Posts Tagged ‘Scott Esposito’

What literature teaches us.

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

The meeting of Aeneas and Dido, as portrayed by Sir Nathaniel Dance

I’m always making the case for literature, and readers of the Book Haven know my argument that a great deal of our predicament today follows from our abandonment of great literature in our schools, our public conversations, and our thinking. An excellent column from Scott Esposito makes the same argument, with a new twist, over at Lithub, “How the Oldest Stories Can Give Us the Best Perspective.”  It opens:

An oddly postmodern thing happens right near the beginning of Virgil’s ancient classic the Aeneid. Having fled Troy in defeat from the Greeks, and destined to found the great Roman civilization, a defeated, beleaguered Aeneas and his men wash up on the northern coast of Africa near Carthage. Before long Aeneas locates the bustling port city, eventually stealing into the magnificent temple of Dido the queen. As he is acquainting himself with the surroundings he discovers an elaborate depiction of the very war that he is a refugee from:

Wondering at the good fortune of the city,
And admiring all the things the makers had done,
The workmanship of what was told on the walls,
Suddenly he saw depicted there,
One after another, the scenes of the Trojan War,
Famous through all the world . . .
Aeneas stopped, and weeping at what he saw,
Said, “Is there, Achates, anywhere on earth
That does not know the story of our trouble?”

He started it.

Imagine it: the catastrophic war that has wiped your home off the face of the Earth is now the stuff of legend, famous clear across the entire known world. The beloved comrades you watched die as you struggled to defend your homeland are now wrought exquisitely into the walls of a queen’s temple. You even see your own self, fighting the war you have just fled from. It is a curiously modern moment: Aeneas sees the horrific reality he has just escaped as a story told by foreigners a thousand miles away, not so different from, say, a refugee from Venezuela, or Yemen, or Syria, or Myanmar escapes to a more stable nation, only to see the story of her nation’s escalating tragedy—and maybe even herself—broadcast on CNN.

He describes how the Homeric tale winds its way through Western literature, from Virgil to the works of Dante and beyond (though he misses Derek Walcott’s Omeros), and offers this takeaway:

This column began with a war in the Middle East that storytellers began recounting 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, and we have followed it to North Africa, Rome, Italy, Spain, and Britain—and all the way to Borges clutching his bilingual copy of the Divine Comedy in Argentina in the early 1940s. I find this one of the greatest things about the literary tradition: it works on the longest timescales of human history, and it easily perforates borders. Literature conducts ideas across continents and through time with a startling efficacy: in the case of the Trojan War, it has traveled all throughout the world and back to the dawn of recorded history. Literature is the medium that is most conversant with humanity’s master narratives, the one that has done the most to form them and make them so indispensible and famed.

Practicing what he preaches

He proposes the “Virgil test”:  “if an artisan were carving this story into a palace wall half a world away, which incidents would make the cut? Which developments in this critical American saga would make it into the grand narrative of these years that may one day be passed down through the ages? Which things would we want to see if, like Aeneas, we happened to suddenly discover this story being told far away? And which developments are just noise, things that sap our energy and attention but that ultimately are not worth so much fuss?”

Read the whole thing here.

Mikhail Shishkin, and what life does to us

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Still “gulping in life,” but in Zurich.

Often, I am often so bogged down in various deadlines that you would have to thwack me with a rolled-up magazine to get my attention. So I’m grateful that my friend and colleague Scott Esposito did precisely that, in a metaphorical, cyberspace sort of way, with Mikhail Shishkin‘s superb collection, Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories, published by Deep Vellum.

I know, I know. I appear to be the last person in the Western world who hadn’t read Shishkin, who won the 2000 Booker Prize for his The Taking of Izmail and the 2005 National Bestseller Prize and the 2006 National “Big Book” Prize for Maidenhair (Open Letter, 2012). I still don’t know Shishkin, if it comes to that, since I haven’t read his novels, nor have I had the chance to do more than sample this new collection short stories, memoirs, and studies. Until I put a few more deadlines behind me, it will be one of my many postponed pleasures.

As happens with many Russian writers today, Western journalists tend to situate Shishkin in the middle of Russia’s traumatic present, and interviews tend to focus on news rather than literature, even though Shishkin has been based in faraway Zurich for years. The tendency is reinforced because he is an articulate spokesman for a free Russia, as he shows in this 2013 interview:

“In Russia, before the revolution, after the revolution, the most popular writers were forbidden—it was impossible to buy or sell these books. But these were the most popular writings, so the ideal of writing was not to entertain, was not to sell. The idea of writing was to ask some questions that were very important for the writer himself, with the understanding that his book might never reach a reader.

“But all these questions are very important for everyone: How to live a humiliating situation under the dictatorship, but still preserve human dignity? And this is the question of questions. Russian literature of every generation has to answer it. Every writer has to answer this question, and we are a very strange country. Every generation needs its war and needs its dictatorship.”


The book.

The word “genius” has been used, and the Times Literary Supplement had this to say: “Shishkin’s language is wonderfully lucid and concise. Without sounding archaic, it reaches over the heads of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (whose relationship with the Russian language was often uneasy) to the tradition of Pushkin.”

Nothing I read about him, however, quite prepared me for the desperate urgency of Calligraphy Lesson, as if its lyricism were only a last match struck against the darkness. His prose breathes life – doesn’t breathe it, gasps it, aware of the perishability of words, of worlds dying in each instant, and us dying with them, as life is beaten out of us second by second. (“And I heard myself breathing, heard my lungs gulping in life.”)

“The Half-Belt Overcoat,” he recalls his “Mum,” a dedicated headmistress humiliated, dismissed, and broken during the Andropov era, and then dying inch-by-inch of cancer. After her death, he discovers among her things a long-ago “ordinary girl’s diary” that gives no traces of the terror that was gripping the Soviet Union during the Stalin years: “Its pages are awash with the unthinking youthful confidence that life will give you more than you asked of it.” The diary and family photographs are stashed away in Moscow after he emigrates, and turn to ashes in a fire, but the persona she left in her youthful diary stays with him: “That girl was born into a prison nation, into darkness, yet she still looked upon her life as a gift, as an opportunity to realize herself in love, to give love, to share her happiness with the world.”

“The world around is cold and dark, but into it has been sent a girl so that, candle-like, she might illuminate the all-pervasive human darkness with her need for love.” It’s the hopeless forever task of life breeding life: “this was not the naïveté and folly of a silly young girl who had failed to understand what was going on around her, this was the wisdom of the one who has sent, does send and always shall send girls into the world, no matter what hell we’ve turned it into.”


Six thousand letters and postcards between them.

And what a hell it is – not only  in the Soviet Union. The twentieth century is one of ideologies making a beeline to genocide. Even in peaceful Switzerland offered no refuge from extreme thoughts and incalculable grief. In “The Bell Tower of San Marco,” Shishkin traces the letters of Russian revolutionary Lydia Kochetkova, who writes incessantly to her future husband, Swiss anarchist Fritz Brupbacher – obscure historical figures, but oddly universal. Six thousand letters are preserved in Amsterdam, to give you an idea of the volume of the correspondence. In words that breathe the same infinite hope and aspiration that his Soviet-era Mum had had – before the illness, before the grinding poverty, before the political slap down – Lydia writes at the beginning of her new love in 1898: “‘Be fruitful and multiply!’ Can that really be all that’s bequeathed to us? Why even the mice and Koch’s microbes honor this behest. But man is infinitely greater than his physical self. And how can you reduce all of me, all my untapped resources, the yearning to accomplish something important, essential, that serves mankind, my people, my country – to propagation!”

After the marriage was over, she continued writing letter after unanswered letter to him. We know nothing of her death, presumably around 1915. Alone, alienated, or abandoned by family and friends, her last written words are a muffled cry that will likely meet many of us at life’s end, as lost and frantic as Desdemona’s desperate cry for one more hour: “My darling! Do you know what I regret most of all? I could have given you all the fullness of my love, but I gave you nothing but pain. Forgive me, if you can. And my heart cries out at the thought that my highest calling was just that – to give you affection and tenderness, but instead I squandered my worthless life on phantoms.”

Translation, Book Expo America, and le bruit du temps…

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

The publisher...

Some of you may recall my visit to the innovative Parisian publishing house of Le Bruit du Temps and it’s founder, Antoine Jaccottet, during my recent visit to Paris, during the cold, cold, cold snap of last February. I also spoke at the American University in Paris, and visited friend and colleague Daniel Medin.

Here’s a podcast that entwines them both:  Daniel interviews Antoine Jaccottet at “That Other Word,” a series of podcasts on literature and translation, the result of a collaboration between the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and San Francisco’s Center for the Art of Translation.

...and his admirer

Said Daniel:  “It surprised me to learn that it was a small press in France doing the complete works of Zbigniew Herbert … that it was a small press in France doing the completeIsaac Babel, a volume even larger than the [Peter] Constantine one that appeared a decade ago in English , and that it was a small French press discovering books like the Julius Margolin‘s gulag memoir, and bringing them to life.  And I wanted to meet this editor, because of the interesting books he was selecting, because of the variety.”  Now you will have a chance to meet him, too.

But first, you’ll get Daniel’s quick overview of this month’s Book Expo America in New York City, where “Russia was the country of honor this year,” he said. He and Scott Esposito discuss a range of contemporary authors and books, including Mikhail Shishkin‘s Maidenhair, which will appear in English this October; Polish author Marek Bieńczyk’s Transparency;  Julius Margolin’s gulag memoir, Voyage au pays des Ze-Ka; and Dalkey Archive Press’ Contemporary Georgian Fiction.  

Their interests do not lie entirely east of the Vienna: they also discuss Éric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times and his Demolishing Nisard.

Then, on to Antoine Jacottet.  On the perils of translation, the French publisher said:  “You do well what you know a little. I worked myself as a translator. I might mention my father [Philippe Jaccottet] was – is still – a well known translator.  For me, it has always been very important to be attentive to the quality of translations. When we began the press, my idea was: if you are a very small press and if you want to publish works that you think are masterpieces, one way of doing it is to order a new translation, and then you have to find a good translator for it. It’s not always easy, but  I think it’s the part of my job that fascinates me most.”

The podcast is here.

Quarterly Conversation: “For Brodsky, poetry was a ticket out of this world.”

Monday, December 5th, 2011

A brilliant article in today’s Quarterly Conversation offers a fresh take on Lev Loseff‘s much-discussed Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life. Marbled with impressive insights, it represents the finest standards of literary journalism, and should establish a new highpoint for the rapidly disappearing genre … let me dissemble no further, dear reader, I myself wrote the review.

A hackneyed opening gambit, I know … So let’s cut to the chase with a little shameless plugging via an excerpt:

“For Brodsky, poetry was a ticket out of this world. And in Russia, the poet is godlike. To know both is to understand the context for this erudite and often wise book—a work more likely to find readers among current fans, rather than find new ones. Yet Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life is simultaneously enlightening, perplexing, and exasperating. The knowledgeable reader is left feeling rewarded and cheated at once, as if invited to a sumptuous banquet and offered only canapés. The protean figure remains beyond the range of these pages. The door remains at once half open and half closed to us.

You’ll read no secrets in Loseff’s volume. But neither will you get Brodsky’s bewildering, mesmerizing blend of hubris and humility, charm, and abrasiveness. Brodsky was a Catherine Wheel of metaphysical brilliance, scathing insults, and intellectual splendor.

Russia’s longing for pure poet-heroes held an incandescent grip on the Russian psyche, and the nation bleaches its bards to an unearned whiteness. Writers have always claimed special moral exemptions for themselves—wishing to be something grander than simply a guy who wields a ballpoint or stares at an empty computer screen. Brodsky upped the ante.

He told Loseff that the lesser cannot comment on the greater, the mice cannot review the cat. Was he exempting himself from criticism? Certainly. But Brodsky was also the first to bend his knee to those he saw above him on the ladder—from Ovid to Auden. The sense of hierarchy may rub against the egalitarian Brodsky who once wrote, ‘Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another,’ but the contradiction can be chalked up to his complex humanity as easily as his self-blindness.”

Read the rest here.

Quarterly Conversation is run by Scott Esposito. It’s another valiant online effort to sustain serious literary criticism – and that’s no hyperbole.

It’s gotten some rave reviews, from The Nation, among others.  From Columbia University Press: “It would not be a stretch to say that The Quarterly Conversation has come to be one of the better places—online or in print—to turn to for literary and cultural criticism.”  According to Canongate Books’s “Meet at the Gate”: “If a website was able to drool, Meet At The Gate would be drooling over The Quarterly Conversation. It’s what online literary magazines are meant to be.”

The always insightful Patrick Kurp, by the way, reviews Denise Gigante‘s The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George in the same issue – it’s here (and the Book Haven Q&A with Denise is here).  An excerpt from Patrick’s review:

… despite Gigante’s standing as an academic in a major university English department, she is a writer, not a slinger of theory or political poseur. Out of primary documents she reanimates a major poet and his world, and crafts a transatlantic adventure story with a novelist’s gift for moving narrative along. In brief, Gigante convincingly demonstrates that George Keats, the poet’s junior by sixteen months, served as John’s “muse.” In an 1818 letter to Ann Wylie, John says: “My brother George has ever been more than a brother to me, he has been my greatest friend.”