Archive for 2023

“Everything’s about the economy of love”: Remembering Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić (1949-2023)

Sunday, March 19th, 2023
Ugrešić with Daniel Medin and a be-antlered fox in Bergen. Photo: Alisa Ganieva.
In happier times: Ugrešić with Prof. Daniel Medin of the American University of Paris, and an antlered fox in Bergen. Photo: Alisa Ganieva.

The Croatian writer and Neustadt winner Dubravka Ugrešić died two days ago, on March 17, at her home in Amsterdam, surrounded by family. She was 73. I interviewed her at the inaugural Bergen Literary Festival in Norway, 2019. That interview was published in Music & Literature here. We talked about the break up of Yugoslavia, we spoke about the hate campaign against her and how she became one of the region’s many scapegoats.

But she also spoke the relationships between men and women, and, as the biographer of the French theorist René Girard, I couldn’t help but see a mimetic thread in her conversations. An excerpt from that interview:

CH: Something you said that I think is very true: “That through women, men find their way to other men.”

DU: Let us be fair, men are not the only ones who, consciously or unconsciously, manipulate. However, it is fair to say that there are some examples of women in history who attracted men because they were known as mistresses of other men. Love is often a struggle for territory and power, a social game. Literary life is rich in such examples. One such example is Lily Brik, wife of Russian futurist Osip Brik and mistress of Vladimir Mayakovsky. Both of her men died, and she carried on, living with another two men who were honored by inheriting “the territory” previously owned by two famous men. Such liaisons dangereuses are not foreign to human nature, but Brik’s story happened in the time of sexual liberation—remember Alexandra Kollontai! Also later, during the Communist era, sexual privacy was the only territory of freedom that was left.

CH: The comment we’re discussing is another remark from the character of the Widow in [her novel] Fox, who was speaking about Alma Mahler. You wrote—or rather, the Widow said—“her main talent was a deep and abiding knowledge of the economy of love.” What else might she had said that you didn’t have time to write down?

DU: Everything’s about the economy of love. When I see men—how they are natural, relaxed, and comfortable in the company of other men—I realize that it will take much longer for both genders to become emancipated from God’s given roles. Many men see the world like military life—that is the strongest human meme, where women stay at home and wait for men to come back from glorious battles with other men. Or, to use an analogy that is a bit more current, many men see the world like a football game, where they play with each other in order to play against each other. Why do men never wonder why women are so obviously excluded from so many zones of public life? Why doesn’t one of them ever protest that he will not participate in the conference, discussion, forum, or event unless the number of participants is equally divided: half women and half men? Why? Because they don’t see anything unusual in the landscape they are so used to.

Read more at Music & Literature here.

A piece of history for sale: author William Kennedy sells the townhouse where “Legs” Diamond was shot.

Saturday, March 11th, 2023
67 Dove Street – it’s the brown townhouse, hidden behind the trees.

Want to buy a unique piece of real estate with some history behind it? Try this: the home where Irish-American gangster “Legs” Diamond was gunned down in 1931. The townhouse is currently owned by the novelist William Kennedy, Pulitzer prizewinning author of Ironwood and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. He is also the author of the classic novel Legs, the first book that launched his renowned “Albany Cycle.”

You may remember our recent Another Look event on Bill Kennedy’s Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game in 2021. You may also remember my interview with him, the “At the Mercy of My Passions and Opinions,” over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

Paul Grondahl, Director of the New York State Writers Institute and a columnist for the Albany Times Union tells the story. An excerpt:

Bill Kennedy: He’s part of the house’s history, too!

It is a stop on local history walking tours. Historic Albany Foundation attached a plaque to the brick exterior of the 19th-century building that operated as a rooming house in Diamond’s era.

Novelist William Kennedy bought the Center Square property in 1984, when Francis Ford Coppola planned to make a movie out of Kennedy’s novel about the legendary bootlegger and cold-blooded killer.

That movie never happened, but Kennedy used the rowhouse forwriting and entertaining. He wrote parts of several novels at 67 Dove St. The years piled up. Now, he is 95 and his wife, Dana, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.


Kennedy and his wife welcomed a who’s who of notable authors for nightcaps in the front parlor after New York State Writers Institute events, including Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, William Styron, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, George Plimpton, Stephen Sondheim, August Wilson, and Russell Banks.

If you stopped by in the morning or afternoon, you might hear the staccato clacking of Kennedy pounding the keys on a 1930s vintage L.C. Smith & Corona manual typewriter positioned on a glass coffee table in front of a sofa in the back parlor.

He hammered away at the keys and had so many stacks of heavy research books piled up on the coffee table that the glass top broke. He got the glass replaced and kept writing there.

He wrote much of his 1988 novel, Quinn’s Book, and his 1992 novel, Very Old Bones, as well as portions of others in his Albany cycle at 67 Dove St.

“I loved the neighborhood because it had everything I needed,” he said.

It’s a piece of history going for just shy of half a million dollars. Chump change in California.

Read the whole story here.

“It’s translating, not sex,” he said. “You can do it with more than one person.”

Monday, March 6th, 2023
Understatement as talisman

When Clare Cavanagh was first invited by a mutual friend to translate the poems of Adam Zagajewski, who died two years ago this month, how did she respond? “I froze, answered ‘No,’ and hung up the phone.” She was known for her translations of Stanisław Barańczyk, and so the suggestion seemed somehow disloyal. “How could I work without Stanislaw? How could I translate the great Zagajewski on my own? I told my husband, who said I was an idiot. ‘It’s translating, not sex,’ he said. ‘You can do it with more than one person.’ Adam loved that line.”

Cavanagh signing books in Kraków

You can read Clare’s article, “Working with the poet who told us to ‘Praise the Mutilated World,'” over at the Washington Post here. I love Clare Cavanagh’s writing – frank, unpretentious, and yet unpretentiously insightful. The occasion for the article: the great Polish poet’s latest collection, his final volume, True Life, is out in English this month.

Why did Adam approach her through an intermediary? “I discovered the reason for Adam’s shyness only long after. I’d published a scholarly book on the poet Osip Mandelstam that year, and Adam had actually read it. I’m still a bit shocked by that decades later,” she writes.

“He’d thought I would be some remote, imposing professor and was afraid to call me himself. This too continues to shock me. He was a great Polish poet after all, and I was just some Slavist in Wisconsin. But he knew I loved Mandelstam. And he knew I’d been translating Wisława Szymborska with his longtime friend, the great poet and translator Stanislaw Barańczak. So he thought it was worth a try.”

Again, read it all here. It’s worth it. I don’t want to spoil the stories for you, and I’d be tempted to tell them all.

I love Robert Pinsky’s writing, too, and his tribute to Adam, “A Poet Whose Tone Was Personal and Whose Vision Was Vast in The New York Times is here. It’s a retrospective as well as a review of True Life. An excerpt:

Poet, friend, and translator

“Proper names occur in many of the poems, sometimes the innocent-looking place name (Drohobycz, Belzec) of an extermination ghetto, sometimes the name of a crucial, renowned or emblematic victim, such as the artist and writer Schulz, or Jean Améry, repeatedly tortured, known for his writing about sadism as the defining, essential nature of fascism, not incidental to it.

“The poems of True Life do not denounce these horrors explicitly, but seemingly allude to them almost as if in passing. The surface calm avoids the customary postures of condemnation; this poetry has a blade of penetration that is less forgiving and more demanding than ordinary, rhetorical righteousness. To put that point another way, Zagajewski by implication doubts the reassurance of “never again” or “never forget.” Slogans cannot correct the absence of moral imagination.

“An extreme of truth-telling.”

“The poems are at an extreme of truth-telling. They deploy understatement like a talisman as they enter the grandly menacing yet oblivious borderland of our worst human doings. Where does this manner, with its indictment by reason, come from? Zagajewski invokes and declines a particular intellectual-historical source in a poem of 11 short lines, entitled “Enlightenment.”

Czeslaw Milosz wrote in his introduction to Zagajewski’s 1985 selected poems in English, “Tremor” (translated by Renata Gorczynski), that Zagajewski, “taking the lead in the poetry of my language,” gives “living proof that Polish literature is energy incessantly renewed against all probabilities.”

Robert Pinsky extends a line of thought I advance in my own book, Czesław Miłosz: An American Life: “The poetry of Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wisława Szymborska in English translation has been a powerful strand in American poetry. In a tradition Zagajewski inherited, those three senior poets, in their different ways, by necessity engage historical realities. That mission has mattered to American writers.”

Read the whole thing at The New York Times here.

Tyler Cowen: “I’ve never been convinced that AI will rise up and destroy the world or turn us into paper clips.”

Sunday, February 26th, 2023

Economist Tyler Cowen, is always quotable – even when he doesn’t try to be. For the three or four of you out there who haven’t heard of him, he’s professor of economics at George Mason University and the director of the Mercatus Center, a free-market research center and think tank. He is also the co-founder of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, and he’s host of the podcast series Conversations with Tyler – he interviewed my humble self some time ago here

Check out this Q&A interview with Jon Baskin in “Progress Studies” in the current issue of The Point. The subject is artificial intelligence. When I saw the quote about paper clips, I knew this would have to be a Book Haven post. A couple excerpts that carry a lot of pith and punch:

“People are right to feel angst. But it’s also an opportunity.”

JB: What kind of benefits do you see AI delivering? Will it bring us some of those big public benefits that you’ve talked about have been missing since 1973?

TC: I think within two years or so, AI will write about half of all computer code, and it will write the boring half. So programmers will be freed up to be more creative, or to try new areas where the grunt work is more or less done for them. That will be significant. Of course, the code has to be edited and checked, there will be errors. But it writes so much of it for you so quickly. And I think that will lead indirectly to some fantastic breakthroughs and creativity of programming.

And then, individuals will have individualized tutors in virtually every area of human knowledge. That is something that’s not thirty years off—I think it’s within one year, when GPT-4 is released, or when Anthropic is released. So imagine having this universal tutor. It’s not perfect, but much better than what you had before. We’ll see how these things are priced and financed. But that, to me, is a very significant breakthrough.

JB: Obviously, there’s a lot of anxiety among, I guess, humanities people, broadly speaking, but also people like the effective-altruism crowd thinking about the ways that AI could go terribly wrong. Do you think those worries have merit? How do we create a market and situation where we are able to advance the beneficial parts of AI and limit some of the potential damages?

TC: I’ve never been convinced by the scenario that the AI will rise up and destroy the world, or turn us into paper clips. [Read about how paper clips could bring about the end of the world here. – ED] I just don’t see the evidence. It doesn’t interact with the physical world in a way where it can do that. It doesn’t think. It’s a predictive language model. 

You know, the humanities are going to have a lot of problems. So people are right to feel angst. But it’s also an opportunity. So far the most visible problem is students using GPT to write their term papers, right? I don’t know how we’ll deal with that. I don’t pretend to have the answer. I think there’ll be other problems related to misinformation, or maybe people treating it like a religious oracle. Every technological advance has difficulties, and this one will too.


Not a happy kind of guy.

JB: I want to talk a little bit about Tolstoy. Max Weber, in his famous 1917 lecture “Science as a Vocation,” says that Tolstoy is the person who most sharply raises the question of whether the advances of science and technology have any meaning that go beyond the purely practical and technical. And he quotes Tolstoy saying that, basically, for the person who puts progress at the center of their life, life can never be satisfying, because they’ll always die in the middle of progress. How would you respond to this charge from Tolstoy about progress?

TC: I’m pretty happy and Tolstoy was not, would be my gut-level response. 

I would put it this way. If there was backwards time travel, and you had to send me back to his time, apart from satisfying some historical curiosity, I would be terrified at that prospect. Life in Tolstoy’s Russia was quite horrible. Even for the intelligentsia, never mind the peasants who had been recently freed from being serfs. And then that’s followed by Soviet Communism, as the reaction against how bad things were under the tsar. That’s awful. Give me Australia and Denmark and northern Virginia. Ask random immigrants or would-be immigrants: Would you rather migrate to Fairfax County or, you know, to Tolstoy’s Russia? It’s not even a choice. I don’t think you’d get many people going to Tolstoy’s Russia. And that, to me, suggests the importance of progress.

Read the whole thing here.

Salman Rushdie: “I’ve always tried very hard not to adopt the role of a victim.”

Thursday, February 16th, 2023
Salman Rushdie before the attack, with friend Abbas Raza in Brixen, in the Italian Alps.

It was the worst Valentine’s Day present ever: on 14 February 1989, the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini called for the novelist Salman Rushdie‘s death. The author’s crime? A brilliant book written with his characteristic wit, erudition, and playfulness called The Satanic Verses. Blasphemy, said the grim and fanatical ayatollah. Rushdie went into hiding, but as the years went by, he inevitably relaxed his guard and began to live more openly, appearing at speaking engagements, parties, P.E.N. meetings, and universities. It seemed he would beat the rap, until last August 11, when an rootless nobody named Hadi Matar attacked him at a speaking engagement in Chautauqua, NY. This month, a fascinating article in the New Yorker, “The Defiance of Salman Rushdie” by David Remnick, discusses his life under a fatwa, his injuries in last year’s attack (he’s lost an eye and the use of a hand), his books, and his indefatigable courage.


Did he think it had been a mistake to let his guard down since moving to New York? “Well, I’m asking myself that question, and I don’t know the answer to it,” he said. “I did have more than twenty years of life. So, is that a mistake? Also, I wrote a lot of books. The Satanic Verses was my fifth published book—my fourth published novel—and this is my twenty-first. So, three-quarters of my life as a writer has happened since the fatwa. In a way, you can’t regret your life.”


Whom does he blame for the attack?

“I blame him,” he said.


At this meeting and in subsequent conversations, I sensed conflicting instincts in Rushdie when he replied to questions about his health: there was the instinct to move on—to talk about literary matters, his book, anything but the decades-long fatwa and now the attack—and the instinct to be absolutely frank. “There is such a thing as P.T.S.D., you know,” he said after a while. “I’ve found it very, very difficult to write. I sit down to write, and nothing happens. I write, but it’s a combination of blankness and junk, stuff that I write and that I delete the next day. I’m not out of that forest yet, really.”

He added, “I’ve simply never allowed myself to use the phrase ‘writer’s block.’ Everybody has a moment when there’s nothing in your head. And you think, Oh, well, there’s never going to be anything. One of the things about being seventy-five and having written twenty-one books is that you know that, if you keep at it, something will come.”

Had that happened in the past months?

Rushdie frowned. “Not really. I mean, I’ve tried, but not really.” He was only lately “just beginning to feel the return of the juices.”

How to go on living after thinking you had emerged from years of threat, denunciation, and mortal danger? And now how to recover from an attack that came within millimetres of killing you, and try to live, somehow, as if it could never recur?

He seemed grateful for a therapist he had seen since before the attack, a therapist “who has a lot of work to do. He knows me and he’s very helpful, and I just talk things through.”

The talk was plainly in the service of a long-standing resolution. “I’ve always tried very hard not to adopt the role of a victim,” he said. “Then you’re just sitting there saying, Somebody stuck a knife in me! Poor me. . . . Which I do sometimes think.” He laughed. “It hurts. But what I don’t think is: That’s what I want people reading the book to think. I want them to be captured by the tale, to be carried away.”

Many years ago, he recalled, there were people who seemed to grow tired of his persistent existence. “People didn’t like it. Because I should have died. Now that I’ve almost died, everybody loves me. . . . That was my mistake, back then. Not only did I live but I tried to live well. Bad mistake. Get fifteen stab wounds, much better.”

Read the whole thing here.

Dana Gioia: running the long race

Friday, February 10th, 2023

A first, incandescent review for Dana Gioia‘s brand new collection, Meet Me At The Lighthouse (Graywolf). Seth Wieck‘s write-up, “Dana Gioia’s Bright Twilight,” is in included the newest issue of The Front Porch Republic, a blog (and book publisher) launched in 2009 with contributors, known as “porchers,” focusing on concepts of community, place, decentralism, and conservation. And sometimes they talk about poetry.

Poetry is a profession that bears well into the seventh decade of life and beyond – better than being an astronaut or Olympic gymnast, or pretty much any other non-literary profession. Dana is playing the long game, and he isn’t missing a beat, metrical or metaphorical. As Wieck writes, “Rather, he’s heeding Eliot’s warning. Don’t turn aside. Take up your lantern and charge into the darkness. Sing all the way into the afterlife. Gioia does not linger on the threshold of death; he wants to be our guide through the Inferno and beyond.” (Please be reassured, gentle reader, Dana is in the best of health.)

An excerpt:

“The book closes with the 14-page poem “The Underworld,” giving it a weight no other poem in the collection receives. The 17 seven-line stanzas return us to the afterlife with which the book opened. However, instead of a lively jazz club, now the ‘you’ is seated on a silent train commute to the Underworld. It flips the tropes of those ancient epics where a hero interviews a long train of shades, hoping to garner wisdom. In Gioia’s Underworld, ‘You’ speak to no one. There are no fantastical creatures, ‘no triple-headed dogs…no Titans bound in chains.’ There are no malebolges stuffed with squirming sufferers. There is only the commute full of dead-eyed passengers isolated from one another, turned to stone as if the Gorgon had gazed back from their morning mirrors, or the screens in their palms.

Gioia at the Sierra Poetry Festival (Photo: Radu Sava)

The train never quite arrives anywhere, yet all the passengers are anxious to get there. For those people like Tennyson and Baudelaire—like me on the days I get off work and succumb to sitting vacantly in a room with my family, each with a face to a respective screen, absence substituting absinthe—for those, the Underworld, Hell, is already here. As Gioia reminds us in the poem’s epigraph, quoting The Aeneid, ‘Descending into Hell is easy.’ The sentence doesn’t stop here, however. If we were to heed Gioia’s guidance and work our way back through the poets, the tradition, the wisdom handed down to us through the ages (with no lack of God’s providence in the process), then we’d arrive back at Virgil and finish the line: ‘Descending into Hell is easy / But to return, and view the cheerful skies, / In this the task and mighty labor lies.’”

“As I mount midlife—Tennyson’s rocky walls—and attempt to gather my bearings for what’s coming in the next 40 years, I find fewer and fewer people have been able to run the long race. The energy and ambition and love I had in my youth is running low. Wouldn’t it be easier to fold my hands, to repeat the catch phrases and sound bites, to laugh at the canned cues and teach my children to? Whose woods these are I think I know. Then out on the wrinkled sea, the high notes come shimmering over the cold waves, and 72-year-old Dana Gioia says, ‘Meet me at the Lighthouse.’”

Read the whole thing here.