Archive for October, 2021

A Halloween poem from Czesław Miłosz

Sunday, October 31st, 2021

I’ve been on the road, giving talks for Czesław Miłosz: A California Life at the University of Chicago, San Francisco’s legendary City Lights Bookstore, and soon at the University of California, Berkeley. Now I’m camped out at Harvard for a few days. I’ll post links and photos soon.

Meanwhile, here’s a timely poem from the subject of my book, Czesław Miłosz, which comes to me courtesy NEA fellow Jim May on Twitter. The poem written in South Hadley. No doubt the Polish poet was visiting his friend and fellow Nobelist Joseph Brodsky.

Postscript on 10/31 from Stanford Prof. Grisha Freidin: “Exile, multiplied by another poet’s exile, by the melancholy season, by the Styx-like river, with the other shore still shrouded in darkness… Note absence of self-pity. Quintessential Czesław.”

When your life appears in fiction: Molly Fisk and her Uncle John Updike

Monday, October 25th, 2021
What are the boundaries? Are there any?

The current Harper’s Bazaar features a literary memoir by poet Molly Fisk. We’ve written about her before, here and here. I’ve known the poet for two decades – but I didn’t know she was the niece of novelist and short story writer John Updike. She describes the experience in “John Updike, His Stories, and Me.” You can read it here. It begins:

In December 1984, my father died at the Ghirardelli theater during a morning showing for backers and friends of the movie On the Edge, which stars creepy Bruce Dern as a long-distance runner. This was my father’s fourth heart attack. His friends described him laughing near the film’s end, and then hearing a sigh. When he was discovered unresponsive in his seat as the lights came up, that famous line was called out: “Is there a doctor in the house?!” There were four, but none of them could save him. He was 56.

At that point, my father, Irving, didn’t have any money. He wasn’t a backer, but he knew the director and was often on the fringes of various deals, cinematic and otherwise, “putting people together” and going out to lunch. Payment was largely theoretical.

For our family, losing this witty, charming, impossible man was like having the sun plucked out of a solar system. We, the remaining planets, careened randomly for a long time. I was 29 and going to business school, mostly because I hoped that it would help me understand him.

The borderlands of life and art.

Almost exactly three years after my dad’s death, a short story by Uncle John appeared in The New Yorker called “Brother Grasshopper.” Everyone who knew me and my family knew that my uncle was John Updike. He married my mother’s older sister, Mary, when they were in college, and we Fisks spent every summer back East in Ipswich or Vermont or on Martha’s Vineyard with the Updikes. Each couple produced four children at regular intervals, so we had nearly parallel cousins. If you’ve read Couples or The Maples Stories, you know the general scene: beaches, chaos, shucking corn, tennis and cocktails, adultery. There were the usual family spats now and then, but as a child, I always thought of the four adults as good friends.

Read the whole thing here.

Stanford’s “thought warrior”

Friday, October 22nd, 2021
He listens to dead voices

Not many Americans read The Australian, the leading national newspaper Down Under. It’s a shame – they’re going to miss Janet Albrechtsen’s excellent profile of the man who has been called America’s leading humanist, born in what may be Homer’s birthplace – Izmir, Turkey. Stanford’s Professor Robert Pogue Harrison, a leading Dante scholar (we’ve written about him lots on the Book Haven), has taught literature at Stanford for almost three decades. His books include The Dominion of The Dead, where he explores how the living maintain a connection with those we’ve buried, and Juvenescence, where he considers how we are growing younger culturally, losing a very necessary reciprocity with our past.

Albrechtson writes: “Harrison is not part of the splurge of political podcasts waging war with the left or the right. One of the original long-form podcasters, before the word was born, Harrison started recording his meandering interviews, called Entitled Opinions, in 2005 in what he calls the catacombs of Stanford University’s radio station KZSU. He chooses “catacomb” deliberately. This is where, as he tells his listeners, new religions are born, his being ‘the persecuted religion of thinking.’”

A couple excerpts from the article:

Dead voices are writ large in Harrison’s life and work. He is concerned that the genius of innovation and change, now at speeds not seen over the course of human history, is breaching our connection with the wisdom of the past. “Genius liberates the novelties of the future, (and) wisdom inherits the legacies of the past, renewing them in the process of handing them down,” he writes in Juvenescence.

Harrison is too cool to be a ­curmudgeon. He recognises that being young is positive. “It’s ­vibrant, it’s energetic, it’s creative,” he tells me.

“But if we forget our cultural age and pretend like we’re children, then it’s really dangerous. And when you lose your cultural memory and connection with the past and with the dead voices that speak from the deep past, then you also, I think, lose the sources of rejuvenation. You can either rejuvenate or you can juvenilise. I don’t know how we can go forward into the future viably without a solid kind of foundation in the past.”

A radical kind of guy

Harrison draws on Dante to explain the dynamic synergy between genius and wisdom. “Dante in the Middle Ages is in a deeply Christian society, and he becomes the first person to write a Christian epic in the first person singular. That was very radical. That was very new. That opened up a whole new genre for the future. But he did not just invent it like Silicon Valley start-up companies say they are all about innovation. He found his way into the new possibilities of a Christian epic by the systematic study of Virgil, and with Virgil, the epic tradition that came from Greek and Roman sources,” he says.

He points to the same intellectual synergy between genius and wisdom when the Founding Fathers created a new nation. “Thomas Jefferson used to translate the Greek Bible into Latin and the Latin Bible into Greek when he was in high school. President Garfield, a century later, when he wanted to amuse his friends … he would take two pencils (one in each hand) and write Greek and Latin letters – sentences – at the same time.

“The framers of the American constitution … would go back and pour over the annals of the history of Rome and where Carthage went wrong. The whole new nation of America, the new republic, was thought up very deliberately by this constant persistent reference to antiquities and its models of the future.”


Translated Greek, Latin as a kid

He laments that education, especially the humanities, is deliberately trouncing dead voices. And he is unsurprised that humanities degrees at Australian universities have been penalised by a fee hike by the government.

He blames a cynical crusade over the past few decades where the humanities have become “more of a deconstructive enterprise rather than a reconstructive one. If we, the teachers, are the first ones to put into the tribunal all of the white males that represent the tradition, and invariably, when you put them in the tribunal, almost all of them are going to be indicted and proclaimed guilty, then it’s not unusual that governments should say, ‘Why should we fund a dead story?’”

What is a humanist? Obviously, Harrison is one. I’m not going to attempt a definition, but I will describe a characteristic. A humanist is someone who explores, explains, and inhabits literature, or philosophy, or history, or any of the other explorations are the essence civilization and human endeavor. They do this not (or at least not only) self-interested motives – a degree, a tenured appointment, a prize, or prestige as a PBS commentator – but because it is the world they inhabit, one that they wish to carry into the future by offering at least a single perishable link in an unbroken chain – not only for humanity’s sake, but also because it is their own lifeblood.

Read the whole thing here, if you can evade the paywall.

Ta-daa! “Czesław Miłosz: A California Life” is becoming a reality.

Tuesday, October 12th, 2021

Czesław Miłosz: A California Life (Heyday Books) will be out at last on October 19. And Miłosz’s life is a California life, despite the barred “l”s in the poet’s name that stumped so many Americans and marked him as part of “the other Europe,” the half-continent that had been behind the Iron Curtain for much of his life. Hence, his American byline became Milosz, not Miłosz. (Incidentally, the diacritical signifies, in Polish, that the “ł” is pronounced like a “w” … and Polish “w”s are pronounced like “v”s.)

The Nobel poet spent more time in California than any other place during his long 93-year life. He wrote poems about the California landscape, engaged with our culture, and taught generations of students at UC-Berkeley. Some of those students became eminent translators of his work.

The Golden State is truly a state of mind as well as a place, and I was intrigued by how he embraced the land and its people – psychologically, intellectually, and as a poet. I was interested in portraying the California that sinks into us, that we never fully understand, no matter how long we live here – not the media cliché that conceals it. And I wanted to tell the story of the man who had escaped from Stalinist Poland by a miracle, and discuss his great, and often unacknowledged, good fortune to land here among us, where the poet of what he called “an unheard-of tongue” could become a poet of world renown. In California, he could champion Polish poetry, bringing poets such as Zbigniew Herbert into English and publishing the landmark History of Polish Literature and Postwar Polish Poetry. After an initially rocky reception in the United States, he lived for decades on idyllic Grizzly Peak, a literary landmark for Poles today, though little known outside Berkeley.

California Magazine named one the top picks for the fall (see below). And the current Publishers Weekly has a great review: “’The irony is that the greatest Californian poet… could well be a Pole who wrote a single poem in English,’ suggests journalist Haven (Evolution of Desire) in this detailed biography of Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004). California was crucial to Miłosz’s life and work, Haven argues, and notes that the Polish poet had a complicated relationship with the U.S.: ‘He longed for America yet loathed it, too.’” 

It concludes: “Much has been written about the poet, and Haven finds new ways into his life […] her examinations of the influence of place on his poetry are insightful. Fans of Miłosz’s work should give this a look.”

As the Mamas and the Papas warbled, “California dreamin’ is becoming a reality.”

LitHub interviews Heyday’s Steve Wasserman on California’s indie publishing

Friday, October 8th, 2021
At the helm

Corinne Segal profiles Heyday Books in the current LitHub, in a look at California’s independent publishing scene. I have reason to be grateful. Berkeley’s Heyday is now my publisher, too. Czesław Miłosz: A California Life will be out in a week or so. It’s a Q&A not only with Steve, but several of his staffers, too – Emmerich Anklam, Kalie Caetano, Marthine Satris, Gayle Wattawa. And all of them have a lot to say.

Segal writes: “When Heyday Books, an independent press founded in Berkeley in 1974, approached publisher Steve Wasserman with a job offer, ‘I still had the scent of night jasmine and a wee bit of the old Berkeley tear gas in my nostrils,’ as he recounted to UC Berkeley’s Linda Kinstler in an interview last year. It led him back to the city where he had grown up and taken part in some of the most important civic demonstrations of its past, including, notably, the movement to build People’s Park in 1969—and to an important addition to the independent publishing scene of the Bay Area.

Why did Steve, then editor at large for Yale University Press, make the move? We’ve already written about that here. Steve, of course, can speak for himself (we’ve written about his words about the current publishing scene here), but here’s what he says on this occasion:

“A lack of bureaucracy and freedom from corporate pressures are chief among the pleasures to be derived from independent status. Still, all of us—no matter where we find ourselves in the ecology of publishing—must endeavor to cultivate the means and nimbleness to cut through the noise of the culture and gain attention for deserving work. Curiously, though independent presses are often resource-poor, we are rich in imagination and this is a huge benefit and, indeed, an advantage.”

Asked what particular projects he’s jazzed about, he was kind enough to mention my own humble labors: “We have a few soon-to-debut fall titles that we’re excited to launch in the coming weeks, including Czesław Miłosz: A California Life, a book that explores the times and outlook of the Nobel Prize-winning poet who survived the bombing of Warsaw in World War II before embarking on a four-decade long exile as a California ex-pat. Author Cynthia Haven, who knew the poet personally, offers an account of his work and worldview that reveals how eerily prescient his insights continue to be, especially in light of the catastrophism of our times—from politics to climate breakdown.”

Read the whole thing over at LitHub here.

In Praise of Purgatory: translator Robert Chandler writes in The Financial Times

Friday, October 1st, 2021
Dante, Beatrice, the Eagle, and the collective voice of the just

The supreme translator honors the supreme poet. It is the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri‘s death – and Robert Chandler, who has translated Vasily Grossman‘s Life and Fate and Stalingrad, among other Russian stunners, turns his attention from the Russian classics to Dante’s Italian masterpiece.

A sadist? We think not.

The occasion for the article is a new translation of The Purgatorio, by poet D.M. Black, published by New York Review Books with a preface by Robert Pogue Harrison, who estimates that there are more than a hundred translations of The Divine Comedy into English already. So why do we need a new one? Because The Purgatorio is special.

If Russia seems a long way from Florence, Chandler threads the connections together in his new article, “Divinity and Damnation: Why Dante Still Matters,” at The Financial Times: “Anna Akhmatova’s last public appearance was in October 1965, during a celebration of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth.  In a moving affirmation of loyalty, she wrote in her preparatory notes that the deepest bond between her and her fellow-poets Nikolay Gumiliov and Osip Mandelstam, both killed decades earlier by the Soviets, was ‘love for Dante.’” (Mandelstam described the Divine Comedy as a perfect crystal with 14,233 facets – the number of lines in the poem.)

Readers are generally drawn to the Inferno, partly because of the set pieces like Paolo and Francesca, but also for the same reason people prefer horror films to mid-century musicals.

“Some have see Dante as a vengeful sadist, while for T. S. Eliot he was an epitome of classical restraint.  Some see Dante as a mystic visionary; others see the Divine Comedy as Thomas Aquinas’s Aristotelian Catholicism put into verse,” Chandler writes. “In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Judith Thurman has described him, during his long exile from Florence, as ‘an itinerant diplomat and secretary for the lords of northern Italy’ and as an ’embittered asylum-seeker.’”

I’ll plump for The Purgatorio too. It has more movement. But Stanford’s William Mahrt would also point out that it is the only one of the three sections of the Divine Comedy that has music. There is no music in The Inferno – just noise and wails and grunts. The Paradiso leads us beyond music. But the Purgatorio rings with hymns and psalms and chant. Chandler adds: “The Purgatorio, however, is a more satisfying whole.  The structure is more meaningful, the verbal music more delicate – and, above all, it is more human.  In Hell and Paradise everyone is fixed in their despair or bliss; in Purgatory everyone and everything is in flux.  Sinners struggle to resolve their inner conflicts.  Above all, there is a sense of freshness and hope.”

Chandler, translator extraordinaire

Chandler concludes: “The Purgatorio is, above all, a search for meaning, and in the final cantos Beatrice enables Dante to understand that the only source of meaning is love.  One of Black’s previous publications is titled Why Things Matter: The Place of Values in Science, Psychoanalysis and Religion (Routledge, 2011).  Both in this translation and in his afterword Black shows us why Dante matters, and how, 700 years after his death, he can still help us to understand what may give meaning to our own lives.”

Read the whole thing here.