer both charges.

Another excerpt:

On a straightforward reading of the Consolation, Philosophy’s argument is taken as authoritative, accepted by both Boethius the Prisoner and by the author. If so, the Consolation, like Plato’s dialogues on Socrates’s execution, is a bold assertion of the power of unaided human reason even in the face of death. But – and the same objection might be made to Plato’s Phaedo – the central philosophical arguments are likely to seem too weak, especially to modern readers, to support such a claim. There is, however, reason to think that this straightforward reading doesn’t do the Consolation justice.

Ancient readers were very conscious of a work’s genre. It guided their expectations of how its author intended it to be understood. By writing the Consolation in alternating prose and verse, Boethius signalled that the work is a Menippean satire. As Joel Relihan showed in Ancient Menippean Satire (1993), this genre of satire ridicules figures of authority. Readers of the Consolation might therefore expect Philosophy’s teachings not to be treated with complete respect. From this starting point, Relihan develops in The Prisoner’s Philosophy (2007) a reading that is diametrically opposed to the straightforward one. Philosophy, he argues, is shown as failing to provide the Prisoner with consolation, and this failure was Boethius’s way of revealing the weakness of any sort of human reasoning. The implicit message is that Christian faith alone provides the type of consolation that Boethius the Prisoner was wrongly seeking from Philosophy.

Such a reading treats all the Consolation’s philosophical argumentation as if it were mere rhetoric, devised by Boethius the author just in order to show its inadequacy, with its main message delivered by indirect means. This is hard to accept. Would Boethius, who had devoted his life to philosophy, really have treated arguments in this way? Why, in particular, elaborate the intricate argument at the end of the work about divine prescience and contingency, certainly his finest and most original piece of reasoning, if his purpose were just to show the inadequacy of philosophy and not its power to console?

Read the whole thing here.

Poet Ilya Kaminsky: “In American society, asking metaphysical questions is not polite.”

Saturday, October 3rd, 2020
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Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, an ancient Crimean city on the Black Sea. As a 4-year-old child, a doctor misdiagnosed his mumps as a flu, and as a result, he lost most of his hearing. He has written that, for him, Odessa is “a silent city, where the language is invisibly linked to my father’s lips moving as I watch his mouth repeat stories again and again. He turns away. The story stops.”

The family emigrated to Rochester, New York, and after his father’s death in 1994, Kaminsky began to write poems in English. He explained in an interview with the Adirondack Review, “I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it—no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.”

He is the author of last year’s acclaimed Deaf Republic, a poetry collection framed as a two-act play, which takes place in the fictional village of Vasenka. 

An excerpt from Joe Dunthorne’s interview with him in the elegant White Review:

I come from the part of East Europe of which people usually say ‘Oh wow, everyone loves poetry in Russia, in Ukraine, so much that people come to football stadiums to hear poetry.’

That is bullshit.

Every great poet is a very private person who happens to write beautifully enough, powerfully enough, spell-bindingly enough that they can speak privately to many people at the same time. That to my mind is the definition of an original poet. Not play for the sake of mere play. And not a public pronouncement either, but a very private speech that the form teaches you how to partake in – and that becomes the reader’s own private speech.

***

It’s curious to me that in Western Europe, intellectuals, liberals, are so afraid of large metaphysical questions. I mean, maybe it’s because I was born in 1977: by the time my family left, it was already independent Ukraine. So all of my childhood and pretty much most of my adolescence was a time of the USSR falling apart. Everyone lost their salaries, pensions, etc. All the people’s assets became metaphysical because everything else that they knew was not there any more.

And many were happy. And many were not happy.

It’s not about a political position. It’s about a metaphysical position.

People were arguing until 4 a.m. about the purpose of life, about poetry, about what poets express these unanswerable questions. Who is better, Akhmatova or Tsvetaeva, who speaks best to our time, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, those kind of questions. People really argued: who gives words to shape my unknown?

Reading in San Diego (Photo: Patty Mooney)

And then there was the shock of coming to the US and seeing deeply intelligent humans completely unengaged with all of that. It was weird. It is not polite to ask metaphysical questions in the USA. Few do it with strangers.

So, a friend, the wonderful novelist Katherine Towler and I just thought, okay, why not start interviewing people because it gave us a mask. If you’re doing an interview, you can ask whatever you want and it’s not impolite.

I still marvel about this: for some reason in American society, asking metaphysical questions is not polite. I don’t know why but that is the case.

So the interview project was interesting because some poets who shall not be named gave wonderful interviews but later decided not to be in the book for the same reason. That, too, is a reflection of a Western Society. I keep marvelling at that.

***

Any trace of thoughtfulness is completely wiped out and people who have the thoughts are refusing to engage.

In that way, I do believe that our intellectuals are in some ways responsible for what is happening right now in 2020: for not engaging with so many of our fellow countrymen. The end result is that the depth is taken away from the discourse. The discourse of ‘why am I on this planet’ is going to happen whether or not the intellectuals choose to participate in it. But depth of conversation might suffer should they choose not to participate. One sees that in the USA on a daily basis.

***

I think poets, when they write, they participate in that process physically. Some read the poems to themselves, yes. Many do. It’s got to be a physical activity. Language by definition is a production of a body: it’s a physical activity.

When I write I definitely speak to myself: I’m interested in the kind of intensity that language allows us to have, a kind of chant, incantation. There is a whole wonderful, beautiful world of performance, spoken word poetics. And it is something I respect very much but it’s not exactly what I’m after. What I am interested in is poets who, in reading aloud, continue the writing process.

So when I’m reading I often change words, but I can’t change too many words. So I change line breaks instead. Rarely is the line break the same as it is in the book. I change the accents a lot, I change emphasis a lot. So it gives me this room where I can still be a poet as opposed to a person who reads his poem, because otherwise I just get bored. I start watching a fly. But to read as if the poem is still being written, to use the mouth as a way to invent new line breaks, that is something that makes the public reading still interesting for me.

Read the whole thing here.

A.E. Stallings on Aeschylus’s “The Persians” in the TLS: “The ghost scene alone must have seemed a dangerous necromancy.”

Sunday, September 27th, 2020
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Alicia Stallings’s fashion statement at the Greek theater in Epidaurus. (Photo: John Psaropoulus)

We wrote about Athens-based poet A.E. Stallings’s off-the-cuff remarks when she attended the National Theatre of Greece’s production of Aeschylus‘s The Persians in the ancient Greek theater of Epidaurus on July 25.

The play is Aeschylus’s The Persians, circa 472 B.C., about the Persian-Greek war. The playwright himself had participated in the crucial battle it describes, so he knew what he was talking about. It is not only the oldest surviving Greek play, but Aeschylus’s most powerful antiwar statement, praising the freedom of the individual and the wisdom of democratic norms.

Now she’s written at length about the experience in the current Times Literary Supplementand, for the time being, it seems to be out from behind they paywall, here

You can start with our excerpt below, where the poet describes what the production meant to Greeks:

Taking a snooze in the sun (Photo: John Psaropoulus)

Aeschylus had fought in the battle: some of the messenger speech is arguably an eyewitness account. When I think about what that first production must have been like – Aeschylus conjuring up on stage not only Xerxes, the man who had recently razed the city, but the ghost of his father, Darius, in front of an audience for whom this was a raw and recent memory (many would have been veterans), and just below the Persian-destroyed temple on the Acropolis, I get goose-bumps. The ghost scene alone must have seemed a dangerous necromancy. …

We recognized acquaintances from Athens sitting at the café, despite their masks. “Of course the play could not be more topical”, one asserted, indicating recent provocations of the Turkish president, Erdoğan, in the Eastern Mediterranean. On the night we were at the play, in late July, the Greek military was on high alert. The presence of the prime minister and his entourage (one lady in a sequined “evening” mask) added to the nationalist energy in the air.

The tragedy plays differently to Greek and non-Greek audiences. Reviews of the live-streamed production in the Guardian (subtitled “a triumph of empathy for a time of Covid-19”) and the New York Times praised the production for its timely lessons on hubris and its message of empathy. But for the overwhelmingly Greek audience present, thrilled to be out of doors at a production at all after a long lockdown, and potentially on the brink of war, the play was rousingly patriotic. The image of Greece as a scrappy little country punching above its weight, taking no orders from kings and exerting its naval prowess to push back against a larger threatening power, was as appealing as ever.

When Queen Atossa (widow of King Darius and mother of Xerxes) interrogated the chorus about the battle and the nature of the victorious Greeks, the exchange felt like a kind of catechism of Athenian democracy. “What Monarch do they have; who leads the army?”, she demanded to know of the Greeks. When the Chorus responded, “No one, they are not slaves; no one gives them orders”, the crowd erupted in applause, as perhaps the first audience did.

Later, in the messenger speech, he describes how, as the Greeks bore down, they burst into the chant: “Go, sons of the Greeks, and liberate the fatherland!” This was another moment the audience was waiting to applaud enthusiastically. The play, produced in a modern Greek translation by Theodoros Stephanopoulos, translates this line by alluding to poet Rhigas’s “War Song”, popular from the time of the Greek war of independence, a poem which Byron translates as “Sons of the Greeks, Arise!” The war song is sometimes called the Greek Marseillaise, and if it sounds strikingly close (both can be sung to the same tune), that may be because the Marseillaise is also consciously imitating the Greek of Aeschylus. Sitting there, I imagined Aeschylus being pleased that his anthem to liberty was still sung lustily millennia after his death.

Read more here.

Canadian novelist Robertson Davies: “Sin is the creation of meaning or intent where none was planned.”

Thursday, September 24th, 2020
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I recently came across The Paris Review 1989 interview with the Canadian novelist and man of letters Robertson Davies. The interview took place in front of an audience at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York City three years earlier. No surprise it was a sold-out appearance – Davies, who died in 1995, was always a popular reader, lecturer, and interview subject. As the interviewer Elisabeth Sifton noted, “The robust presence of this ‘wizard of the North’ … came as no surprise: a filled-out broad chested figure, clad in slightly old-fashioned clothes (that evening he wore his signature leather waistcoat, all the better looking for age, beneath a well-cut jacket), with an easy erect carriage, a deep, skillfully modulated voice, fine straight nose, luxuriant white beard and hair.” 

A couple excerpts: 

You once wrote, “All the critics in this town are the bastard children of Scotch parents.”

Yes, critics have this nanny quality, but they vary enormously. Some are friendly and kindly, and are interested in your work and take it seriously, but the ones who get under my skin are the academic critics whose whole training is to detect faults. They call them “flaws.” I call them “flawyers,” which they do not like. I one time nailed one of these people and said, “Tell me of a novel that you know that is free from flaw. Now how about War and Peace?” “Oh, infinitely flawed.” “What about Remembrance of Things Past, Proust’s great novel?” “Oh, a mass of flaws.” I think it would be splendid if we could get a committee of these wonderful people to write a flawless novel, but they won’t do it and I question whether it would reach publication. The opposite. Sin is the creation of meaning or intent where none was planned. A Ph.D. candidate wrote of World of Wonders that its hero was christened Paul, and that his life story exactly paralleled that of Saint Paul! I said mildly that this had not occurred to me. He replied, with an indulgent smile, that many things appear to the critical reader of a book which have eluded the attention of the author, and that this gave the book “resonance” – for me, the resonance of a dull thud. It is extremely disagreeable to be treated as a sort of idiot savant who must be explained to himself and to his readers.

***

Many of your readers and reviewers are dazzled by how much you know about everything, by how much they can learn about so many things in your novels – some of it quite arcane and special, some of it information that perhaps we should all know but don’t. Mary McCarthy once argued eloquently that the novel is among other things a conveyor of a huge amount of social and cultural, as well as psychological and philosophical, information and truth. You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina, as she said. Do you like the idea of instructing your readers on all that lore about gypsies or cellos or art forgery or Houdini, to name a few subjects quite randomly.

Well, you see, the actual fact is that I don’t. I saw a few things, I provide a few details, but if I may be permitted to say so, I work on the Shakespearean plan. Everybody says, ‘Oh, Shakespeare must have been a sailor. Do you notice how in the beginning of The Tempest people cry, ‘Man the bowsprit,’ or ‘Split the binnacle,’ or whatever it is. He must have been a sailor.” Others say, “No, no, he must have been a lawyer. Remember in The Merchant of Venice he has a scene in a law court that is quite like a law court.” “No, no, no, Shakespeare must have been a soldier because he has a place where Henry V cries, ‘Follow your spirits and upon this charge,/Cry God, for Harry, England and Saint George.” It’s all hooey. Shakespeare had a few telling details which he injected into his plays that made them seem realistic, and I have the same in my novels. I don’t know a very great deal about anything. Indeed, the areas of my ignorance are fantastic in their scope. But you know, I have one remembrance which has a bearing on this. When I wrote Fifth Business, there were some scenes in it which took place in the First World War, the experiences of a Canadian soldier. I say virtually nothing about the war except that there was a great deal of mud, that there were a lot of horses who might panic, and that most of the time it was infinitely boring. That is all. But you know, one man said to me, “Where were you during the war?” and I said, “Well, frankly, after I got here I was in the cradle.” But he had fought in France and he said that it was just like that. He asked, “How did you know it was like that?” If you have the kind of imagination a novelist needs, you have a notion of why it was like that. You do not need to write endlessly about what kind of sidearms somebody takes when he goes on a night raid and that kind of thing. That creates boredom.

Read the whole thing here.

On Stalingrad: Vassily Grossman’s “astonishingly, disturbingly different” account of World War 2

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020
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Peter Hitchens has a fascinating discussion of Vassily Grossman‘s Stalingrad over at First Things here. An excerpt:

Now comes the rather ­curious publication of a wholly new English edition of ­Grossman’s Stalingrad, a book that, unlike Life and Fate, was officially published in the U.S.S.R., but in several different formats. One of the most fascinating things about it—and this is not meant to denigrate the book itself—is the explanation at the end of the text of how it changed from edition to edition, reflecting the several different eras of repression, thaw, and renewed freeze in the Kremlin. As a novel, it is a great mess. It has even less structure than Life and Fate. It often seems to be a collection of distantly related short stories, dodging about from character to character in a way that often left me in need of an index. It is also quite obviously an incomplete version of the events of Life and Fate, viewed from another direction.

Nonetheless, the book is very much worth reading. Grossman was a brave and—where possible—honest reporter of a terrible war about which we in the English-speaking countries know far too little. Take these words of his about Stalingrad that (­without attribution to him, because he was a Jew and his talent could not be admitted) are incised on the furious, ugly memorial to that terrible battle. They say of the soldiers of the Red Army:

An iron wind lashed their faces but still they marched forward. And once more a feeling of superstitious terror gripped their foe. “They are attacking us again. Can they be mortal?” Yes, we were mortal indeed and few of us survived. But we all carried out our patriotic duty before Holy Mother Russia.

If you have any feeling for this sort of thing, you cannot fail to be moved by these words. And they are a good sample of Grossman’s emotive description of war. We have our version of the vast 1939–45 conflict that convulsed Europe and later the world. The Russians have theirs, and it is astonishingly, disturbingly different. American readers might need to imagine a huge and victorious German Army pouring eastward from California, thrusting the snouts of its tanks right up to the western bank of the Mississippi—and then being broken at the last possible moment by a berserk American stand at Minneapolis, at enormous cost. British readers have no such possibility. For if the Germans had got ashore in our small island, that would have been that, whatever we might like to boast.

In fact, if the Germans had won at Stalingrad, Britain would almost certainly have had to make terms with Hitler, a prospect so dismal most of us cannot even contemplate it. No wonder the British reader holds his breath and hopes for a Soviet triumph as he reads Grossman’s account of the Stalingrad battle. We cannot begin to conceive of having had the people and riches of a great part of our homeland under a bigoted and merciless foreign conqueror, while we still fought on in the land that was left to us, retreating and retreating and retreating until we had to stand or die. This was the case for the Russians.

Grossman said of his work as a war correspondent that he spoke “on behalf of those that lie in the earth,” and there is no doubt that he performs that duty.

Read the rest here.

“Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas”: Walter Benjamin’s 13 writing tips

Saturday, September 19th, 2020
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“The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses” is part of his 1928 treatise One-Way Street, one of only two books published in his lifetime. This 13 tips were posted on Twitter recently and I thought I’d share them. It reminded one tweeter of a sign that read: “The worst words you ever write are far better than the best words you never write.” Another remembered an old, established writer I heard on NPR back in the 1980s: “Write through your mediocrity. Keep writing… right on through it.”

But these are far more enigmatic. If some of them sound flakey, don’t dismiss them offhand. Sit with them awhile. As Morgan Meis wrote: “They are often elusive texts that can take years of reading, over and over again, before the mists begin to clear. What, for instance, is Benjamin really talking about in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility?” Is it a theory of art and historical change? Is it a political manifesto about the revolutionary potential of film? Is it a long lament about the loss of that magical quality “aura?” The more you read the essay (in its various versions), the harder it is to decide just what Benjamin is saying. But it is impossible to dismiss the essay altogether. The ideas contained within it have a way of staying put in your mind, festering there. That was Benjamin’s special talent, to elude and to linger.

“This makes for a writer who has baffled interpreters for a couple of generations since his suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Some are convinced that Benjamin was primarily a Marxist. Some think of him as a cultural critic. Others detect the sensibilities of a religious mystic. Many see an aesthete, the last of the great European flâneurs. Not all of these interpretations are mutually exclusive. But some of them are, which makes Benjamin among that elite group of major intellectual figures about whom almost no one completely agrees. An accomplishment in itself.”