Archive for March, 2023

“Jewish and Russian – not the same! Say you’re Jewish next time! It’s better! And good luck to you in Ukraine!” Poet/translator Nina Kossman’s convo with a stranger at 35,000 feet.

Monday, March 27th, 2023

Russian poet Nina Kossman and a stranger sat next to each other on a recent flight from New York to Prague, en route to Ukraine. We’ve written about the U.S.-based writer’s translations of Marina Tsvetaeva here, but that was in a far less fraught time. A few minutes’ conversation between the two women laid bare the ongoing challenges of overlapping ethnicities, the terrible war, and the lifelong plight of the émigré. It went like this:

The woman in the seat next to me said something I didn’t understand right away. Something about a belt. I was thinking about something else, so I was a bit slow to react. Ah, a seatbelt! Is this my seatbelt or yours? I pointed at my seatbelt, already clasped on me, and then at hers, hanging from under her armrest.

Nina Kossman reading from her poems

“Ah!” she said, “Okay!” Her accent – the reason I didn’t understand her right away – sounded very familiar to me. “Do you speak Polish?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “And you? Where you from?” she said.

“I’m from the country that I’m sure you don’t like,” I said.

“Russia?” she guessed.

“Yes,” I said. “I was born in Russia. But I live here.”

“Why I don’t like?” she exclaimed with that mix of deep feeling and the hyper-drama I’m used to seeing in Eastern Europeans and which I notice in myself, too, once in a while.

“Russian people want war. So war.”

It sounded like a statement rather than a question, therefore I said, “The government wants the war, not the people. The people who approve of this war are just brainwashed.”

A very loud, emotional tirade ensued, and I suggested we not discuss politics. “I don’t want to fight with you while we are flying over the ocean.”

“You Russian,” she said. Again, it sounded like an assertion rather than a question, therefore I said, “Not really, although it’s true that I was born there.”

“What’s your last name?”

Ah, I thought, now I really feel like I am going to Eastern Europe. I knew what would follow my telling her my last name. Only in Russia and Eastern Europe I expect this question about my last name to be followed by “Not Russian,” and an instant later, by contemptuous “Jew?” Years ago, when I was a member of the now defunct PEN chapter “PEN/ Writers in Exile,” its Hungarian-born president never missed an opportunity to mispronounce my last name as “Koshman,” with barely concealed contempt, often followed by “Why is someone with the last name Koshman claiming to be Russian?”

That was in New York, where you don’t expect this sort of thing to happen, and it might be worth adding that the lady in question was not your usual illiterate antisemite but someone who knew every European writer personally and signed every PEN letter protesting the imprisonment of writers no matter where in the world the imprisonment took place, and herself was no lightweight as an author of critical studies of Hungarian literature as well as a literary translator. To prevent our conversation from taking the familiar route, I said calmly, “I’m Jewish, not Russian. Not ethnically Russian, that is.”

“Ah,” she said. “Then you not guilty. Not guilty of Russia war.”

“Right, I’m not responsible for this war – and not only because I’m Jewish and not Russian. “

“So why you say you Russian? Say ‘I Jewish,’ then no one thinks you guilty of this war.”

“In America, I’m seen as a Russian,” I say. “Being Jewish is a nationality only in Russia and Eastern Europe. In the rest of the world, and certainly in the U.S., you’re seen as Jewish if you go to a synagogue at least a couple times a year, that is, if you identify as a Jew, at least a Jew culturally, because here” – we were leaving the U.S., so I felt that “here” needed a clarification – ”in the U.S.,” I added, “Judaism is a religion, not a nationality as it is in Russia or Eastern Europe.”

“NO!” she said, with more feeling than I thought was necessary. “No! Say you Jewish, not Russian, then no one thinks you guilty. You not guilty of this war!”

“Whatever,” I said. “Perhaps we shouldn’t have this conversation here, just so we can have a peaceful flight.”

“You do not understand me! I say ‘Jewish – good!’ Not bad!”

“Okay,” I said, “Okay, okay.”

But we were not finished, because when a short pause during which she sat with her eyes closed was over, she said: “Tell me! Why you fly to Praga [Prague] now?”

“I’m flying to Prague just because I can’t fly straight to Ukraine. No passenger planes are flying to Ukraine, as you know.”

“I know!”

“Good,” I said, hoping this would be enough to end our conversation on a peaceful note.

I was wrong again. She sat in silence for a minute, and then said: “But why you go to Ukraine?”

“I want to work with animals that have been traumatized by the war.”

“But if you live in America, you can’t work in Ukraine! You need special papers to work there! Work papers! It’s another country! To work in another country, you need work papers!”

“I am not going to work for money. I’m going as a volunteer. Volontyor,” I used the Russian form of the word, thinking it might sound like Polish. “I wouldn’t work for money in a country at war.”

“Ah, you go there to help! Not to work!”


“That’s good!” she said Good luck!”

“Thank you,” I replied.

“My mother was a teacher of Russian in Poland. She went to Moscow many times. She said beautiful city! I wanted to see it but now I will never see it. Because of this war. Moscow is beautiful, right?”

“In a way.”

“But Leningrad is more beautiful. I always wanted to see it. Only if Putin dies! But he is only 70! And he has good Jewish doctors to keep him alive! War will end when he dies.”

“I hope it won’t be that long. But you never know.”

“Never know! That’s right! He wants to make the Soviet Union like in the old days. You know Poland was like number sixteen republic? It had fifteen republics – and Poland was sixteen!”

“Yes, I know.”

“It was like a train – one car, another car, Ukraina, Latvia, Belorussia, Estonia, Lithuania, fifteen republics, fifteen cars – and Poland car number sixteen! And after Ukraina, he will want to take Poland – to get his train back!”

“But Poland is part of NATO, so he won’t dare.”

“NATO is his fear! He sees NATO even where it is not!”

“Yes,” I said, “it’s a crazy fear of his.”

She touched my armrest gently.

“Jewish and Russian – not the same! Say you’re Jewish next time! It’s better! And good luck to you in Ukraine!”

“Thank you,” I said again. Like a real American, I’ve learned to say “thank you” to avoid saying anything substantial.

“I sleep now.”

“Okay,” I said, careful not to add “thank you” one more time.

She leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. I tried to sleep, too, but nothing came of it, so I took out a piece of paper and a pencil and jotted down our conversation, while every word we had said was still fresh in my memory.

“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.