Posts Tagged ‘James Marcus’

Humble Moi … in Polish!

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Three books on my Warsaw tablecloth.

So look what arrived in the post today! Three thick books of Czesław Miłosz: Rozmowy zagraniczne, 1979-2003.  I’ll bet it means nothing to you.

miloszTurn to p. 435. That’s right. That’s me.  “Świętość istnienia.” My Q&A with Czesław Miłosz, “A Sacred Vision,” which ran in the Georgia Review in 2003, is finally in Polish.  Wydawnictwo Literackie in Kraków, the co-publisher of the Nobel poet’s work in Poland, has just released another volume within its Collected Works of Miłosz series. This time it’s a volume of interviews published outside Poland – that may sound like a narrow niche, but recall that  Miłosz wasn’t getting a lot of press in Poland between 1951, when he defected, and the 1980s.  For that matter, he didn’t get many interviews in the West before the Nobel in 1980. Clearly, he made up for lost time: the full edition of Miłosz’s conversations that Wydawnictwo Literackie is planning will run to several volumes. The endeavor is a prestigious one, my contact at Wydawnictwo Literackie said, but at the same time a non-profit effort. Go to the publisher’s website here; the list is pretty impressive.

I was pleased that the volume picked up thirteen interviews from my own Czesław Miłosz: Conversations. Some of those, such as James Marcus‘s excellent interview for Amazon, might have disappeared in the whirlpool of time without republication – it’s no longer online, and hasn’t been, to my knowledge, for years. I’m not sure Carl Proffer‘s 1983 interview, from the pre-internet days, is that easy to find, either. The Polish publisher expressed gratitude for my humble book, which helped them greatly in culling for the best interviews.  Delighted to have been of service.

“Świętość istnienia” is the very last interview in the volume.  The first shall be last, or the last shall be first…something like that. I was the last person to interview Miłosz on Grizzly Peak before he returned to Poland in 2000.  Maybe it’s simply that the last will be last. In any case, you can still get my volume, in the English tongue, here.

Job advice from Casanova … with a few diet tips, too.

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

CasanovaI had no idea that Giacomo Casanova was so interesting – he was, by turns (sometimes very quick turns), a wannabe priest, a military man,  a cardplayer, a diplomat, a gambler, a courtier, a musician, a spy, a con man, and a development officer in Paris.  Above all, he is remembered as a writer. His memoirs stretch over a dozen volumes.  Who’s up for that?

Thanks to James Marcus, you don’t have to be.  During a recent conversation over coffee in New York City, James slipped me his riveting new translation of The Duel, a 70-page autobiographical account from the Venetian’s memoirs about his imbroglio with Franciszek Ksawery Branicki, over a ballerina Casanova didn’t really care much about. Both were wounded, neither fatally.

duelIt’s the development work  that took Casanova on an intensive tour around Europe.  He was promoting a lottery system for government fundraising.  It had succeeded in Paris but… Frederick the Great wasn’t interested, and Catherine the Great turned him down flat.

He landed in Warsaw, among other places.  I thumbed through to see if he included any descriptions of the city, its squares and architecture.  But no, it’s all about people and gossip.  The 18th century was like that. Here’s some advice on his job search in Russia:


Don’t mess with him. He’s Polish.

Those who visit Russia out of simple curiosity should not aspire to make a fortune there. ‘What has he come here for?’ is the phrase endlessly pronounced and repeated. The only way to assure a job and a a fat salary is to present oneself beforehand to the Russian ambassadors at various European courts. If these worthies are persuaded of a person’s merits, they will speak up on his behalf to the Empress, who will send for the individual and pay for his journey. At this point the supplicant is assured of a fortune, since nobody wants to throw away the travel expenses on a person of meager talents: this would suggest that the minister who spoke up on his behalf had been hoodwinked, and this is not acceptable, since ministers are supposed to be shrewd judges of their fellow men. The worst possible job candidate is a decent man who has traveled to Russia at his own expense.

There’s an awful lot about eating – including an account at Fontainebleau, “among the circle that dines with the Queen of France – or to put it more accurately, watches the Queen of France eat.” He also offers a few diet tips, just before the famous duel:

…people who eat and drink to excess end up with both mind and body in a drugged and drowsy state. What comes next is the lethargy known as sleep – the inevitable outcome of excessive, crude, and badly prepared food. (French cuisine, which enjoys universal praise, generates neither untimely sleep nor indigestion nor regrets, at least in those who moderate their consumption.) There is no man and no woman who is not more attractive, more eloquent, more animated, more courteous, more judicious, and more self-possessed after a fine meal.  Such a person will experience a wealth of splendid thoughts and singular inspirations, bringing real pleasure to miserable humanity, which, if left to its own devices, is a bottomless font of wretchedness, boredom, and frantic discord.

Given that a healthy body is derived from good food, there can be no doubt that a tranquil spirit comes from the same source, since it is a product of nothing but physical sensations. Pity the gluttons, then. Very few of them know how to eat well.


Martin Amis: satire as “militant irony”

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

Getting ink (Photo courtesy Knopf)

Alfred Knopf tweeted this a few days ago, from Martin Amis, who novel Lionel Asbo has been getting a lot of ink of late:

“One definition of satire is that it’s militant irony: It’s irony brought to the pitch where you are actually hoping to bring about change. Irony brushes by a question and leaves you with a thought of it. Satire is meant to be much more vigorous and vehement – the suggestion being that you’re actually wanting to change reality. I don’t attempt to change reality. I would just say that satire is very exaggerated irony and that’s what I deal in.”

I googled, and found that he’d expressed a similar thought, in different ways on different occasions.  I like this one, from a Goodreads interview, which sounds a little less certain:

GR: Goodreads Author Steven Bauer asks, “What do you believe the place of satire is in a society and culture that always seems on the edge of satirizing itself?”

MA: I’ve never been sure what satire is. One of the definitions is that satire is militant irony, which sounds good. The suggestion, though, is that it’s militant and therefore sets the task of bringing about change. I don’t think that satire has actually ever done that. Satire attacks social ill and does it once the injustice has been cleared up, not while the injustice is going on, like imprisonment for debt in Dickens, for instance. I just don’t think that novels have that power. I think novelists are in the education business, really, but they’re not teaching you times tables, they are teaching you responsiveness and morality and to make nuanced judgments. And really to just make the planet look a bit richer when you go out into the street.

"Better than you"

Susan Sontag, I think, expressed the last idea better, from the point of a reader.  In her interview with James Marcus here she said:

“Reading should be an education of the heart … Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too. … But I really do think it’s necessary if you want to have a full life. It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”

Sven Birkerts: serious writing as a “rear-guard mission”

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

"Concentration is no longer a given"

Ted Gioia alerted us to this interview with Sven Birkerts in The Morning News, and it’s too good to miss.

My acquaintance with Sven is born of our common ancestry: We are both former students of Joseph Brodsky, which seems to be an enduring bond with a number of his former students the world over (James Marcus is another one, so is Gwyneth Lewis).

Sven was one of the contributors to Joseph Brodsky: Conversations a decade ago – back in the days before he even had his own email account. According to this interview, there’s been progress: “I started writing on a computer maybe 10 years ago. It was not a direct move—I would still do everything longhand, but then instead of typing I would put it in a computer. Now I actually write on a computer.”

Now he’s a changed man. When interviewer Robert Birnbaum asks him about his future writing, if he planning to do something “wild,” he responds that he wants to write something that “makes sense of this utterly transformed world that we are moving around in. That gives it a kind of identifiable voice.”

He wears three hats: editor of AGNI, head of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and author. He says that “in each of those three areas I am feeling seriously embattled. With the journal, for example, I feel we are fighting an action in the face of diminished attention, and that wasn’t the feel of it when there was more action on that front. With the teaching I really feel like, ‘Boy we have to keep this enterprise alive,’ to keep communicating a buzz around serious writing. Who knows what’s going to happen? So it becomes a rear-guard mission there, too. And with my own writing: definitely.”

I’ve often been criticized (usually by those who live with me) for the size of my library.  Sven managed to formulate the explanation I could never quite manage:

RB: [Umberto] Eco reportedly has a library of 50,000 volumes. I asked him if they are catalogued—which they are not. Nonetheless, he knows where they all are. I asked if he read all of them. He hadn’t but said he had gotten something from all of them.

SB: Yeah, I would sign off on that. I have an unorganized library, but it’s much smaller. Same thing. I find that with me it’s not whether I have read something as much as it has survived my repeated attempts to get rid of it.

RB: (laughs)

SB: And if it has… Things that survive hold such a charge of your own sense of promise about yourself—which is valuable. Or it’s that they hold information that you know according to some obscure scheme is going to become important to you. I think the books that go unread are so important. If I got up and looked at my library and everything was a book I’d read, to me that would be like reading tombstones. I love the agitation, left and right—“Oh yeah, oh yeah.”

RB: I got rid of my vinyl albums. I should do that with books—what an albatross.

SB: Oh yeah. You need your ruins around you.

RB: That would require an enlarged sense of history.

SB: Right, and you have a visibly presented record both of your hopes and your failures. (laughs) It’s all there, kind of mapping you.

Sven is concerned about the role of the book review today, and the disappearance of book review sections … well, aren’t we all? Birnbaum doesn’t appear to “get it” – it’s not so much about the “middlebrow” reader, as it is about supporting a general culture where every educated person participates in literature, if only as a reader. As I’ve often said, as a writer for the Washington Post Book World or the erstwhile Los Angeles Times Book Review, my ideal reader was someone thumbing their way to the stock market page, becoming intrigued by my review, and buying a volume of poetry or essays. Maybe even forgetting the Dow Jones altogether.

RB: It’s not a contradiction but there is a kind of conflict that faces people who create—much of your world is not real. The real world is when you go to the grocery store or gas station. And then you deal with people who are attuned to scrambling to pay their bills and not the wonders of the creative enterprise. And I feel artists and writers have given up on those people, and there is something self-fulfilling about that attitude. Why did newspapers cut their book sections?

SB: It was largely economics.

RB: To cut features that a loyal core of the circulation read? Why would I go to the newspaper if they didn’t write about what I care about?

SB: That’s true, too.  …

RB: Anyway, what is the reviewing engine about today? I joined the NBCC just to see what critics in the aggregate think their mission is.

SB: My sense is what has fallen out in a big way is the great middle that used to be occupied by the dozens and dozens of critics and reviewers you could have named some years ago. They were writing for a host of papers that paid a certain kind of attention to books. And those are the places that have disappeared or are shrinking. … And now, because of this shrinkage, the reviews editors of those places are desperately playing catch up, saying “We have to do something with this because it’s such a highly-touted book.” What doesn’t get attention is the spectrum—not even the B-list, all those quirky books that are not even going to sell 5,000 copies.

RB: Doesn’t it strike you that as a consequence the [book] awards are looking at books from tiny publishers …

SB: Sure. This situation is probably giving them extra permission to look harder there. They are picking books that in a different order of things should have gotten enough attention so that they wouldn’t seem strange when they were put forward. But because of this great void in the middle no one’s ever heard of them, or they’ve been reviewed once or twice.

His mission, as he sees it:

SB: Sure. The question is whether we live in a culture and psychological climate that is made up of people who feel there is a reason to play the game or else made up of a lot of people who have given up. I’d prefer the former.

RB: Conscious people are more affected than unconscious people.

SB: Absolutely.

If this post looks long, the whole tamale weighs in at over 7,200 words. You can read it here.

I only had one middling disagreement with him, when he defends the writer’s craft and the life-of-the-mind thusly: “People don’t think that sitting utterly inert in front of a screen is as hard as laying bricks. They think, ‘Well he’s doing nothing. But that guy over there is sweating.’”

Some coal-miner working 12-hour days underground would love to exchange his lot for “sweating” in front of a computer screen. We should never forget it.

By the by, the interview alludes to being “part 3” of an interview – but I didn’t find parts 1 and 2 online.  But I did find this from Sven, and it’s absolutely priceless in the era of the tweet:  “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won. To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one’s essential position.”

Postscript on 1/8:  Another part of Birnbaum’s interview has been found:  Dave Lull sent us this Part 1, from way back in 2003, here.  Thanks, Dave!


Columbia University honors Czesław Miłosz — and launches An Invisible Rope

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Last night Columbia University honored Czesław Miłosz — and launched An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz — with a panel discussion.  Left to right:  poet Anna Frajlich; scholar and translator Bogdana Carpenter; James Marcus, deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine; Alan Timberlake, chair of Slavic Languages at Columbia; humble moi; and scholar Elisabeth Kridl Valkenier.  The photo is courtesy Zygmunt Malinowski, whose photograph of Miłosz graces the cover of An Invisible Rope.

The evening held some surprises — I’ll write more in a few hours.  After nine days in chilly, rainy, New York, I’ve just arrived back in beautiful California, where the temperature is warm, the sun is out, and the flowers are everywhere.  Hard to believe Miłosz sometimes considered it the landscape of the damned — or, as Clare Cavanagh said, “the landscape of the damned — with good weather.”

Meet you in Manhattan!

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

I’m off!  Or at least I will be in a few hours.

I’m on my way to a week of gigs honoring the Czesław Miłosz centenary in New York City — with a side order for Zbigniew Herbert.  I posted about them a while back here.

Come up and say hello if you see me — otherwise, prepare for a few logistical delays, but I expect to be posting about Clare Cavanagh, Robert Hass, Edward Hirsch, Adam Zagajewski, Anna Frajlich, Bogdana Carpenter, James Marcus, and many others in the coming days.

See you there!