Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

Pop open the champagne! Happy Public Domain Day! ?

Friday, January 1st, 2021
Share

Ralph Barton’s illustration for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” It’s also in public domain now.

For those of us who keep an eye on such things – including bloggers, everywhere – we have some exciting news, and it rolls around every New Year’s Day. (So if you didn’t send cards this year, you’ll have another opportunity on January 1, 2022.) Happy Public Domain Day! What? You’re not excited? Well, am.

As of today, F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby is up for grabs. So is Virginia WoolfMrs. Dalloway,  Ernest Hemingway‘s In Our Time, and Franz Kafka‘s The Trial (in German). Excerpt as much as you like. Be my guest.

Plenty more books published in 1925 have entered the public domain, as of today.  According to Jennifer Jenkins, a law professor at Duke University who directs its Center for the Study of the Public Domain. “And all of the works are free for anyone to use, reuse, build upon for anyone — without paying a fee.”

“Works from 1925 were supposed to go into the public domain in 2001, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit a 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years Now the wait is over,” Jenkin’s writes on the Duke website.

1925 was the year of seminal works by Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein, Agatha Christie, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Aldous Huxley … and, among musicians some works by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, among hundreds of others. And 1925 marked the release of important works by silent film comedians Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

According to NPR:

Free! Free! Free!

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of having work in the public domain. For example, can you imagine the holidays without It’s A Wonderful Life? That movie happened to be unprotected by copyright, so it was able to be shown — a lot — for free, contributing to its establishment as an American Christmas classic.

It also means books can be published more cheaply and made available for free online; that old “orphan” films can be preserved by archivists; that scholars can access and publish material more easily; that musicians can sample and experiment with the songs of an earlier generation and that classic characters can be given new life and new interpretations.

While the most successful creators often leave behind legal estates to manage the care (and finances) of their famous books, plays, operas and so forth, most aren’t so lucky. “For the vast majority of authors from 1925, no one is benefiting from copyright protections,” Jenkins tells NPR. Having their work enter the public domain is a way to keep it circulating in the culture for artists and historians to use for education and inspiration.

Overlooked Anita Loos

May we throw in our own bid for greater circulation? This year also marks Anita Loos‘s underrated classic and comic masterpiece of the Flapper Era, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional LadyHere’s what I wrote when we featured the book at Stanford’s Another Look book club for forgotten, overlooked, and otherwise neglected books way back in May 2013:

Edith Wharton called Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes “the great American novel” and declared its author a genius. Winston Churchill, William Faulkner, George Santayana and Benito Mussolini read it – so did James Joyce, whose failing eyesight led him to select his reading carefully. The 1925 bestseller sold out the day it hit the stores and earned Loos more than a million dollars in royalties. …

Everyone, of course, has heard of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the short novel’s fame was eclipsed by the 1953 movie of the same name, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Once the bombshell blonde vamped “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the effervescent Jazz Age novel became a shard of forgotten history. Who has taken the send-up novel seriously since?

You can check out the catalog for 1925 copyrighted works here. Or check out the podcast for the Stanford panel discussion with Hilton Obenzinger, Mark McGurl, and Claire Jarvis here. (Claire placed the book in the tradition of the courtesan’s diary.)

Meanwhile, go ahead! Excerpt as much as you like! It’s on the house!

Postscript: The biggest fish of all: George Orwell is in public domain today. According to The Guardian: “George Orwell died at University College Hospital, London, on 21 January 1950 at the early age of 46. This means that unlike such long-lived contemporaries as Graham Greene (died 1991) or Anthony Powell (died 2000), the vast majority of his compendious output (21 volumes to date) is newly out of copyright as of 1 January. Naturally, publishers – who have an eye for this kind of opportunity – have long been at work to take advantage of the expiry date and the next few months are set to bring a glut of repackaged editions. …As is so often the way of copyright cut-offs, none of this amounts to a free-for-all. Any US publisher other than Houghton Mifflin that itches to embark on an Orwell spree will have to wait until 2030, when Burmese Days, the first of Orwell’s books to be published in the US, breaks the 95-year barrier. And eager UK publishers will have to exercise a certain amount of care. The distinguished Orwell scholar Professor Peter Davison fathered new editions of the six novels back in the mid-1980s. No one can reproduce these as the copyright in them is currently held by Penguin Random House.” Read the rest here.

Holiday greetings from the world, and one from Virginia Woolf: “at this one season, the Heavens bend over the earth with sympathy…”

Monday, December 24th, 2018
Share

…at this one season, the Heavens bend over the earth with sympathy, and signal with immortal radiance that they, too, take part in her festival.”

A quick holiday message from your exhausted correspondent at the Book Haven – and a better one from Virginia Woolf, from her novella Night and Day The passage comes to us courtesy Book Post, Ann Kjellberg‘s subscription-based book review, offering a “bite-sized newsletter-based book review delivery service, sending paying subscribers high-quality book reviews, by distinguished and engaging writers, direct to their inboxes.

We’ve enjoyed greetings from around the world in our own inbox, and thought we’d share a few from senders who have appeared in the Book Haven pages: Swedish author and translator Bengt Jangfeldt, and his wife, the Russian actress Jelena Jangfeldt, writing from Stockholm; Swedish poet Håkan Sandell sends his julekort from Oslo; cat-loving Russian scholar Valentina Polukhina sends a few felines from her London home; and an Upernavik, Greenland, winter image arrived from Polish photographer, and regular Book Haven contributor, Zygmunt Malinowski in New York City. We’ll be hearing more from him in a few days.

Meanwhile, have a wonderful holiday with family and friends with plenty of good cheer!

 

Steve Wasserman: “The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all.”

Monday, September 25th, 2017
Share

Back home in Berkeley

We’ve written about Steve Wasserman before – here and here and here. On Saturday, he gave the keynote address at the 17th Annual North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference at the College of the Redwoods, Del Norte, in Crescent City. The subject: “A Writer’s Space.” He’s given us permission to reprint his words on that occasion, and we’re delighted. Here they are:

Not long after I returned to California last year to take the helm of Heyday Books, a distinguished independent nonprofit press founded by the great Malcolm Margolin forty years ago in Berkeley, my hometown, I was asked to give the keynote speech at this annual conference. I found myself agreeing to do so almost too readily—so flattered was I to have been asked. Ken Letko told me the theme of the gathering was to be “A Writer’s Space.”

In the months that have elapsed since that kind invitation, I have brooded on this singular and curious formulation, seeking to understand what it might mean.

What do we think we mean when we say “a writer’s space”? Is such a space different than, say, any other citizen’s space? Is the space of a writer a physical place—the place where the writing is actually done, the den, the office, the hotel room, the bar or café, the bedroom, upon a desk or table or any available flat and stable surface?

Or is the “writer’s space” an inner region of the mind? Or is it a psychological place deep within the recesses of the heart, a storehouse of emotions containing a jumble of neurological circuitry? Is it the place, whether physical or spiritual, where the writer tries to make sense of otherwise inchoate lives? In either case, is it a zone of safety that permits the writer to be vulnerable and daring and honest so as to find meaning and order in the service of story?

Early Babylonian shopping list

Perhaps it will be useful to begin at the very dawn of writing when prehistory became history. Let’s think, for a moment, about the clay tablets that date from around 3200 B.C. on which were etched small, repetitive impressed characters that look like wedge-shape footprints that we call cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. Along with the other ancient civilizations of the Chinese and the Maya, the Babylonians put spoken language into material form and for the first time people could store information, whether of lists of goods or taxes, and transmit it across time and space.

It would take two millennia for writing to become a carrier of narrative, of story, of epic, which arrives in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh.

Writing was a secret code, the instrument of tax collectors and traders in the service of god-kings. Preeminently, it was the province of priests and guardians of holy texts. With the arrival of monotheism, there was a great need to record the word of God, and the many subsequent commentaries on the ethical and spiritual obligations of faithfully adhering to a set of religious precepts. This task required special places where scribes could carry out their sanctified work. Think the Caves of Qumran, some natural and some artificial, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, or later the medieval monasteries where illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly created.

First story

Illiteracy, it should be remembered, was commonplace. From the start, the creation of texts was bound up with a notion of the holy, of a place where experts—anointed by God—were tasked with making Scripture palpable. They were the translators and custodians of the ineffable and the unknowable, and they spent their lives making it possible for ordinary people to partake of the wisdom to be had from the all-seeing, all-powerful Deity from whom meaning, sustenance, and life itself was derived.

We needn’t rehearse the religious quarrels and sectarian strife that bloodied the struggle between the Age of Superstition and the Age of Enlightenment, except perhaps to note that the world was often divided—as, alas, it still sadly is—between those who insist all answers are to be found in a single book and those who believe in two, three, many books.

The point is that the notion of a repository where the writer (or religious shaman, adept, or priest) told or retold the parables and stories of God, was widely accepted. It meant that, from the start, a writer’s space was a space with a sacred aura. It was a place deemed to have special qualities—qualities that encouraged the communication of stories that in their detail and point conferred significance upon and gave importance to lives that otherwise might have seemed untethered and without meaning. The writer, by this measure, was a kind of oracle, with a special ability, by virtue of temperament and training, to pierce the veil of mystery and ignorance that was the usual lot of most people and to make sense of the past, parse the present, and even to predict the future.

A porous epidermis

This idea of the writer was powerful. It still is. By the time we enter the Romantic Age, the notion of a writer’s space has shed its religious origins without abandoning in the popular imagination the belief that writers have a special and enviable access to inner, truer worlds, often invisible to the rest of us. How to put it? That, by and large, artists generally, of which writers are a subset, are people whose epidermises, as it were, are more porous than most people’s. And thus they are more vulnerable, more open to the world around them, more alert, more perspicacious. Shelley put it well when he wrote that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Think Virginia Woolf.

By the end of the nineteenth century, writers in their person and in their spaces are widely celebrated and revered, imbued with talents and special powers that arouse admiration bordering on worship. It is said that when Mark Twain came to London and strode down the gangplank as he disembarked from the ship that had brought him across the Atlantic, dockworkers that had never read a single word of his imperishable stories, burst into applause when the nimbus of white hair atop the head of the man in the white suit hove into view. Similarly, when Oscar Wilde was asked at the New York customs house if he had anything to declare, when he arrived in America in 1882 to deliver his lectures on aesthetics, he is said to have replied: “Only my genius.”

Applause, applause

Many writers were quickly enrolled in the service of nationalist movements of all kinds, even as many writers saw themselves as citizens in an international republic of letters, a far-flung fraternity of speakers of many diverse languages, but united in their fealty to story. Nonetheless, the space where they composed their work–their studies and offices and homes—quickly became tourist destinations, sites of pilgrimage where devoted readers could pay homage. The objects on the desk, writing instruments and inkwells, foolscap and notebooks, the arrangement of photographs and paintings on their walls, the pattern of wallpaper, the very furniture itself, and preeminently the desk and chair, favorite divan and reading sofa, lamps and carpets, all became invested with a sacredness and veneration previously reserved only for religious figures. Balzac’s home, Tolstoy’s dacha, Hemingway’s Cuban estate, are but three of many possible examples. Writers were now our secular saints.

Somehow it was thought that by entering these spaces, the key to unlocking the secret of literary creation could be had, and that by inhaling the very atmosphere which celebrated authors once breathed, one could, by a strange alchemy or osmosis, absorb the essence that animated the writer’s imagination and made possible the realization of native talent.

(more…)

“Coetzee has always been an intensely metaphysical novelist.”

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017
Share

“Chaste, exact, ashen prose” drawn to “passionate extremity.” (Photo: Creative Commons)

A dispiriting Saturday sifting through bins of unsorted papers from the garage, deciding whether I really need the proofs of books published long ago, wondering how long I should keep old Christmas cards from friends, trying to decipher the signatures on yellowed letters, and asking myself whatever will I ever do with all the photos of nieces and nephews at one year old, then two years old, then three…

So why was I holding on to a Christmas issue of The New Yorker from almost a full decade ago? Ah yes. “Squall Lines: J.M. Coetzee‘s ‘Diary of a Bad Year'” – a review written by a literary critic who maintains that “the novel exists to be affecting…to shake us profoundly. When we’re rigorous about feeling, we’re honoring that.” His essays make me weep with envy.

I can do no better on a slow Saturday night than to quote from James Wood‘s 2007 review on the Nobel Prizewinning South African writer Coetzee, a novelist who, also, makes me weep with envy.

Diary of a Bad Year’s protagonist is a novelist who is, in some ways, an alter ego, who laments that his art is “not great-souled,” that it lacks “generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love.” But what a soul he has – as Wood comments, if not great-souled, than deep-souled:

Yet this is the cold air just beyond the reach of a fire. Coetzee’s chaste, exact, ashen prose may look like the very embers of restraint, but it is drawn, again and again, to passionate extremity: an uneducated gardener forced to live like an animal off the South African earth (“Life & Times of Michael K”); a white woman dying of cancer while a black township burns, and writing, in her last days, a letter of brutal truths to her daughter (“Age of Iron”); a white woman raped on her farm by a gang of black men, and impregnated (“Disgrace”); a recent amputee, the victim of a road accident that mangled a leg, helpless in his Adelaide apartment, and awkwardly in love with his Croatian nurse (“Slow Man”). Coetzee seems compelled to test his celebrated restraint against subjects and ideas whose extremity challenges novelistic representation.

***

James Wood

Coetzee is devoted to Dostoyevsky, and “Elizabeth Costello” made clear that part of that devotion has to do with what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called the “dialogic” nature of Dostoyevsky’s arguments. Bakhtin noted that it is impossible to infer from the novels what Dostoyevsky believed, because no single idea ever gains authorial dominance. Instead, ideas, like the characters themselves, are in constant circulation and mutual qualification. It is how Dostoyevsky the ardent Christian was able to argue against himself, awarding Ivan Karamazov the most devastating petition against conventional Christian belief ever mounted in a novel. Coetzee is interested in how we profess ideas, both in life and in novels. We tend to think of ourselves as intellectually stable, the oaken pile of principle driven reassuringly deep into the ground. All the Presidential-campaign cant about “values” testifies to this; to flip-flop is to flop. But what if our ideas are, rather, as Virginia Woolf imagined consciousness: a constant flicker of different and self-cancelling perceptions, entertained for a moment and then exchanged for other ones? Imagine a fervent Christian, who has always believed in the afterlife. One night, waking in terror, he realizes, for only a second, but absolutely, that there is no afterlife. The terror passes, and the next morning he reaffirms his public vows. He does not succumb to doubt. Still, the question remains: what has happened to his orthodoxy? If it has not been cancelled or refuted by the nightmarish doubt, does it now contain, like a trapped smell, the ghost of its opposite?

***

Devotion

Unlike the philosopher, the novelist may take an idea beyond its rational terminus, to the point where the tracks start breaking up. One name for this tendency is the religious, the realm where faith replaces reason. Coetzee has always been an intensely metaphysical novelist, and in recent years the religious coloration of his metaphysics has become more pronounced.

***

It is not the force of Ivan’s reasoning, he says, that carries him along but “the accents of anguish, the personal anguish of a soul unable to bear the horrors of this world.” We can hear the same note of personal anguish in Coetzee’s fiction, even as that fiction insists that it is offering not a confession but only the staging of a confession. His books makes all the right postmodern noises, but their energy lies in their besotted relationship to an older, Dostoyevskian tradition, in which we feel the desperate impress of the confessing author, however recessed and veiled.

Here’s the good news: I can throw the 2007 New Yorker away! The article is all online! Read the whole thing here.

The voice of Virginia Woolf: “Do we write better? Do we read better? … Where are we to lay the blame?”

Friday, January 18th, 2013
Share

We have only one recording of Virginia Woolf – an April 1937 program for the BBC.  I discovered these short youtube tube recordings this morning – and what a gorgeous thing they are.  A highly recommended way to start the day, especially for all those who work in words.  Which is to say … everyone.

The talk was called “Craftsmanship,” and the remarks were part of a series called “Words Fail Me.”  What does Woolf have to say about words?  “They hate being useful, they hate making money, they hate being lectured about in public.”  The third video below incorporates the first two, and more.  But I’ll include the first two in case you only have time for a snippet before starting your workday.  A transcript of the recording is at the blog “At This Now” here (and now).

I wrote about Woolf a few days ago, but I’d never heard her voice until today.  Not at all what I thought it would be.  See if you agree.

The “scale of appraisal”: Woolf, Tsvetaeva, and Inspector Javert

Sunday, January 6th, 2013
Share

Cause of death?

Last night, I finally made the trek to see Les Misérables with my daughter and her friend.  The film has many nice touches – among them, Russell Crowe, as the solitary Inspector Javert, reviews the row of slaughtered boys the day after the 1832 uprising is quelled.  Moved by the sight of the very young Gavroche in the macabre line-up of bodies, he gently pins one of his military medals on the dead child.  Javert leaps to his death in the Seine a few scenes later.  (My daughter sent me a youtube video of Crowe being interviewed about his interpretation of the role – it’s below.)

Although my memory of Victor Hugo‘s book has faded over the years, I don’t recall any account that has linked Javert’s suicide with these useless and unnecessary deaths, in addition to the inspector’s  confusion at Jean Valjean’s unexpected act of mercy.  But the connection with warfare is an obvious one – some producer or artist should have thought of it before now – and it brought me back to my post of a few days ago, discussing Virginia Woolf‘s last letter, before her own suicide.  I had never connected her death with the German bombing of Britain, but her husband had.

According to Leonard Woolf, “319 days of headlong and yet slow-moving catastrophe” preceded her death in March 1941. Two of their homes were bombed in succession, and this may have triggered a recurrence of Virginia’s mental illness.

“Gavroche” by Gustave Brion

So it was, also, with Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, whose suicide was preceded by German attacks on the two cities she loved most, Paris and Prague.  (I wrote about her final days for the Los Angeles Times here.)

Lydia Korneevna Chukovskaya related this August 1941 conversation, which took place in Chistopol in Tatarstan, the evacuation destination for many writers:

“Tell me, please,” here she came to a stop, stopping me also, “tell me, please, why do you think that it’s still worth living? Don’t you really understand what’s coming?”

“Worthwhile or not – I stopped debating that long ago. They arrested people close to me in ’37, and in ’38 they shot my husband. Of course, life’s not worth living for me, and in any case it doesn’t matter any more how and where I live. But I have a daughter.”

“But don’t you really understand that everything’s over? For you, for your daughter, and altogether.”

We turned onto my street.

“What do you mean – everything?” I asked.

“Altogether – everything!” She made a large circle in the air with the strange little bag she carried. “Well, Russia, for example!”

Tsvetaeva, 1917

“And the Germans?”

“Yes, the Germans too.”

In her excellent book The Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva, author Irma Kudrova writes:

I’ll risk taking this thought to its conclusion. In Tsvetaeva’s eyes the catastrophe that was going on was worse than the nightmare of war. A disaster of global proportions was underway, swallowing Russia too. The dark forces of the world had incarnated into ‘nonhumans’; they held absolute power and were pitiless toward man. The swarm of Hitler’s army, which was swallowing the Russian land, was only one of the faces of triumphant evil. It seems to me that it was precisely this – and nothing less – that Marina Ivanovna [Tsvetaeva] was talking about on 26 August 1941, four days before her death.

She was speaking to the only person she had met since leaving Moscow in whom she could sense a person like herself. She spoke, at last, in her own voice, without caution. Because it was her scale of appraisal, her characteristic viewpoint about what was happening: “from the roof of the world,” as she wrote in one of her poems.