Archive for November, 2020

Steve Wasserman on the Penguin Random House acquisition of Simon & Schuster (hint: it’s not the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse)

Wednesday, November 25th, 2020
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Not this.

Yesterday the Book Haven posted man-of-letters Steve Wasserman‘s COVID reading (the list has proved quite popular!) – but he was posting as a connoisseur, not in his role as publisher of Berkeley’s Heyday Books. He arrived from East Coast in 2016 to head that small, adventurous California-themed publisher, and it’s been on the rise ever since. He had most recently served as editor-at-large for Yale University Press. Before that, he was my editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review when it was the best, most adventurous book section in the country, bar none.

Below, his thoughts about the major book event in today’s news.

Department of My Two Cents: The news today that Bertelsmann, the German owner of the publishing empire Penguin Random House, has made an all-cash offer of $2 billion to acquire Simon & Schuster, continues the relentless conglomeration that has marked global publishing for the past forty-plus years. If approved, the deal will leave only four gigantic publishing enterprises dominating the landscape of American publishing. The prospect is thought by some to pose a threat to the nation’s delicate ecology of literary and cultural life. Considerable alarm over the fate of the so-called mid-list book and a further contracting of diversity in the marketplace is widespread. How real are these fears?

Berkeley’s natty man of letters

The predicament facing us is best understood against the longstanding backdrop of at least two overlapping and contending crises: the first is the profound structural transformation that has for some decades been roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization; the second is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained and serious argument. These crises, taken together, have profound implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democracy. The moral and cultural imperative is plain, but there may also be a much-overlooked commercial opportunity for the plethora of smaller, independent publishers who will likely be a chief beneficiary.

The struggle for market dominance, impelled by the continuing threat posed by Amazon, is, for many smaller publishers, akin to the internecine battles mounted by the gods on Mt. Olympus. If past experience is a useful guide to the future, we need not overly fear such imperial mergers and acquisitions. Indeed, even a cursory glance at the landscape of contemporary American bookselling and publishing makes it hard not to believe we are living at the apotheosis of our culture. Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented, sold for still reasonable low prices, been available to so many people. Diversity, in all realms, is increasingly the watchword guiding publishing decisions as the readership expands and demands to be heard. In a word, all publishers understand that profits are to be had by appealing to an insurgent millennial culture even as the old habits die. Today, you would need several lifetimes over doing nothing but lying prone in a semi-darkened room with only a lamp for illumination just to make your way through the good books that are on offer. There is money to be made in culture and victory will go to those publishers, whether large or small, who are nimble and imaginative enough to take advantage of the opportunities that lie all around them.

But I am no Cassandra. It would be a mistake to regard the quartet of publishing behemoths that will remain after the likely approval of the Bertelsmann acquisition of Simon & Schuster, as synonymous with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Opportunities abound. It’s almost enough to give one hope.

38 books I bet you didn’t read during COVID! Steve Wasserman’s reading list will shame us all…

Monday, November 23rd, 2020
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So what have you been doing during COVID, you bunch of wastrels? Huh? Huh?? Huh??? Eating a lot, drinking too much, complaining of ennui, watching TV, not working on the neglected novel you intended to finish, posting cat pictures and videos, oversleeping, baiting and snarling at each other on Twitter? At least that’s what I gather from my visits online.

The Hero of Heyday, Steve Wasserman

Behold and weep! Heyday publisher Steve Wasserman has given us his list of COVID reading (in no particular order) since the shelter-in-place edict was issued eight months ago, way back in mid-March 2020. It will shame us all. Here what he’s been reading as he hunkers down in Berkeley:

The War for Gaul by Julius Caesar, translated by James J. O’Donnell
The Ruins Lessons: Meaning and Material in Western Culture by Susan Stewart
The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar by Peter Stothard
God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World by Alan Mikhail
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution by Toby Green
The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes
Inside Story by Martin Amis
Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis
Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab by Bohumil Hrabal
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter; The Prime of Life; Force of Circumstance; All Said and Done; Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre – all by Simone de Beauvoir
The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre
Tête-à-tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre by Hazel Rowley
Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50 by Agnès Poirier
Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross
The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Last African American Renaissance by RJ Smith
Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener
Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia.
The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson
Murder in the Movies by David Thomson
Epidemics and Society by Frank M. Snowden
The Decameron by Boccaccio
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe by Anthony Grafton
Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times by David S. Reynolds
Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War by Vincent Brown
Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh
My Life in 100 Objects by Margaret Randall
Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis by Martin J. Sherwin
Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest by Lawrence Roberts
Garner’s Quotations by Dwight Garner
Notebooks: 1936-1947 by Victor Serge
The Habsburgs: To Rule the World by Martyn Rady
Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution by David A. Bell

(Original watercolor by Wendy Ruebman)

Robert Conquest a British poet? Not so fast… he had American roots, too.

Wednesday, November 18th, 2020
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Nothing human is alien to Conquest, who died in 2015 at age 98,” writes the inestimable Patrick Kurp in the Los Angeles Review of Books, describing the poet and Soviet historian Robert Conquest. Then Patrick makes a rare misstep when he states: “Let’s remember that he was English by birth but American by choice.”

Actually, Conquest was not only American by choice – his father, Robert Folger Wescott Conquest, was American, a Virginian – so the long residence at Stanford’s Hoover Institution was something of a homecoming for his British-born Robert Conquest, who also spent some time in Virginia as a child. His American roots were further reinforced by his long happy marriage with an American wife, Elizabeth Conquest, who is the editor of his Collected Poems and soon a volume of letters.

He had a poetic homecoming, too, in what Patrick Kurp calls “One of Conquest’s richest, most satisfying poems.”

An excerpt from the article:

“The Idea of Virginia,” 34 four-line stanzas that encapsulate the history of the state and, by implication, the United States. “It lay in the minds of poets,” the poem begins, which Conquest characteristically clarifies: “But the land was also real: rivers, meads, mountains.” Conquest has no pretensions to being a nature poet, but he starts with an Edenic natural world: “Deer and pumas ranged its high plains. Beavers / Toiled in its streams. Bluebird and mocking-bird, / Blue jay, redbird and quail filled branches and air.” He retells the familiar story of John Smith, Powhatan, and Pocahontas without pontificating. The idea of Virginia grows naturally out of English thought:

Haydn, prose, elections, deism, architecture,
Bred the leaders of battle, governance, law.
Washington, Marshall, Madison, Jefferson, Henry
Defended a heightened England from an England lapsed.

He is at home in the world, as poets seldom are. He writes poems for intelligent readers who enjoy formal verse and humor that ranges from the ribald to the wittily rarefied, and who share his interest in particulars. Conquest will be remembered principally as the man who, even before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, exposed the Soviet Union as a murderous tyranny in such volumes as The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968) and The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986). Politics and history, of course, show up with some regularity in his poetry, often in a form that resembles light verse. Here is a stanza from “Garland for a Propagandist”:

When Yezhov got it in the neck
(In highly literal fashion)
Beria came at Stalin’s beck
To lay a lesser lash on;
I swore our labour camps were few,
And places folk grew fat in;
I guessed that Trotsky died of flu
And colic raged at Katyn.

When Conquest reviewed the 1974 appearance in English of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973), he judged it “a truly exceptional work: for in it literature transcends history, without distorting it.” Conquest does something similar.

Another excerpt:

Patrick Kurp

One of the pleasures of his verse is its range of form and subject. Some poets harvest a very narrow field, too often the fenced-in self. Conquest’s poems resemble the late Turner Cassity’s in their appetite for the world and all it contains, pleasurable and otherwise, and in their satirical bite. His poems know things. In 1956, Conquest edited the influential poetry anthology New Lines, informally aligning the poets who came to be called The Movement: Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, D. J. Enright, Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Jennings, and himself. In his introduction, Conquest dismisses the “diffuse and sentimental verbiage or hollow technical pirouettes” of the era’s “New Apocalypse” poets in the United Kingdom, such as J. F. Hendry and Vernon Watkins, and endorses a “refusal to abandon a rational structure.” In “Whenever,” Conquest endorses Wyndham Lewis’s call for “a tongue that naked goes / Without more fuss than Dryden’s or Defoe’s.”

Read the whole article here.

“Exact and expansive”: Stanford’s Robert Harrison speaks as friend, fan of Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard at NYC’s McNally Jackson – November 12 on zoom!

Tuesday, November 10th, 2020
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“Relentless.” (Photo: Christopher Peterson)

Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard is considered one of the finest fiction writers of the postwar generation. She died in 2016.

Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrisona friend as well as fan, will be a featured speaker at a Zoom event to celebrate her just-published Collected Stories. The event happens on Thursday, November 12, at 7 p.m. EST (4 p.m. PST) hosted by New York City’s McNally Jackson bookstore. The McNally Jackson website is HERE with an RSVP link is at the top of the page.

From the McNally Jackson website:

“Shirley Hazzard’s Collected Stories is a work of staggering breadth and accomplishment. Taken together, these twenty-eight short stories are masterworks in telescoping focus, ranging from quotidian struggles between beauty and pragmatism to satirical send-ups of international bureaucracy, from the Italian countryside to suburban Connecticut. Hazzard’s heroes are high-minded romantics who attempt to fit their feelings into the twentieth-century world of office jobs and dreary marriages. After all, as she writes in ‘The Picnic,’ ‘It was tempting to confine oneself to what one could cope with. And one couldn’t cope with love.’ And yet it is the comedy, the tragedy, and the splendor of love, the pursuit and the absence of it, that animates Hazzard’s stories and provides the truth and beauty that her protagonists seek.”

Her friend at Stanford.

“Hazzard once said, ‘The idea that somebody has expressed something, in a supreme way, that it can be expressed; this is, I think, an enormous feature of literature.’ Her stories themselves are a supreme evocation of writing at its very best: probing, uncompromising, and deeply felt.”

According to Harrison, “Conrad once said that the written work of art must justify itself word by word, sentence by sentence. That justification is always at work in her prose. Her use of English is at once exact and expansive. She inhabits the language as only someone who was nourished on its very best literature at an early age could inhabit it.”

“She has a unique stylistic signature, one that combines extreme narrative discretion with probing psychological insight; a masterfully terse yet complex prose that always looks for and finds le mot juste; the most astonishing and expressive metaphors of any writer of her generation known to me.” (Robert Harrison also interviewed Hazzard in 2006 for Entitled Opinions here.) He adds that ” the commitment to description in her books is relentless.”

Hazzard’s biographer Brigitta Olubas and Australian novelist Michelle de Kretser will also be on hand to discuss the author’s legacy.

Postscript on 11/11 from Dana Gioia, former NEA chair and California poet laureate: How good to see Shirley Hazzard remembered! I second Robert Harrison’s praise of her style. She had an amazing ability to present the emotional reality of her characters and a genius for vividly depicting the most diverse settings. “The Transit of Venus” and “The Great Fire” are among my favorite contemporary novels–two very different books similar only in their elegant prose and deep humanity.

I wonder if part of her obscurity is that, like the equally superb Sibylle Bedford, Hazzard was so international. She lived in Australia, New Zealand, Italy, and the U.S. She doesn’t fall neatly into either Australian or American literature. Thanks for featuring her work.

Do Nina Kossman’s new translations of Tsvetaeva capture her “doom-eager splendor”? See what you think.

Saturday, November 7th, 2020
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Kossman at the Tsvetaeva Museum in Moscow.

Twenty years ago, critic Harold Bloom wrote to the young poet Nina Kossman to tell her that her “intensely eloquent” translations of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva manage to “capture the doom-eager splendor of a superbly gifted poet.” W.S. Merwin wrote that these are “direct, strong, audible translations,” adding, “I hear Tsvetaeva’s voice, more of it, and in a new pitch, which makes something clear in her poems that I had only guessed at before.”

Her most recent collection, Other Shepherdswas published earlier this year by Poets & Traitors Press. Kossman’s collection pairs about a hundred poems, half by Tsvetaeva and half by her fellow Muscovite translator. Kossman pairs them “not in competition but with humility,” making of this doubling a new kind of conversation. As she writes in the Preface, “The aim is not to emulate her but to create a dialogue between her poem and mine, a resonance possible not only between two poets but between two eras. My goal is not to aspire to her heights, which are unscalable, as they are hers and no one else’s, but to approach her and to speak.”

As for the title, she writes: “Other Shepherds comes from my translation of Tsvetaeva’s poem which ends with, “There is an island—thank God!— / Where I don’t need a tambourine, / Where black wool/ Hangs from every fence. Yes / —There are in the world black flocks, / Other shepherds.” (1920).”

“Although the poem’s protagonist is addressing a lover, I took the last line slightly out of its amorous context and used it in a broader sense, in a kind of social, or rather, existential sense,” she explains. “I don’t believe that I have sinned against the poet by looking at her poem this way; in fact, I think the poem is quite amenable to this interpretation, especially if we look at the ending of the penultimate stanza. ‘In your flock there was no / Sheep blacker than I’ which resonates far beyond the personal context of a rejected woman speaking to her lover.”

A “black sheep,” for sure.

Nina Kossman was born in “the same Communist dystopia that, a few decades before my birth, led Marina Tsvetaeva to commit suicide by hanging.” She writes that it was a place where “‘being different,’ an uncomfortable feeling in any society at any time, led to much more than the usual social ostracism; where comrades were clearly divided into ‘white sheep’ and ‘black sheep,’ and where the black sheep didn’t end up very well.”

“Since I left the Soviet Union as a child, my experience of ‘black-sheep-ness’ was somewhat limited, but I have been very aware of my parents’ experience, particularly that of my mother—a Jew, a daughter of an ‘enemy of the people,’ a student of genetics in the era of Lysenko (the official Soviet biologist who rejected genetics), and thus thrice an outsider in the society that didn’t tolerate outsiders,” she explains.

“The title has another meaning too. Having lived in two so- called ‘superpowers,’ i.e. having spent my childhood in the Soviet Union, where personal freedoms were curtailed, and my youth and adulthood in ‘something of its opposite’ (my way of referring to the US as a teenager) with its seemingly unlimited personal freedoms, I found both wanting. Being a ‘black sheep’ in the Soviet Union was not only painful psychologically. It pushed you to the edge of a very real abyss, since a threat of physical extermination was real. In the US, being a black sheep in a herd, a society where outsiders are accepted, yields only psychological pain. And so an immigrant from the former Soviet Union swings between these two. These are two very different kinds of ‘black-sheep-ness,’ one hard core and the other soft. The black sheep consciousness continues in the so-called free world, attenuated, without the attendant fear of physical extermination.”

Do her poem pairings do the job? See a sample of the pairings below:

 

Our “need to live in a meaningful world”: TLS praises Joseph Frank’s “Lectures on Dostoevsky”

Sunday, November 1st, 2020
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Joseph Frank: a “co-creator” of Dostoevsky, with editor and wife Marguerite (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Hoorah! A splendid Times Literary Supplement review for Joseph Frank‘s Lectures on Dostoevsky, published earlier this year by Princeton University Press. He was Stanford’s legendary Dostoevsky scholar – we’ve written about him here and here and here and here. The greatly loved scholar died in 2013. His lectures were edited by his widow, Marguerite Frank and Marina Brodskaya.  

Princeton’s Caryl Emerson praises Joe’s “gentle, wisdom-bearing lectures” and writes, “Frank does not co-opt Dostoevsky but cooperates with him, trusting his intentions, and in this sense Frank co-creates his biographical subject; he does not airbrush him out.”

“There is a patience and wholesomeness to Frank’s voice in these Lectures that has its analogue in his monumental biography, where obsession and perversity are contextualized so thoroughly that they can seem traits of Dostoevsky’s agitated era, not of his person.”

An excerpt or two:

Joseph Frank (1918–2013) is the greatest co-creator of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life in our time, and his path to the top was thrillingly irregular. He was not a professional Slavist. True, in the late 1930s he attended university classes, but in 1942 he began working as an editor and literary journalist. An innovative essay on European modernism won him his first fame and a Fulbright scholarship to Paris in 1950. After earning a PhD at the University of Chicago (like the critic Mikhail Bakhtin, without a BA), he taught at Princeton from 1966 to 1985, and then at Stanford.

That’s the outside institutional envelope. The inside story, which stretched over a quarter-century (1976–2002), was his vast biography of Dostoevsky: five volumes totalling 2,500 pages. It grew out of his interest in the French Existentialists. Frank was vexed that their analyses of Dostoevsky were either personal and psychological, or else philosophical and theological. His task would be to fill in the middle space with the author’s daily stimuli, concrete provocations and constraints. He would do this without any relishing of private vices or pathological drives. Underneath his project was the old-fashioned and yet novel assumption that profound creativity is always a sign of profound mental health. Reviewing the fourth volume in 1995, A. S. Byatt wrote: “Frank is that increasingly rare being, an intellectual biographer, and his real concern is with the workings of Dostoevsky’s mind”.

***

Frank’s lecture on The Idiot takes up the perennial problem of its central hero Prince Myshkin – a would-be Christ figure who worsens everything he touches. That Myshkin fails doesn’t matter because he “is neither actor nor victim but a presence, a kind of moral illumination”. His purpose is not to save or punish but to stir up conscience, to precipitate in those around him a “conflict with their usual selves”. A final chapter on The Brothers Karamazov (tellingly, there is no lecture devoted to Demons) identifies Dostoevsky’s prerequisite for surviving inner conflict: “a faith that needs no support from the empirical and tangible”. Each brother (and the two major heroines as well) must confront the challenge of this necessity for faith, which demands an irrational Kierkegaardian leap. The loving resilience of the youngest brother Alyosha is proof that such a leap can be sensible, pragmatic, even bursting with health. What Dostoevsky, his characters and his contemporary readers share is something more modest than the eternal questions of Good and Evil: it is the “need to live in a meaningful world that does not make a mockery of one’s self-consciousness and the dignity of one’s personality”.

Read the whole thing at the TLS here. It’s wonderful. My 2009 interview with him below: