Posts Tagged ‘Robert Conquest’

Martin Amis on the failure of the intellectuals: “The truth about Russia dawned in cloud and mist.”

Monday, July 6th, 2020
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Martin Amis calls it like it is.

Martin Amis goes on a rant about Lenin and the Soviet Union in the New York Times. As rants go, it’s top drawer. Enjoy for the verbal fireworks.

He begins: “It was a very bad idea from the outset, and one forced into life — or the life of the undead — with barely imaginable self-righteousness, pedantry, dynamism, and horror. The chief demerit of the Marxist program was its point-by-point defiance of human nature. Bolshevik leaders subliminally grasped the contradiction almost at once; and their rankly Procrustean answer was to leave the program untouched and change human nature. In practical terms this is what “totalitarianism” really means: On their citizens such regimes make ‘a total claim.'”

He continues:

As one historian of Russia put it, it is to the intellectuals that we turn for “real prowess of wrong-headedness.” But it wasn’t just the pundits, the writers (H. G. Wells, G. B. Shaw) and the philosophers (J.P. Sartre, A. J. Ayer) who swallowed the Moscow line; so did historians, sociologists, politicians, and even businessmen. To its supporters the allure of the Communist Party was twofold. The secondary appeal was that it gave you the (not quite delusive) impression that you were playing your part in world events; the primary appeal was that the program looked wonderful on paper, and spoke to the optimism and idealism of many of the most generous hearts and minds.

Two of a kind. Read about Lenin’s brain here.

It was vaguely understood that there had been some loss of life: the terror and famine under Lenin, the Civil War, forced collectivization (“Ten millions,” Stalin said to Churchill, holding up both palms, in the Kremlin in 1942), the burgeoning system of state slavery known as the gulag (created under Lenin), the Great Purge of 1937-38.All that could be set aside, for now, because (a) revolutions are always violent, and (b) the ends supposedly justify the means.

As for the first point, the French revolutionary terror lasted from June 1793 to July 1794, and claimed more than 16,000 victims, no more than a busy couple of weeks for the Bolsheviks (and imagine if Robespierre had kept at it until 1830). As for the second point, well, there is a counterproposition: Means shape ends, and tend to poison them. We all know, now, what we think of the Good Intentions Paving Company. Anyway, the means were all the Soviet citizen was ever going to get. Western doublethink and selective blindness on this question is a very rich field; the wisest and most stylish guide to it is Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000), by Robert Conquest, to whom we will necessarily return.

Nabokov was the first one to see it with an “illusionless eye,”  the critic Edmund Wilson, his longtime correspondent, indulged the Bolsheviks. Amis does not indulge Wilson:

Conquest working at his Stanford home. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

By 1972 Wilson might have found time to read the three outstanding memoirs of the period: I Chose Freedom, by Viktor Kravchenko (1946), Journey Into the Whirlwind, by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967), and Hope Against Hope, by Nadezhda Mandelstam (1970).

Kravchenko was an apparat high-up who defected immediately after the war; Ginzburg was a provincial don and journalist who was found guilty of Trotskyism; and Mandelstam was the wife, and then the widow, of the great poet Osip (1891-1938). Cumulatively, these books persuade you of a disconcerting truth: Compared with Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany was a terrestrial paradise — except for Communists and Jews (and, later, Gypsies and homosexuals).

Kravchenko, Ginzburg and Mandelstam show us a society from which the concept of trust had been completely excised — a society where the conversational meaning of the question “Do they write?” was “Do they write letters of denunciation to the secret police?” You couldn’t trust your parents; you couldn’t trust your children. In addition, everyone was terrified all the time, right up to and including Stalin, who feared assassination at every waking minute. When he flew to Tehran for the first Big Three summit, his plane was escorted by 27 fighters; when he entrained for Potsdam (the third and final summit), his bodyguards numbered 18,500. By contrast, ordinary Germans knew no panic until 1943, as the reckoning loomed, and as the cities were being bombed nightly, then daily, then daily as well as nightly.

Solzhenitsyn in a long tradition.

The truth about Russia dawned in cloud and mist. The first consciousness-shifting book was Conquest’s The Great Terror (1968). Very soon the samizdat version was circulating in Russia; and freshly enlightened parents would wonder if their growing teenagers were “ready for Conquest” and the attendant shock. Conquest had time to add The Nation Killers and Lenin, but not long enough to add Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (1976) — before the translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was complete in its three volumes (1973-75). This was and is a visionary nonfiction epic written by an artist in the Russian Orthodox, old-regime tradition of Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Hereafter the great argument (like the original Marxist idea) had only a vampiric existence — technically dead, but still animate.

Read the whole thing here.

Love and equilibrium: Robert Conquest’s new “Collected” is out, and Dick Davis writes about it.

Saturday, May 16th, 2020
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Conquest at work in his Stanford home  (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

On a recent visit with Elizabeth Conquest (outdoors, six feet apart – pandemic style) she told me that her late husband, the eminent historian and poet Robert Conquest, admired the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius – so much so that he carried a slim volume of  Meditations in his knapsack when he went off to war. I was glad to hear it; I had recently written about the Stoic thinker in the Book Haven here, and she had read it and appreciated it. Certainly Bob Conquest had some of the emperor’s superb psychological balance and equanimity.

That’s something Marcus Aurelius had in common with the “Movement” poets of Britain in the 1950s – a group Conquest had founded and championed. The group included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and others. As the poet Dick Davis writes in “Robert Conquest’s Open Eyes” in The New Criterion:

The Movement poets’ preference for an even tone, meticulous description, and a consciousness that is suspicious of its own emotional excesses whether positive or negative meant that a particularly venerable, and until then surely central, kind of poetry became something of no-go area for them. Most of the Movement poets wrote remarkably few love poems, and when love does appear in their poetry it is usually shadowed by irony. There are certainly poems about lust, flippantly cynical, as in Amis’s “Sight Unseen,” or brutally disillusioned as in Larkin’s “Deceptions,” but the revelation of a particular person as life’s be-all and end-all, the coup de foudre that makes the poet literally or at least metaphorically want to fall to his knees … not so much.

Marcus Aurelius’s  Meditations didn’t discuss love, either. And that’s where Bob Conquest parts company with his colleagues and the emperor.

The occasion of Davis’s article, as well as the meeting with Liddie, is the – at last! finally! – publication of Conquest’s Collected Poems with Waywiser Press in London. It’s a beautiful, finely wrought 439-page volume, under the careful editorship of Elizabeth (a.k.a. Liddie) Conquest herself, for she is a gifted scholar in her own right, as well as the poet’s wife.

Conquest is best known for his groundbreaking work as a historian and author of The Great Terror, revealing the extent of Stalin‘s atrocities before the world wanted to know about it. We’ve written about that here. He is also known for his light verse, which the New Criterion article discusses as well. But relatively few have considered him as a poet of weightier verse. I did so in the Times Literary Supplementand so has Dick Davis, a noted translator of Persian poetry. Few poets are more qualified to discuss Bob Conquest’s amorous poems – Dick has written some exquisite love poems himself.

Translator, poet Davis: a pretty good love poet himself

He writes: “The brutality of ‘fighting ideologies’ was the subject that much of his better known historical writing was to be concerned with, and it is also almost present as the context, whether alluded to or left unspoken, of his most personal lyrical verse, whose energy so often seems to be focused on the attempt to find or construct some kind of private haven of escape from, exactly, ‘the fighting ideologies.'”

Davis notes that Conquest “could write short, flip, catty poems about lust” with the best of them, but…

[T]here is a much more benign and fructifying erotic presence in many of his more substantial poems, a sense that erotic feeling is less a trap for the unwary than a welcome source of joy and mutual pleasure, one not to be questioned, at least in the moment that it is experienced.

At a lower level of intensity, it is notable, for example, how many of his early descriptions of foreign landscapes tend to have a young woman in them. There is almost a formula to such poems: a landscape is observed at a moment of tranquility in which the disasters of the public world (war and its desolate consequences, what he calls “the world of politics and rifles,” perhaps echoing E. M. Forster’s “outer life of telegrams and anger”) seem for a moment in abeyance, and this momentary sense of benign peace is concentrated on “a girl” who is with him, or glimpsed in the distance, or even merely imagined. Eros is present, as an undertow, a possibility, but certainly as a benign presence, an intimation of transformative consolation, if not quite of her overwhelming supervening of everything else. It is only one element in a complex scene, but it is the element around which hope and the possibilities of redemption from “the world of politics and rifles” are concentrated. For example, in a poem on being in Copenhagen with a lover, he writes that her presence with him

Liddie Conquest: a gifted scholar, too.

.                    gives the landscape form,
And is the immanence of every art …
A philosophy deriving from the calm
As you move into the center of my heart.

Below, his poem for his second wife  … and after that, a poem that is not about love, but is a  personal favorite (indulge me) about his friend George Orwell. And finally, a poem that will demonstrate why he is known for his light verse – his witty take on Mikhail Gorbachev.

A GIRL IN THE SNOW

for Tatiana Mihailova

Autumn’s attrition. Then this world laid waste
Under a low white sky, diffusing glare
On blurs of snow as motionless and bare
As the dead epoch where our luck is placed.

Till from the imprecise close distance flies,
Winged on your skis and stillness-breaking nerve
Colour, towards me down this vital curve,
Blue suit, bronze hair and honey-coloured eyes.

Under this hollow cloud, a sky of rime,
The eyes’ one focus in an empty mirror
You come towards my arms until I hold

Close to my heart, beyond all fear and error,
A clear-cut warmth in this vague waste of cold:
A road of meaning through the shapeless time.

GEORGE ORWELL

Moral and mental glaciers melting slightly
Betray the influence of his warm intent.
Because he taught us what the actual meant
The vicious winter grips its prey less tightly.

Not all were grateful for his help, one finds,
For how they hated him, who huddled with
The comfort of a quick remedial myth
Against the cold world and their colder minds.

We die of words. For touchstones he restored
The real person, real event or thing;
–And thus we see not war but suffering
As the conjunction to be most abhorred.

He shared with a great world, for greater ends,
That honesty, a curious, cunning virtue,
You share with just the few who don’t desert you,
A dozen writers, half-a dozen friends.

A moral genius. And truth-seeking brings
Sometimes a silliness we view askance,
Like Darwin playing his bassoon to plants;
He too had lapses, but he claimed no wings.

While those who drown a truth’s empiric part
In dithyramb or dogma turn frenetic;
–Than whom no writer could be less poetic
He left this lesson for all verse, all art.

 

 

Dana Gioia’s archives go to Huntington, Stanford – including “tens of thousands” of letters!

Monday, April 20th, 2020
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Dana Gioia’s books, manuscripts, libretti are now at the Huntington Library.

Dana Gioia is a man of letters in the time-honored sense of the term, influencing our culture as a poet and essayist, but also as a translator, editor, anthologist, librettist, teacher, literary critic, and advocate for the arts. His correspondence was extensive, and it went on for decades. Hence, his archive is a treasure trove, and though he has had offers from other institutions to acquire it, he wanted his papers to stay in California. Now it will. He has donated his substantial archive to the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, which announced today it had acquired the papers of the poet and writer who served as the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003–09 and as the California Poet Laureate from 2015–19.

Dana Gioia in L.A. with friend, Doctor Gatsby (Photo: Starr Black)

It is the second large donation he has made in the last year. Last August, he gave to Stanford the large archive of Story Line Press, which he co-founded. The papers are the central archive for the New Formalism movement. The archive includes a number of people who have spent time at Stanford, including Donald Justice, Donald Hall, Christian Wiman, Paul Lake, Annie Finch, and of course Dana himself, among others. Stanford Libraries already holds the archive for The Reaper, so this is a natural pairing with that irreverent journal.

The larger Huntington archive includes correspondence with many of the major poets and writers for the last several decades, including Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Ray Bradbury, Rachel Hadas, Jane Hirshfield, William Maxwell, Thom Gunn, Edgar BowersKay Ryan, Robert Conquest, Julia Alvarez, Thomas Disch, Cynthia Ozick,  Donald Davie, Anthony Burgess, John Cheever, J.V. Cunningham, and even some musicians, such as Dave Brubeck. It also includes his own books, manuscripts, and libretti. “Even after I pruned my correspondence, there is a lot of letters – in the tens of thousands,” said Dana.

“When I told my brother Ted that I had made the donation, he commented that I wanted my papers to be at the Huntington because our mother took us there as children. ‘You’re probably right,’ I said. I  still remember seeing the elegant manuscript of Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’ there nearly sixty years ago. It was my first glimpse into that enchanted kingdom by the sea called poetry.”

The Huntington picked up 71 archival boxes last December – the first part of his donation. Then Dana Gioia had a more urgent task: the next day he flew back to northern California home, which sustained fire damage during last year’s Kincade wildfire.

From the Huntington release:

The archive documents Gioia’s work as a poet through fastidiously maintained drafts of poems and essays from his books, which include five books of poetry and three books of critical essays. He is one of the most prominent writers of the “New Formalist” school of poetry, a movement that promoted the return of meter and rhyme, although his arts advocacy work situates him in a broader frame.

The archive en dishabillé, as Mary Gioia helps organize.

“In his correspondence, you see a writer who has been willing to engage the young and old, the esteemed and emergent—anyone who wants to critically discuss poetic form, contemporary audiences for poetry, and the importance of literary reading during decades when popular culture has become increasingly visual and attention spans have fractured,” said Karla Nielsen, curator of literary collections at The Huntington. “We are delighted that Dana has entrusted his papers to The Huntington, where his collection fits perfectly. He is a local author—he grew up in a Mexican/Sicilian American household in Hawthorne—and even as he attained international recognition as a poet and assumed the chairmanship of the NEA, he remained loyal to the region and invested in Los Angeles’ unique literary communities.”

“I’m delighted to have my papers preserved in my hometown of Los Angeles, especially at The Huntington, a place I have loved since the dreamy days of my childhood,” said Gioia.

While the range of correspondents in the collection is broad and eclectic, the sustained letter writing with poets Donald Justice, David Mason, and Ted Kooser is particularly significant.

Gioia’s work co-editing a popular poetry anthology textbook with the poet X. J. Kennedy from the 1990s to the present will interest scholars working on canon formation during those decades when the “culture wars” were a politically charged issue.

A portion of the materials represent Gioia’s work as an advocate for poetry and the arts at the NEA and as the California Poet Laureate. This work is integral to his career and will be important to scholars interested in the place of poetry and the role of reading for pleasure within greater debates about literacy and literary reading at the beginning of the 20th century. … At The Huntington, Gioia’s archive joins that of another businessman poet, Wallace Stevens; that of a very different but also quintessentially Los Angeles poet, Charles Bukowski; and those of two other New Formalist poets, Henri Coulette and Robert Mezey.

Tens of thousands of letters and much more – now at the library his mother Dorothy Ortiz took Ted and Dana Gioia to visit as children. Dana remembers the Poe manuscript of “Annabel Lee.”

Oscar endorsement for Women of the Gulag: “To go through such suffering without going mad is a spiritual feat.”

Monday, January 14th, 2019
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She made a movie on the “slaves of the slaves.”

Russian American filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya sent me a short note after she read the earlier Book Haven post on her new film Women of the Gulag, based on the research and book by Paul Gregory. The film is now up for an Oscar next month in the “short documentary” category. 

Her email included an endorsement from Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet dissident who spent a dozen years in the psychiatric hospitals, prisons and labor camps of the USSR. In December 1976 he was deported from the USSR and exchanged at Zürich airport by the Soviet government for the imprisoned general secretary of the Communist Party of Chile, Luis Corvalán. Bukovsky now lives in the UK.

So he knows what he’s talking about. Here’s what he had to say about Women of the Gulag – consider it an endorsement from the depths of hell:

The film Women of the Gulag is an important document of the era.

The U.S.S.R. was a huge zone of human suffering.

Inside that zone there was also a hell that contained its powerless slaves—the GULAG.

But within that hell, there was an even more terrible hell.

Varlam Shalamov, the great writer who lived through the GULAG hell, said the women in the camps were slaves of the slaves.

Gulag survivor Shalamov, author of “Kolyma Stories”

Their experience was so horrific that eyewitnesses were afraid to describe it in detail.

I could not understand how you can make a film about “what a person should not know, should not see, and if he has, he is better off dead,” as Shalamov wrote.

Marianna Yarovskaya has managed to do it. Her heroines, who survived the GULAG, say almost nothing about their suffering. But I could hear their desperate screams during their silences.

To go through such suffering without going mad is a spiritual feat.

To make such a film is a moral feat.

I would compare the appearance of Women of the Gulag with the appearance of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

The Gulag Archipelago was awarded the Nobel Prize. [Editor’s note: Solzhenitsyn was awarded, rather than his masterpiece.]

I am glad that there is the opportunity to award an Oscar to Women of the Gulag.

Freedom at last: Bukovsky at the 1987 Sakharov Conference, the Netherlands: (l. to r.) Prime Minister Lubbers, Vladimir Bukovsky, Prof. Jan Willem Bezemer, Stanford historian Robert Conquest (Photo: Creative Commons)

Philip Larkin declared, “He is a genius”: the unpublished poems of Robert Conquest

Friday, November 2nd, 2018
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Conquest at work at his Stanford home (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

To say someone is “irreplaceable” is clichéd and self-evident. But there’s really no one quite like the late Robert Conquest – famous as the courageous and groundbreaking historian who exposed the horrors of Stalinism, and also as the poet who launched the influential “Movement” poets in England during the 1950s (a circle that included Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, Elizabeth Jennings, and others). He ran  a powerful sideline in light verse and limericks that tended to eclipse his elegant, serious lyrics.

Liddie Conquest extends the legacy.

The current issue of Britain’s Standpoint features some of his unpublished poems, with an excellent article by Elizabeth Conquest, his widow and executor – and a scholar in her own right. Thanks to her labors, The Collected Poems of Robert Conquest will be published by Waywiser Press on October 15, 2019. The 50th-anniversary edition of The Great Terror has just been published by Bodley Head. (Book Haven readers will remember that Standpoint also published his last great poem, “Getting On.”)

“Liddie” Conquest reflects on her husband’s long, productive life until his death in 2015, at age 98:

“Why do some creative people continue to write, while others retire from the field? Part of the reason is simply that people age at different rates. Kingsley Amis, complaining to Philip Larkin that he was getting ugly, old, and fat, wrote: ‘What was that quote about free from care? Certainly applies to ole Bob. He just goes on and on, as if nothing has happened.’ And so he did, possessing characteristics of successful people noted by Diane Coutu in her Harvard Business Review article ‘How Resilience Works’: a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly-held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise.” …

Receiving Poland’s Order of Merit in 2009 (with Radosław Sikorski)

“Seven years later, the week before he died Bob was hard at work editing final chapters of Two Muses — his memoirs — and also writing a poem. At the same time, with the aim of publishing a final collection of his verse, he’d been going through his earlier collections correcting misprints, and in some cases making minor alterations. After his death, as his literary executor I was tasked with sorting through his papers (a vast undertaking with an inventory running more than 120 pages); editing a comprehensive volume of Bob’s poetry; pulling together the last chapters of his memoirs from the bits he’d written (but not put in final order); and editing a selection of his letters. ”

Bob took his light verse seriously, though some lament that his reputation for light verse tended to push aside his “serious” work:

“[Critic Clive James] himself has often expressed regret that there were not more of the ‘fastidiously chiselled poems which proved his point that cool reason was not necessarily lyricism’s enemy’. I share that view, but remember the opening remarks of Bob’s 1997 address to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, when he said that of all the various awards for histories and serious verse he’d received over the years, he was ‘particularly touched and delighted to receive the Michael Braude Award for Light Verse — which honours those who are often thought of as skirmishers and sharpshooters rather than solid citizens of the world of arts and letters’.”

Read the whole article here.

Biographers! Bah! Robert Conquest and W.H. Auden on “shilling lives”

Thursday, May 24th, 2018
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Daunting

Elizabeth Conquest, a.k.a. “Liddie”, was surprised to hear that somewhere in my garage I had squirreled away W.H. Auden’s course syllabus – a copy, of course, from the Rackham archives of the University of Michigan. But then all the extant copies of the syllabus are copies of some kind. Probably mimeograph, in that era. Somewhere I have a xerox of that mimeo copy, or perhaps a xerox of the original typescript that Auden submitted when he was the resident poet at the university in 1941-42. It’s daunting, to say the least. Check it out here.

Liddie is the widow of the groundbreaking historian of the Stalinist era, Robert Conquest. He was also an important English postwar poet, and an influential figure of the “Movement” poets. She is the editor of The Complete Poems of Robert Conquest, to be published in Spring 2019 by Waywiser Press and is currently editing The Selected Letters of Robert Conquest. She is also editing Two Muses, her husband’s memoirs.

“Cracking the Books with Wystan” stirred her memories. Wrote Liddie: “Bob was, as a budding poet, much influenced by Auden—his earliest poetry notebook (1934-35) has many Auden quotations scribbled all over the inside covers, and bits here and there elsewhere.”

Liddie remembers

She sent me a paragraph from Bob’s unpublished memoir, Two Muses. In it, he reflects on the introduction of the 1956 New Lines anthology that launched the Movement poets:

In the preface I stressed the formal side because, after all, it was really Auden who brought back the formality that had been destroyed by Pound and others.  (A lot of the best of Auden’s poetry has a sort of hard surface which rejects the reader—and the later stuff about Nones and Lakes and such is unreadable—but there is a certain amount of energetic unpretentious stuff, and also some other odds and ends of lyrics etc., which come off pretty well.)  I think his original impact was from his a) self confidence, b) “new” preaching of not too homiletic a nature, c) not being unreadably modernist, yet able to claim the advantages of the latest thing.  Also the other purveyors were either worse (Spender) or less in the then groove (MacNeice).  I didn’t take to Auden at first reading (when I was c. 14), finding it cold, but gradually fell for the vigour and skill—not the lowest poetical virtues—and also, I suppose, the (then) mythopoeic effect—as in part of The Orators.

(Well, this reader rather likes “Nones” and in fact all of Auden’s “Horae Canonicae.” But as my brother always said, that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.)

Bob Conquest at his desk (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Liddie added, “Bob thought Charles Osborne’s biography was disgraceful, and shortly after it was published in 1979, wrote this sonnet, which appeared first in (I think) the TLS.

“One thing that impressed me about Bob is how everything he ever read remained lodged in that big head of his, to be effortlessly produced when needed.  I wonder how many readers of ‘Second Death’ ever notice the aptness of echoing Auden’s sonnet on biography in this criticism of Osborne, and in the same verse form.”

That is, Auden’s poem “Who’s Who” uses the same sonnet form established by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey: iambic pentameter with abab cdcd efef gg.

Here’s Bob Conquest’s reaction to Auden’s biographer:

.

                    Second Death

A ten-pound Life will give you every fact
– Facts that he’d hoped his friends would not rehearse
To an intent posterity which lacked
Nothing of moment, since it had his verse.

Or so he thought. But now we come to read
What his more honest prudence had held in:
Tasteless compulsion into trivial deed,
A squalor more outrageous than the sin,

Piss on that grave where lies the weakly carnal? . . .
– Hopeless repentance had washed clean his name,
His virtue’s strength insistent on a shame

Past all the brief bravados full and final.
Without excuses now, to the Eternal,
He makes the small, true offering of his fame.

Haven’t read the original? Here’s Auden’s sonnet “Who’s Who”:

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day …

(I have Liddie’s permission to reprint “Second Death,” but I don’t have the permission of the Auden Estate for “Who’s Who,” so the rest is here.)

TONIGHT: Philip Larkin’s early novel “A Girl in Winter” at Stanford!

Sunday, April 29th, 2018
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Portrait of the poet as a young man… Philip Larkin

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Robert Harrison

Philip Larkin is one of England’s most eminent postwar poets, but few know of his early forays into fiction. All that changes tonight, Monday, April 30, when Another Look considers Larkin’s little-known 1947 novel that takes place in wartime England, where a young refugee from the Continent attempts to recover her life while working in a provincial library. Meanwhile, she recalls an idyllic summer with an English family before the war. Please join us! The event is free and open to the public. Come early for best seats.

 

Tobias Wolff

When, where, who …

The Larkin event will take place at the Bechtel Conference Center at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 30. Panelists will include Another Look Director Robert Harrison, who will will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor and author also hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by renowned author Tobias Wolffthe founding director of Another Look, and literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest. “Liddie” Conquest knew Philip Larkin—a close friend of her late husband, historian and poet Robert Conquest and has written about Larkin’s poetry.

Liddie Conquest

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Elizabeth Conquest in the Wall Street Journal

As we wrote in the Book Haven last week, “Liddie” Conquest was featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal. The article is available to subscribers here. The article is excerpted on The Book Haven here
 
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Directions
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The Bechtel Conference Center hosts all of Another Look’s events – a map is here. The nearby Knight parking structure, underneath the nearby Graduate School of Business, has plenty of room for free parking (see here for a map). In addition, parking is available on Serra Street and in front of Encina Hall itself.
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In keeping with the Another Look mandate, this book has been pretty much forgotten in 20th century literary history. Help us jump-start a public conversation of this overlooked work. 
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“Notoriously tricky territory”: Elizabeth Conquest on the literary legacy of Robert Conquest, a long marriage, and lots of letters

Sunday, April 22nd, 2018
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A marriage that was a “long conversation” … and plenty of papers, too. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

We’ve written about historian and poet Robert Conquest before – most notably for the Times Literary Supplement here, but also here and here and here, among other places. About his widow Elizabeth Conquest – a.k.a. “Liddie” Conquest – we’ve said comparatively little. That’s about to change. She will be one of the panelists at the Another Look book club on Monday, April 30, discussing Philip Larkin‘s early novel A Girl in WinterBut you might also turn to the pages of the Tunku Varadarajan‘s article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, titled:  “The widow of historian and poet Robert Conquest talks about his legacy – which includes three books still forthcoming”.

Liddie Conquest in London.

Robert Conquest was the first historian to chronicle Stalin’s murderous havoc. His book “The Great Terror,” published in 1968, was among the 20th century’s most influential works of investigative history. Yet Conquest was also a seriously accomplished poet and a prolific letter-writer. His correspondence includes letters to Amis and Larkin (880 pages to the latter alone), as well as to the novelist Anthony Powell and poets including D.J. Enright, Thom Gunn, Vernon Scannell, Wendy Cope and others …

Banker boxes full of papers cover practically every flat surface in the Conquest household. Sideboards, tables, floors and shelves—all heave with typed and scribbled sheaves. Not only is Mrs. Conquest readying “The Great Terror” for its 50th anniversary edition this fall, she’s editing his complete poems—more than 400, some never published—for publication next spring. She’s also editing his memoirs—he died with one chapter unwritten—as well as a fat volume of his correspondence.

“There are thousands of pages of letters that he wrote,” Mrs. Conquest says. “Bob warmed up before a day’s work by writing letters. He would sit at his typewriter and he’d fire off.” Toward the end of his life, he would dictate email messages to Mrs. Conquest, who sent them from their shared account. “He was never really fond of trying to figure out the computer.”

The lot of a literary widow, Mrs. Conquest says, “is not a happy one, for she must master the management of her husband’s literary estate.” But she doesn’t sound grumpy when explaining that she has a veto over the use of his writings, including the power to say yea or nay to any requests to reprint them. This is all “notoriously tricky territory,” Mrs. Conquest concedes, and such widows have “long been caricatured in writerly circles as pantomime villains”—the younger wife who “single-mindedly devotes her remaining decades after her celebrated husband’s death to championing his artistic legacy and slaying those who dare to question it.”

One of the many comments the combox: “Mrs. Conquest seems to be an absolutely wonderful woman.” We couldn’t agree more. Read the whole thing here.

More papers: Conquest at work. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Was Robert Conquest’s poetry linked with his politics?

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A trio of essays about historian and poet Robert Conquest is now online at the Hopkins Review. Humble Moi is among them. But so is Richard Davis, a British poet (now transplanted to Ohio State University), who is perhaps the best translator from the Persian ever. (We’ve written about Dick here and here). Both of us were intrigued by the link between Bob’s poetry and his historical work. As Dick points out, “a kind of bedrock common sense” runs through both. British poet John Whitworth rounds out the triad.

Let me first quote a bit from the inestimable Dick Davis’s “The Minds of Poets”:

When it comes to his career as a historian I think there is a sense in which Robert Conquest’s opinions, tastes, and predilections were also to some extent an infuriated reaction to what he saw around him in the 1950s and 1960s. Not that this was where his historical insights and clarity came from of course, but that the writing down of what he had found to be true was partly motivated by an intense desire to show the foolishness of much of the self-deceiving political cant that was current at the time. His book on Stalin’s purges, The Great Terror, was the first to set out in such horrific detail the brutal nature of Stalin’s Russia, and it was written against a great deal of bien-pensant vague pro-Soviet and less vague anti-American sentiment that was current in (especially) British intellectual life in the 1950s and ’60s, a kind of knee-jerk groupthink leftism that meant giving the Soviet Union pretty much a free pass when it came to human rights issues. When a later, revised edition of the book was to be issued, by which time Conquest’s anatomization of the disasters of Soviet rule was coming to be widely accepted as accurate, Conquest jokingly suggested to Kingsley Amis that he title the book I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. And it was true, he had told us so, when far too many of us didn’t want to believe it.

Dick Davis visiting Stanford. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A confidence in a kind of bedrock common sense runs through Conquest’s poetry, his writings on poetry, and his historical writings, and this confidence goes with what can seem at times a magisterial impatience with those who would obfuscate such common sense by disdainful appeals to ideology, political posturing and blather, or vatic rhetoric that covers and tries to compensate for a simple lack of artistic or political integrity. But what sounds like magisterial confidence comes from a wholly admirable humility before the nature of quotidian reality, before what is demonstrably there in the world, and a preference for recognizing this reality over the comforts of bombast and self-deception. Much of Conquest’s best-known poetry is funny, even absurdly hilarious, but when it is serious it is continuous with the voice that wrote on history and politics. It can remind us of the title of one of Isaiah Berlin’s books of essays, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and its epigraph from Immanuel Kant, “Out of timber so crooked from that which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.” Utopian and inevitably murderous visions that try to make something “straight” out of humanity’s crooked timber earned his contempt; what his political voice advocates in his poetry is a pragmatic humanist compromise between absolutes. The absolutes are kept in view because they are what make man’s social life possible, but they can never be realized because they contradict one another (absolute freedom is anarchy with the strong preying on the weak; absolute order is the ultimate prison with no possibility of freedom). The meditative, moving seriousness of this vision is present in the closing section of one of his last and I think most beautiful poems, “The Idea of Virginia”:

The dogwood blooms, the cardinals perch, the lean hounds hunt
Where Pocahontas danced, where John Smith scouted, where Spotswood rode,
Where Washington marched to victory, Jackson to death,
By the slow rivers, the cool woods, the mountains, the marshes.

The Idea, never fulfilled, was never abandoned;
The free order only approaches its goal.
The land lived on imperfect in city and forest,
Its Form half-remembered; as it lay in the minds of poets.

And from my own, “Poetry and Politics”:

Receiving the Medal of Freedom in 2005.

Aristotle sharply distinguished the domains of Clio and Euterpe. So did a Russian poet some centuries later. Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky once remarked that the only thing poetry and politics have in common are the letters “p” and “o.” There are powerful exceptions, however—think of Dante. Surely Brodsky’s attitude had been shaped by his refusal to define himself in terms of the Soviet system both he and Conquest deplored, the system that would eventually exile him. However, at some point, politics intersect with reality, with what happens to real people when governments and policies go wrong. And history, on the large scale of people and events, is inevitably bound up with politics. It is said that Conquest’s revelations of the millions killed in Stalin’s regime did not influence his poetry at all—except for a few poems with overt political references, such as “Get Lost, Gulag Archipelago” and “Garland for a Propagandist.” However, both his muses were intertwined and informed each other, which would quickly move him miles away from the surrealist poems of his youth in the 1930s. World events would also move him far from the fashionable Communist Party of Oxford, where he had briefly been a member before deciding that it was not a place for grown-ups. By enlisting in 1939, he implicitly rejected the party’s line that the war was a capitalist and imperialist venture. His wartime experiences would bring their own understandings and leave their own scars.

In a long poem commemorating his friend, the poet Drummond Allison, who was killed in the fighting in Italy, he tells of his shattering disillusionment about just causes, after a death, as he wrote, “which no future can ever repay.” He listed the clichés—“He died in a good cause,” “We sacrifice our best,” “He lives in our memory”—which caused him to write, “All this is not untrue / But its irrelevance shakes me like a fever . . .” He could not reconcile the public need against the private loss, “the just war and the individual’s unjust / Death. . . .”

He was not going to write the great war poem; he knew that. While describing the war in verse was possible, it was not possible for him. In “Poem in 1944,” he wrote:

. . . I must believe
That somewhere the poet is working who can handle
The flung world and his own heart. To him I say
The little I can. I offer him the debris
Of five years’ undirected storm in self and Europe,
And my love. Let him take it for what it’s worth
In this poem scarcely made and already forgotten.

Read all three articles here.

Robert Conquest’s centenary: Balance? “How do you find balance in mass murder?”

Sunday, July 16th, 2017
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At his Stanford home in 2011, when we met. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

We’re a day late for the centenary of Robert Conquest, who revealed the extent of Stalins atrocities in his landmark 1968 book, The Great Terror, in addition to being a formidable poet. Somehow I feel fireworks and canons should be going off, but … only the sultry mid-July silence. With the Hoover commemoration of his August 2015 death on January 25, 2016, and the West Chester panel on his poetry in June 2016 (we attended both), the hundredth anniversary of his birth was overshadowed by the past and future. “The future,” because a trio of articles from the  current Hopkins Review is about to appear online, and we’ll be publishing excerpts and a link soon.

But nonetheless, he was born on July 15, 1917, and yesterday was the day. He was with me, at least, in spirit. I was hosting a small family gathering last night, and I discussed Bob’s work. The group of millennials had not heard of him, and so I filled them in, as best I could. They found it odd that anyone was still defending Stalinism in the 1970s, and so opposing Bob’s exposé. How can one explain that blindness to them? As Bert Patenaude, a Hoover fellow and author of The Big Show in Bololand, said after Bob’s death: “Those were the days when most scholars in Soviet studies regarded Conquest’s works on the USSR with skepticism at best, and often outright hostility. In ‘the field,’ The Great Terror was widely perceived as an ideological polemic that would not stand the test of time. Bob loathed political correctness, and he scorned those who professed to seek ‘balance’ in their scholarly publications about Soviet history—’How do you find balance in mass murder?’ He enjoyed dismissing such people as ‘wafflers.’ The collapse of Soviet Communism brought revelations from the Kremlin archives that bore out Bob’s general view of Stalin’s USSR, and he had the great pleasure of publishing a new version of the book in 1990, at the moment of his vindication. The revised version was called The Great Terror: A Reassessment, but most reviewers of the book recognized that it was in fact an emphatic reassertion of the original thesis rather than a revision.”

On receiving Poland’s Order of Merit in 2009, with Radosław Sikorski, then Poland’s minister of foreign affairs

Stephen Kotkin, Birkelund Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University, called Bob the most prolific and influential Sovietologist ever.  “Two of his books on Soviet history stand out as the most important of the entire cold war,” he said.

The Great Terror (1968) was a blockbuster in all senses.  At a time of doubt and controversy about the menace of Communism, Mr. Conquest massed a mountain of detail and definitively established the vast scale of Soviet terror, and Stalin’s central role in it.  Now this is taken for granted.  Soviet archives were closed and Soviet publications full of lies, yet he was criticized for relying on the large number of émigré memoirs and the unpublished reminiscences in the Hoover Institution Archives.  Mr. Conquest insisted on the validity of the accounts of the victims.  The opening of the archives has shown that by and large he was correct.  He also made meticulous Kremlinological use of Stalin-era newspapers, and systematically combed through the voluminous “thaw” or Khrushchev-era Soviet publications, which were often very revealing.  The leftist slant of Soviet studies in the U.S. limited the acceptance of Mr. Conquest’s scholarly work, even as he dominated discussion among the public and policy-makers.  In the late stages and aftermath of the Soviet Union, The Great Terror, translated into Russian, became the most widely influential Western publication on Soviet history in that country. Mr. Conquest pulled off a similar feat with The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986), written here at Hoover.  Once again, he definitively established the colossal scale of Soviet horrors, correctly identified their source in Marxist ideas and practices, and underscored the legions of Western dupes who retailed Soviet lies, from when Stalin was alive and decades thereafter.

I first met Mr. Conquest in the archive reading room at Hoover, in the mid-1980s, when he was already a legend (I was a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley).  He had sparkling eyes and a wry smile, and relished chatting about obscure sources and discoveries.  In November 1987, I had the privilege of serving as his Russian language translator at the annual convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies Convention in Boston.  (Mr. Conquest spoke fluent Bulgarian from his service in the British legation in Sofia and one of his marriages, but did not speak Russian conversationally, although he read it fluently).  His interlocutor that day was the writer Anatoly Rybakov, who was enjoying wide acclaim for his novel Children of the Arbat, but effervescing over meeting the great Bob Conquest.  “Is it true,” a spellbound Rybkaov kept asking me, “that he also writes poetry?”

Well, I wrote about the poetic side of Bob last year for the Times Literary Supplement here.

More from Bert Patenaude:

Among his considerable gifts, Bob was a superb conversationalist. He had a wicked sense of humor and he loved to laugh: the look of playful delight that animated his face as he nailed a punch line is impossible to forget. His poems and limericks convey a sense of his mischievousness—and naughtiness—and his late poems chronicle the aging process with sensitivity and, one is easily persuaded, acute psychological insight.

Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Bob’s final speaking appearance on the Stanford campus may well have been his participation in an annual book event, “A Company of Authors,” where he came to present his latest book of verse, Penultimata, on April 24, 2010. Bob seemed frail that day, and at times it was difficult to hear him and to understand his meaning, but no one in the room could doubt that the genial elderly man up there reciting his poetry could have carried the entire company of authors on his back. Seated next to me in the audience was a Stanford history professor, a man (not incidentally) of the political left, someone I had known since my graduate student days—not a person I would ever have imagined would be drawn to Bob Conquest. Yet he had come to the event, he told me, specifically in order to see and hear the venerable poet-historian: “It’s rare that you get to be in the presence of a great man. Robert Conquest is a great man.” Indeed he was.

And finally from Anatol Shmelev, Hoover Research Fellow and Curator, Russia and Eurasia Collection

Robert Conquest was not only a brilliant scholar, but a true gentleman, who went out of his way to make everyone who visited him for advice, conversation or just an autograph feel welcome. The bearer of a high intellect, Conquest could be very down-to-earth, full of entertaining anecdotes and stories, and always not only willing to hear out his guests, but actively engaging them with questions. His charm was genuine and born of a sense of humility that won over those who knew him. Though he was the recipient of many high awards and honors, including the Order of the British Empire, the title he most liked to recall was that of Antisovetchik nomer 1 (“Anti-Soviet #1”), an appellation bestowed upon him by the Soviet propaganda apparatus. This was, perhaps, because the title cut to the core of who Robert Conquest was: a champion of human freedom and a sworn enemy of oppressive and totalitarian regimes and the ideologies that stood behind the tragedies of the twentieth century.

More friends and colleagues remember Bob here. And read my “Indefatigable Spirit” post, shortly after his death, here. And one friend remembered on my Facebook page. The poet R.S. Gwynn (a.k.a. Sam) said: “I miss Bob and can’t imagine what he’d be saying these days.” I can’t imagine either, Sam.

And below, a film that was made for the Hoover commemoration on January 25, 2016. Think the denial is over? Read the two comments below the film.