I’ve been meaning to post for a couple of days, but as those in the blog world have probably noticed, blogger was down for a while. But it’s back, and so am I. In the meantime, there was a piece of sad literary news. Once hugely famous, but now somewhat forgotten novelist Leon Uris passed away. When I was about fifteen and too young to know that my taste in literature wasn’t particularly cutting edge, I happened to pick up a copy of his book Trinity. It is a historical novel about the strife in Northern Ireland, and even then, when I was a youngster, I knew it was a masterful book. People are no longer used to the sweeping period pieces set in exotic locations that used to be so popular. They have fallen by the way side and been repaced by realism, flashiness, and dry modernity. Alongside all the stark reality that masquarades as fiction these days, a Uris book can be comforting in its ability to fix you in a distant place and time and to compell you to feel a visceral connection with his antipodean characters. If you like Uris at all, you will also like his contemporary James Michener. I still remember listening to Hawaii on cassette on one of the many interminable car trips of my youth. I’m not sure what compelled my parents to choose this form of entertainment, since I had never known them to be audiobook fans or Michener fans. Against all odds (or so it seemed at the time), I loved Hawaii in much the same way that I would later love Trinity. It’s the power of a really good story. That’s all for now… More soon I hope.
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Over at Beatrice, I saw the posting that Will Eisner has died. Eisner is credited by many with inventing the graphic novel -- or at least turning it into the form we recognize today (A Contract with God is his landmark work). Many of today's most prominent graphic novelists cite Eisner as a major influence. At the moment, none of the major news sites have posted an obit (aside from this brief piece at E&P), but you can expect to see some soon.UPDATE: Here come the obits: DenisKitchen.com, WaPo, NYT
Roger Ebert was a movie man. All over the internet, he is being remembered for his love for movies, for the enthusiasm he brought to film, and for elevating it to its rightful place as art. All well-deserved. But as much as he “belongs” to film, so too does he belong to us writers. We ought to consider him one of our own, rather than thinking of him as a pop icon, denizen of another, separate world. While movies were his subject, the written word was, for most of his life, his chosen medium. “When I write,” he said, “I fall into the zone many writers, painters, musicians, athletes, and craftsmen of all sorts seem to share . . . deliberate thoughts fall aside and it is all just there. I think of the next word no more than the composer thinks of the next note." Then later, after his illness had taken his jaw: “When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was.” Ebert elevated film to the level of literature, but at no loss to literature: an exceptionally well-read working writer, he would quote Wordsworth while trashing Baby Geniuses, or e.e. cummings while praising 2001: Space Odyssey. Ebert's love of books manifested in a home library of 3,000 to 4,000 titles, and a book lover's clingy expectation that he might at any point “need” one or another of them. The temptations aroused by walking past a bookstore were, he wrote, as bad as those faced by an alcoholic passing by a neighborhood bar — strong words considering his own self-documented struggles with alcoholism. He fantasized about moving to a smaller place and bringing only, say, 200 or so of his most essential books, but couldn't really dream of giving any of them up because, in his words, “well, they're books, and you can't throw away a book, can you?” The outpouring of affection shows how beloved he was by writers. The cause is obvious: Ebert cared intensely about writing, and more than many of us, he brought his best self to it. He was “reluctant to write in a hurtful way” — unless it was to trash a movie that he felt was cruel in spirit, or that insulted its audience. He helped other writers, too, extending his hand to young upstarts and secretly sponsoring other Chicago journalists who joined AA. Say what you will about his taste in movies or his willingness to embrace “trash” (even in a “silly” film, he wrote, “you will find something profound” about “what people desire and fear”). No writer can help but find it humbling and awe-inspiring to know that a man who lost the ability to eat, to drink, and to speak somehow managed to keep writing. I doubt many people could do that. I'm barely able to muster the heart to write after I’ve eaten a burrito. Just holding on to the will to live in Ebert’s state would be too great a challenge for most, but he wrote and wrote: about movies, politics, atheism and faith, alcoholism, everything else in life, and death. He wrote through a debilitating illness, through surgeries and years of hospital care. That is bravery, in my book. Doing something for love — of movies, of writing, of his fans — in the face of death is bravery. We writers ought to embrace him for it. The rest of us can only hope that, if we are held on the precipice as long as he was, we are visited by some portion of his courage. Image via Wikimedia Commons
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A recent 51-minute-long segment on The Diane Rehm Show about Orhan Pamuk’s new novel never once mentioned the name of the translator, Robert Finn. Rehm repeated several times that the book had just been translated into English, but she never said by whom. The Los Angeles Times referred to the translation profession as “the small, unseen and largely unknown circle of men and women who translate the world’s literature into English…a low-paid job that’s also highly skilled and labor-intensive.” It’s things like these that remind me of how much we still need Michael Henry Heim, even a month after his death. When Heim died on September 29, Andrei Codrescu wrote: “It is impossible to imagine intelligent American life from the 20th century’s spectacular end until now without his translations.” (I know that deaths tend to trigger the writing of many unreliable mini-hagiographies, but suspend disbelief for a moment, if you will. This is different. This is no hyperbole.) Many know Heim’s translations of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but he was also a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UCLA, mentored graduate students and young translators, volunteered as a judge for a number of translation awards and prizes, and served as an expert reader for publishers on a number of languages. Heim knew at least 10 languages (Czech, German, Italian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian -- which is now four separate languages -- Danish, Hungarian, Latin, Slovak, Romanian, and Spanish). Near the end of his life, he was learning Chinese. Esther Allen, a Baruch College professor, says he didn’t sleep as much as other people do. He’d get up at five in the morning most days to study his flashcards, and would review them just before going to bed each night. Alongside all this, Heim was an activist and true champion of literary translation. Heim was a man who literally seemed to have more hours in the day than the rest of us. He was someone who pushed for greater visibility of translation in the larger world of American letters, who supported and nurtured would-be translators with every free minute. The list of his activities is endless: Heim organized a conference in Romania in 1999 for translators from each of the Eastern-bloc countries. The event successfully bridged post-Soviet fragmentation and encouraged the cross-translation of the literature of those countries. Heim started the Babel Group at UCLA, which later morphed into the Graduate Student Translation Conference, an important biennial gathering of graduate students to discuss the “work, business and craft of translation.” Heim and his wife Priscilla were the benefactors responsible for the PEN Translation Fund, donating $734,000 to launch the fund in 2003. Joshua Daniel Edwin, a poet-translator who received the grant this year, says it has been a “publicity beacon” for his work and has absolutely done what it set out to do, which is to encourage the publication of international literature in translation. Heim worked with the Modern Language Association, the largest professional organization for scholars of language and literature, to write up a set of guidelines for how and why translation should be seen as relevant scholarly work in the context of academia and professors seeking tenure. Russell Valentino, the editor of The Iowa Review and Heim’s former student, called Heim a “staunch supporter of literary translation as a legitimate research activity.” In the years before his death, Heim was talking to colleagues about setting up a foundation where best-selling English language writers whose work is translated into dozens of international languages would give a small portion of their proceeds for the translation of other works into English, a sort of way to redirect the flow and address the dearth of literature in translation published in the U.S. The good thing is that we are in a more, as Heim called it, “proactive” phase in the history of literary translation, where there is increased visibility for translators and the number of published translations increases every year, especially with the proliferation of independent and small presses. But we’ve just lost one of our true champions. Next year, Open Letter Books will publish a composite biography of Heim entitled The Man Between. Allen, one of the contributors calls it “a sort of cubist perspective of Mike.” I can’t wait to read it.
Stephanie Deutsch, a writer and critic living in Washington, D.C., was a first year graduate student in Soviet Union Area Studies at Harvard in 1970 when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She had spent the previous year living in Moscow. This essay is an update of an appreciation written ten years ago for the Washington Times's "Lost Word" column dedicated to second looks at classic works. Solzhenitsyn died on August 3rd at 89.My copy of Cancer Ward is a well-worn relic from the 1970s, when a paperback book cost $1.50 and Solzhenitsyn was the must-read author of the moment. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 and when I bought the novel it had been through fifteen printings in three years. A quote on the back cover calls it "a literary event of the first magnitude... by Russia's greatest living prose writer."The book reprints the author's 1967 letters to the Congress of Soviet Writers and the Union of Writers of the USSR complaining of the "no longer tolerable oppression, in the form of censorship, that our literature has endured for decades," and insisting that his work "be published without delay." Who could foresee then that when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died he would no longer be much read, either here or in his native land. The one-time Vermont recluse returned to Russia but there, as here, his fervor and his writing are out of fashion.Just as a voguish book can disappoint, though, Cancer Ward remains compelling. While the title hints at symbolism and death, the straightforward story is vibrantly and affirmatively about life. Mr. Solzhenitsyn does see cancer as a fitting metaphor for his society's ghastly flaws, but he is also telling a literal story about physical illness. He himself was a survivor not just of front-line combat with the Red Army, Stalinist prison camps, forced labor and exile in his own country, but also of real illness. A recurrence of his rare stomach cancer was treated with radiation in the spring of 1954 at a hospital in Tashkent.This is where the novel brings together a lively cast of characters. The protagonist is Oleg Kostoglotov, a big, dark-haired man in his 30s, a former political prisoner and internal exile. He's a land surveyor with unslakable curiosity about everything: "...although he'd never missed a chance to scoff at education in general, he's always used his eyes and ears to pick up the smallest thing that might broaden his own." He likes people, too, especially as he feels life returning after his near death and successful radiation therapy.Kostoglotov's nemesis in the ward is Rusanov, a self-satisfied bureaucrat, a Party member whose life work has been in "personnel records administration... Only ignoramuses and uninformed outsiders were unaware what subtle, meticulous work it was... The actual direction life took was decided without loud publicity, calmly in quiet offices, by two or three people who understood one another, or by dulcet telephone calls. The stream of real life ran on in the secret papers that lay deep in the briefcases of Rusanov and his colleagues." This work gives Rusanov an inflated sense of his own importance and caution and pettiness that are the opposite of Kostoglotov's exuberant good nature.Ludmila Afanasyevena Dontsova is the head of the hospital's radiology department, a brilliant clinician who hesitates to use her diagnostic skills on the pain she feels in her own stomach. We see her not just in the hospital but on her way home from work, grabbing a seat on a streetcar: "...the was the first thought apart from the hospital that began to transform her from an oracle of human destinies into a simple passenger on a trolley jostled like anyone else... At every stop and with every shop that flashed by the window, Ludmila Afanasyevna's thought turned more and more to her housework and her home. Home was her responsibility and hers alone because what can you expect from men? Her husband and son, whenever she went to Moscow for a conference, would leave the dishes unwashed for a whole week. It wasn't that they wanted to keep them for her to do, they just saw no sense in this repetitive, endlessly self-renewing work."Kostoglotov's life in prison and exile has kept him isolated from women for years so his joy at returning health is mingled with wonder at the chance to be with members of the opposite sex. He flirts wildly with the high-spirited night nurse, Zoya; he feels deep sympathy with Vera Gangart, one of his doctors. "For a man like Oleg, who had to be permanently suspicious and watchful, it was the greatest pleasure in the world to be able to trust, to give himself to trust. And he trusted this woman, this gentle, ethereal creature. He knew she'd move softly, thinking out her every action and that she wouldn't make the slightest mistake."And we meet the ward's other patients - Dyomka, a teenager facing the amputation of his leg and trying to keep up with his literary studies; Asya, the yellow-haired girl desolate about impending surgery for breast cancer; Vadim, an engineer so absorbed in his work he had no time for illness; Chaly, suffering from acute stomach cancer but cheerfully sharing with Rusanov his feast of illicit pickles and vodka.Solzhenitsyn gives a full and sympathetic picture of these characters, revealing each one's inner reality - loneliness, marital happiness, eagerness for life, fear of death. Like others of the best Russian novels, Cancer Ward bursts with conversations. Some are timely still - about alternative cancer cures from roots and herbs and the influence of one's mental state on the healing process; about the difficulties of achieving free national health service and yet providing patients with sufficient personal attention; and about what of honor or self-respect or bodily function one is willing to sacrifice to stay alive.The heavy atmosphere of the totalitarian Soviet Union is brilliantly rendered and, in my tattered edition, numerous footnotes clarify allusions that might be lost on a reader without a detailed knowledge of the time. When Kostoglotov talks to Zoya he has to explain to her that he is a Russian and was exiled on a trumped-up charge of treason. "Note: A number of small nationalities - Volga Germans, Chechens, Kalmucks and others - were deported en masse to Central Asia during and after the second world war, suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. These were called 'exiled settlers.' 'Administrative exiles,' like Kostoglotov, were usually political prisoners who had served their term in a labor camp but still had to live in a remote region of the country."This novel is constructed around these and other historical truths too ghastly to be believed and, in our country, in some danger of being forgotten. When Kostoglotov begins to suspect that political changes may be coming in his country he thinks, "A man dies from a tumor, so how can a country survive with growths like labor camps and exiles?" As it turned out, this one could not; the system that produced the camps is gone. Solzhenitsyn's story, brilliantly mixing fact and fiction, tells us just how sick the patient actually was.With his prophet-like appearance and cantankerous public persona, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will surely be remembered for his determined truth-telling. By keeping the details of Soviet history alive, his extraordinary literary oeuvre may help guard against the recurrence that with cancer can never be fully ruled out. But Solzhenitsyn deserves to be remembered, as well, as a novelist to put on the shelf next to Gogol and Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pasternak, a writer to be re-read and savored for the way he translates messy, often ghastly human experience into brilliant, clarifying prose.
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