Archive for June, 2021

As the world watches, one of Russia’s top writers exhorts Alexei Navalny: “Good man. Hold on…”

Monday, June 28th, 2021
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Navalny, when he was arrested in 2017 (Photo: Evgeny Feldman)

Some time ago I wrote about the remarkable award-winning novelist, essayist, playwright Maxim Osipov, who is also a cardiologist at a small-town hospital in Tarusa, 90 miles outside Moscow. I’ve also written about Russian activist Alexei Navalny, who is now in prison once again, after a failed government attempt at poisoning. Now the American government is considering sanctions. Last week, Navalny’s legal defense team made public for the first time the full text of a Russian court ruling that outlawed Navalny’s political network as “extremist.” Meanwhile, the world is amazed at his heroism and wonders: How long can he go on? Day after day, month after month in captivity?

So what does the famous Russian writer have to say the Russian hero? From The Los Angeles Review of Books, translated by its editor, the gifted poet and writer Boris Dralyuk (we’ve written about him, too, here.)

An excerpt:

The good doctor’s advice: “Hold on.”

On January 13, 2021, when I learned that Alexei Navalny intended to return to Moscow, I posted the following to my Facebook page: “Once, at the circus, I saw a highwire act. The orchestra fell silent, and the audience did too. High up above our heads, a teenage boy was making his way along a nearly invisible tightrope. I was so afraid for him that I grew dizzy. And then a child’s voice burst through the silence: ‘Good boy! Hold on!” Today’s news inspired the same sense of dizziness, as well as the urge to shout like that child. …

Heroism as a gift, as a form of genius that cannot be faked or imitated — this is what elicits such admiration from one segment of the population and such envy from another (mostly male). It’s strange to envy a gift for politics as one might envy a gift for music or poetry, but it’s quite natural to envy personal heroism — natural and shameful. People, including those who nominally belong to the political opposition but haven’t discerned this envy in themselves, are now writing manifestos, expressing their disagreement with Navalny’s views. They fail to understand that this is no longer a matter of views. “I’m going out!” countless brave young people posted on social media after the Navalny trial, and then immediately took to the streets of their cities. Theirs was the only healthy way to respond, though it could land them in serious trouble.

Now the cheerfulness has evaporated, ceding way to profound despair. Navalny is in prison, being tortured with sleep deprivation, refused medical assistance. Every day brings darker, more depressing news. The political world has turned black and white. It’s pointless to reason in terms of right vs. left, parliamentary vs. presidential republic, nation state vs. empire. The nature of the conflict is plain as day: life vs. its absence, light vs. darkness. Society has been plunged into a state of moral catastrophe, of impotence, once again especially pronounced among men. Neither immersion in our work, nor retreat into our private lives, nor emigration can save us. Sure, there’s your small circle of friends, there’s Facebook — which has taken the place of real social institutions and fostered the illusion that we’re among our own kind — but take a closer look and you see Russian life shrinking, growing faint. First one, then another decides to leave: but how will that help Navalny and hundreds (if not thousands) of other political prisoners? No, even if you leave, even if you distance yourself from the tragedy, you won’t stop watching it. “We’ve got to do something…” “Well, we lived through the Soviet era…” “What does the Soviet era have to do with it? If you’re going to draw comparisons, then let’s talk about Germany in the mid-’30s…” These are the conversations that make up the whole of Russian life.

He ends as he begins, quietly, under his breath, whispering: good man, hold on Read it at all at the LARB here.

John Steinbeck’s letter to Marilyn Monroe: was it a fraud?!?

Monday, June 21st, 2021
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Steinbeck started it.

More than two years ago, we wrote of Nobel prizewinning author John Steinbeck‘s 1955 letter to Marilyn Monroe, which sold for more than $3520 at a 2016 auction. In it, the esteemed author begged for a favor from the film goddess: Would she please send a “pensive, girlish” photo to his starstruck nephew, and sign it in her actual handwriting? Said the author of Grapes of Wrath: “He has his foot in the door of puberty, but that is only one of his problems. You are the other.” In fact, he told the blonde bombshell that Steinbeck own stock with his nephew skyrocketed when he learned Steinbeck had met her. Then the writer beseeched Monroe: “He is already your slave. This would make him mine.”

Did it happen? This month, Snopes ruled that it did. But was the famous rumor-smashing organization itself under the sway of star-power when it made the crucial decision? It’s the stuff of which award-winning investigative reporting is made. The Oregonian put its best man on the story, and wine writer Michael Alberty snatched the opportunity, although he admitted his more usual work was “non-wrathful grapes.” (Alberty also gives a thoughtful nod to the Book Haven: “Even esteemed literary critic Cynthia L. Haven wrote on her ‘The Book Haven’ blog, ‘Did she send the photo to the lovestruck boy, Jon Atkinson? We’ll never know, but she valued it enough to keep it till her dying day.’”)

Pensive? Girlish? Not!

There was nothing for it but to track down nephew the smitten Atkinson, now a retired minister, to his Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he lives quietly with his wife. Quiet … until now. The elderly couple first heard about the fabled letter only a few weeks ago. One thing is certain: Atkinson never got the letter. And the signature doesn’t look like Steinbeck’s, anyway, said his wife.

From the article:

“Joan Atkinson points out that Steinbeck almost exclusively wrote his letters in longhand with a pencil. ‘I could not imagine that John Steinbeck would have had a typist or secretary from the office sign a letter like that for him. As personal as this subject was, it seems strange,’ she said.

“Did Steinbeck write the letter for an assistant to type? All we can say with any degree of confidence is the letter was in Marilyn Monroe’s possession. Unless the typist ‘mf’ can be located, this piece of the mystery may never be solved.

“We do know young Jon Atkinson never received a photograph inscribed with a personal message from Marilyn Monroe. ‘That sure would have been nice, right?’ Atkinson said.

Read the whole story here. The famous letter is below.

Postscript on June 23: Wine writer-cum-detective Michael Alberty wrote to us following Monday’s post. Here’s what he had to say:

Thank you for the kind words in your recent blog post. My email has been blowing up, and I think a good deal of that has to do with you.

Tracking Jon and Joan Atkinson down was a lot of fun. To be able to chat with two people who had personal experiences with the Steinbecks was both surreal and an honor. Unfortunately, I had to leave out so many weird and wonderful things that I feel like I need to write a magazine article.

For now, it is back to wine.

“Love your active solitude like a sunset.” An ex-con offers a few reflections and tips on COVID isolation.

Friday, June 18th, 2021
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Advice: “You don’t like prison food, don’t go to prison.”

COVID is on the run – but new variants are afloat, and the occasional pandemic might be part of our collective future (though we hope on a smaller scale). What have we learned?

We are unaware how much society holds us all in check, contains our worst impulses. I have developed this theory: under COVID isolation, people became exaggerated versions of themselves, and not in a good way. The merely bad-tempered began throwing bottles in the streets, the mildly depressed are calling suicide hotlines, and the chronically worried took leave of their senses. And so on. We depend, more than we thought, on a smile, a frown, a real-life glance (zoom doesn’t count), a word of encouragement, a look from a close friend that says, “You’re not really going to go there, are you?” Then we were left alone with ourselves, and it wasn’t  pretty.  We are the victims of our own psychology.

I sought some guidance from my friend, the former bank robber and now author, Joe Loya. He spent a lot of time in solitary confinement in prison. What does he have to say?

“Now you all have entered my wheelhouse,” says Joe Loya. “Prison habituated me to hazard, so I have a super high tolerance for quarantined ambiguity.”

His thoughts on COVID privation: “If necessary, I can patiently wait in long lines after nine years of incarceration, waiting in Soviet-style bread lines in the prison pharmacy, laundry, and chow lines. These long supermarket lines ain’t shit.”

“I’ve been locked in a cell the size of a large parking space for months, 24 hours a day, with another prisoner, eating, shitting, and bird-bathing four feet from each other. So I know how to respect the density of confined spaces with another human.” These, it turns out, are transferrable skills in living with his family: “I can easily handle (wife) Diane, me, and (daughter) Matilde quarantined together in our house for three weeks.”

Here are his tips:

How To Survive Solitary Confinement

1) Get out of bed, make it, then lie down only once during the day for a brief 20 minute nap; then don’t lay down again till time to go to sleep.

2) Pace for 30 minutes while listening to music.

3) Everyday scrub your genitals.

4) Do not light your cell on fire.

5) Turn your solitude into an active solitude by testing your ability to stare at one spot on the wall for a decent length of time.

6) Read a novel a day.

7) Or a read nonfiction book within two.

8. Memorize a poem.

9) Rub one out.

10) Write a letter to your future self about your current squalor.

11) Did I already say to scrub your junk once a day? It matters. Eliminates the feeling of stewing in your squalor. Makes solitary practically sparkle.

12) Incline push-ups and back arm dips off the side of your bunk. Do a lot!

13) Read 10-pages of Ulysses daily. Take Saturday and Sunday off to catch up on the pages you didn’t read during the week.

14) Eat all your food and do not whine about the portions. You don’t like prison food, don’t go to prison.

15) Do not get caught singing Morrissey in the shower.

16) Love your active solitude like a sunset.

A pre-COVID New Year’s resolution. Now as good a time as any.

René Girard, Russia, and Evolution of Desire: “It’s hard to wish for a better biography of Girard.”

Friday, June 11th, 2021
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Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has just appeared in Russia with Moscow’s tony publisher N.L.O. (translated by Svetlana Silakova) – and the first review by Alexey Zygmont, about the serene Stanford professor who “exposed the nature of violence,” is glowing. The title of the article in Gorky Media is taken from a line in the book: Жирар, поджигающий под вами стул – in English: “Girard: Setting Fire to the Chair Beneath You.”

An excerpt:

Evolution of Desire is the long-awaited biography of the social scientist, philosopher and theologian René Girard (1923-2015). Girard is known as the creator of “mimetic theory” – one of the last “grands récits” of the humanities in the 21st century. Today, this theory finds application in a range of disciplines, from anthropology and sociology to psychiatry, biology, and the neurosciences. Through the efforts of Girardian scholars, it is gradually making its way in the universities, and it is really changing people’s lives. Actually, one of the facts facing us is that this first biography should be enough: even if the book were unsuccessful, it would still be used by both the historians of philosophy studying his thought and other researchers who adapt Girard’s theory to their own interests. The book, however, is a success, and its value is all the greater because throughout his life Girard spoke about himself reluctantly … It was difficult for an ordinary reader, familiar only with his major works, to imagine him as a living person; now that’s possible.

In Russian at last!

Often mimetic theory is presented as a kind of “sect,” consisting, as one author wrote, of the “disciples, translators, and proselytes” of the philosopher. This isn’t true – although some people are indeed unable to stop saying “Girard, Girard, René Girard, but Girard has…” and so on. In short, there was a high probability that the first biography of the thinker would be written by his apostle: there would be a risk that its objectivity and artistic merit would undermine the good memory of the teacher and the “common cause” bequeathed to him. But we were lucky with the author: Cynthia Haven is a professional journalist, author of biographies of Miłosz and Brodsky, and a longtime friend of the thinker. Hence the tone of the book: friendly, involved, critical when needed, and targeted for a wide audience.

The review concludes:

Until now, I have not yet said a single word of criticism about the book, and there is almost nothing to criticize it for. But Evolution of Desire is a biography almost written within his own lifetime, by someone close to the thinker and based on their personal conversations. Therefore, it lacks not only objectivity, but distance. The fate of Girard is almost devoid of “dark spots,” and he himself resembles a living icon: we constantly read about his merits and do not hear a word about his shortcomings – which would probably introduce something paradoxical to his image. The only thing we are told about is his childhood passion for practical jokes, his excusable youthful passion for “parties and cars,” and even the opinion of some colleagues that he dominated people and space too much. In an interview, Girard admitted that he was “very mimetic” and wrote only about what he experienced himself.

And yet, it’s hard to wish for a better biography of Girard. It will be of great service to both his followers and researchers, and deserves every possible recommendation.

Read the whole thing here. And you can order the Russian edition from NLO here.

Do we “live by bridges”? UCLA’s Thomas Harrison builds a persuasive case.

Wednesday, June 9th, 2021
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He grew up next to the oldest bridge in the world, Kervan Kprüsü.

Bridges connect us – and they have since the beginning of time, all the way back to the very first bridge, the rainbow. They connect us geographically, strategically, metaphorically, lyrically (if that last seems a stretch, think of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”). Now we have a book to explain all sorts of bridges to us, thanks to UCLA author Thomas Harrison, whose book Of Bridges: A Poetic and Philosophical Account, is just out with the University of Chicago Press.

Harrison gave a May 28 Zoom presentation to launch On Bridges, with discussants Christy Wampole of Princeton and Stanford’s Marjorie Perloff. The Stanford literary critic had already weighed in on the book: “Of Bridges is a dazzling investigation into the profound semantic and historical resonance of the seemingly simple word bridge, that passage between two points that is unique in its material, metaphoric, and philosophical properties. Harrison has chapters on every possible aspect of bridging, for example, the musical bridge, the poetic bridge as in Hart Crane’s famous poem by that title, the actual historic bridges of Greece and Rome, and the ‘thought’ bridges of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Throughout, Harrison’s book is astonishingly learned, well written, and imaginative. Bridges will never be the same after this brilliant study.”

Harrison didn’t hesitate to name his own favorite bridge: “I grew up next to the oldest bridge in the world,” he said, recalling his childhood on the Aegean in İzmir, Turkey – a city known as Smyrna in the ancient world. The bridge marked the western endpoint of the “Assyrian Route,” the 2500-kilometer stretch that was the most important trade route in the ancient world. In an émigré enclave within the metropolis, Harrison grew up with an Italian mother and an American father, “a nominal Christian in a Muslim City.” The Pont des Caravans (Kervan Kprüsü), constructed around 850 BCE, is a slab-stone single-arch bridge over the river Meles, which has seen a constant procession of camels, horses, mules, and donkeys, going back to about 850 B.C. Legend has it that Homer crossed it as a boy.

But the book also reminds us of metaphysical bridges: As-Sirāt (Arabic: الصراط‎ aṣ-ṣirāṭ) is, according to Islam, the bridge all must cross on Judgment to enter Paradise. It is said that it is “thinner than a strand of hair and as sharp as the sharper than a sword.”

The wide-ranging zoom conversation considered drawbridges as “fake bridges,” bridges as familiar figures of speech, and the role of bridges in suicide, including the Golden Gate Bridge. Otherworldly bridges were discussed – Milton‘s bridge from hell over chaos in Paradise Lost, for example. Nietzsche‘s “Over the Footbridge was mentioned – and his rope over the abyss is a kind of bridge:

“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.

“What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.

“I love those who do not know how to live, except by going under, for they are those who cross over.

“Always,” wrote Philip Larkin, “it is by bridges that we live.” In this lyrical, vertiginous book of bridges visible and imagined, Harrison builds a persuasive case that it is so.

“The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English” in the TLS: “Kline emerges as human, warm and vividly idiosyncratic in the pages of [Cynthia] Haven’s volume …”

Monday, June 7th, 2021
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The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: Conversations with George L. Kline is finally in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. We’d seen the online version, but there’s nothing like viewing the printed page – so here it is for you. In the words of reviewer Stephanie Sandler: “[George] Kline emerges as human, warm and vividly idiosyncratic in the pages of [Cynthia] Haven’s volume …” Also reviewed, the Selected Poems 1968-1996, edited by Ann Kjellberg, and Joseph Brodsky and Collaborative Self-Translation, by Natasha Rulyova.

From Ann Kjellberg’s introduction to the new Selected, which was published in English in The New York Review of Books and in Russia’s Colta: “We now live in a time of which Brodsky was an advance scout – a time when any writers operate beyond their original borders and outside their mother tongues, often, like Brodsky, bearing witness to violence and disruption, often answering, through art, to those experiences, in language refracted, by necessity, through other language. In Brodsky’s moment there was a cluster of poets, some from the margins of empire, some, like Brodsky, severed from their roots – Walcott, Heaney, Paz, Milosz, to name a few – who brought with them commanding traditions, as well as the imprint of history’s dislocations. We would do well now to attend to their song, standing as they did in our doorway between a broken past and the language’s future.”

And read the whole story of Brodsky’s “rich, complicated legacy” in the TLS here.