Karen Blixen (Isak Dineson): “I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”

Jurij Moskvitin (middle) acompaning Karen Blix...

Yuriy Moskvitin (middle) acompanying Karen Blixen / Isak Dinesen (right) meeting composer Igor Stravinskiy (left) at the City Hall of Copenhagen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller. One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy.

–Karen Blixen in an interview with Bent Mohn in The New York Times Book Review (3 November 1957), later quoted by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958).

 

 

Brodsky on trial, 1964

…Among those “enemies” prosecuted as a parasite was Joseph Brodsky, a young poet and future recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. At that time, he was considered among “the most politically unreliable” people, because he  “was part of a circle of anti-Soviet individuals” and “wrote poems of a decadent and even hostile nature” instead of engaging in activities that would benefit the state.

The hearings in the Brodsky case started on February 18, 1964. Brodsky was charged with willful social parasitism, and his trial would become part of Russian and world literature:

Judge: What do you do?

Brodsky: Write poems. Do translations. I guess ….

Иосиф Александрович Бродский

Иосиф Александрович Бродский

Judge: No expressions like “I guess.” Stand still! Do not lean on the wall! Look at the judge! Answer the judge properly! … We are not interested in “I guess.” Answer – why didn’t you work?

Brodsky: I worked. I wrote poems.

Judge: We are not interested in this. We are interested in the following: with what organization were you affiliated? …  In general, what is your specialty?

Brodsky: Poet.  Poet-translator.

Judge: Who has acknowledged that you are a poet? Who assigned you to poets?

Brodsky: Nobody. (In an unchallenging manner) And who assigned me to humans?

Judge: Did you study this?

Brodsky: What?

Judge: To be a poet? Did you try to complete a degree, attend a university where one is prepared, trained?

Brodsky: I do not think it can be acquired by education.

Judge: By what then?

Brodsky: I think this comes (Embarrassedly) … from God.

[via]

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just read

“The truth is, everyone likes to look down on someone. If your favorites are all avant-garde writers who throw in Sanskrit and German, you can look down on everyone. If your favorites are all Oprah Book Club books, you can at least look down on mystery readers. Mystery readers have sci-fi readers. Sci-fi can look down on fantasy. And yes, fantasy readers have their own snobbishness. I’ll bet this, though: in a hundred years, people will be writing a lot more dissertations on Harry Potter than on John Updike. Look, Charles Dickens wrote popular fiction. Shakespeare wrote popular fiction—until he wrote his sonnets, desperate to show the literati of his day that he was real artist. Edgar Allan Poe tied himself in knots because no one realized he was a genius. The core of the problem is how we want to define “literature”. The Latin root simply means “letters”. Those letters are either delivered—they connect with an audience—or they don’t. For some, that audience is a few thousand college professors and some critics. For others, its twenty million women desperate for romance in their lives. Those connections happen because the books successfully communicate something real about the human experience. Sure, there are trashy books that do really well, but that’s because there are trashy facets of humanity. What people value in their books—and thus what they count as literature—really tells you more about them than it does about the book.”
Brent Weeks

Book Spine Poetry

Book Spine Poetry (Photo credit: teachingsagittarian)

 

the infinite sky

There’s a Peanuts cartoon (wish I could find it), in which Charlie Brown says, “I’ve watched this movie 29 times, and Shane never comes back.”

I feel the exact same way about Prince Andrey Bolkonsky in War and Peace. Recently, I did a freelance project (a Cliff Notes type thing) for W&P, and so I read it for the fourth and most deliberate time (though not the most painful–that would be the time I had to do it in Russian). And I’ve watched some of the film adaptations–some of which are harder to get through than a 560,000 word novel.

And every time, I keep hoping that Andrey won’t die and leave everyone else to sink into mediocrity. But he always does, and they always do. When he dies, his transcendent vision of the infinite sky expires with him.

I may post some excerpts of my project here. It really is an amazing book, all hype aside.

In looking for images for this post, I found the various interpretations of Andrey to be fascinating:

First, an illustration by Valentin Serov:

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Then, Mel Ferrer, 1956 USA version:

War_and_peace4

That is a terrible, terrible blond toupee.

Daniel Massey, 1963 UK version:

WAR AND PEACE

Not sure what scene this is supposed to be…

Vyacheslav Tikhonov, 1965ish USSR version:

v.tikhonov bolkonsky

Good casting. Bondarchuk almost redeems himself for casting that sweaty old guy (himself) to play Pierre. Oh wait, no it doesn’t at all.

Vyacheslav-Tikhonov-and-V-001

Oh hai Napoleon.

And then, my friends, we have Alan Dobie in the 1973 UK miniseries (with Sir Anthony Hopkins as Pierre):

tve4703-19721007-622

4703

wpcbaker

Nathan Gunn, French opera production, 2000:

nathangunnwp

Alessio Boni, 2007 miniseries by multiple European countries: kriegundfrieden_ov

“So insignificant at that moment seemed to him all the interests that engrossed Napoleon, so mean did his hero himself with his paltry vanity and joy in victory appear, compared to the lofty, equitable, and kindly sky which he had seen and understood, that he could not answer him.

“Everything seemed so futile and insignificant in comparison with the stern and solemn train of thought that weakness from loss of blood, suffering, and the nearness of death aroused in him. Looking into Napoleon’s eyes Prince Andrew thought of the insignificance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain.”

–Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace

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Italo Calvino on the Classics

Italo Calvino is a favorite of mine; here’s his definition of what makes a book a “classic,” from Why Read the Classics?

  1. The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say, “I am rereading . . . ” and never “I am reading . . . “
  2. We use the words “classics” for books that are treasured by those who have read and loved them; but they are treasured no less by those who have the luck to read them for the first time in the best conditions to enjoy them.
  3. The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.
  4. Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.
  5. Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.
  6. A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
  7. The classics are the books that come down to us bearing the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through (or, more simply, on language and customs).
  8. A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way. And this, too, is a surprise that gives much pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity.
  9. The classics are books which, upon reading, we find even fresher, more unexpected, and more marvelous than we had thought from hearing about them.
  10. We use the word “classic” of a book that takes the form of an equivalent to the universe, on a level with the ancient talismans. With this definition we are approaching the idea of the “total book,” as Mallarmé conceived of it.
  11. Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.
  12. A classic is a book that comes before other classics; but anyone who has read the others first, and then reads this one, instantly recognizes its place in the family tree.
  13. A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.
  14. A classic is something that persists as a background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.

[Hat tip: http://des.emory.edu/mfp/calvino/calclassics.html]