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1. The inspiration of Alice in Wonderland: 150 years on

This Christmas, London’s Royal Opera House played host to Christopher Wheeldon’s critically acclaimed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, performed by the Royal Ballet and with a score by Joby Talbot. Indeed, Lewis Carroll’s seminal work Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) has long inspired classical compositions, in forms as diverse as ballet, opera, chamber music, song, as well as, of course, film scores. Examples include English composer Liza Lehmann’s Nonsense songs (1908); American composer Irving Fine’s two sets of Choruses from Alice in Wonderland (1949 and 1953); and contemporary composer Wendy Hiscock’s ‘Jill in the box’, commissioned by the BFI to accompany the first footage of Alice in Wonderland – a 1903 silent film directed by Percy Stow and Cecil Hepworth.

In the Oxford catalogue, the influence of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be seen in choral pieces by Maurice Bailey, Bob Chilcott, and Sarah Quartel, and it is interesting to observe the similarities in their treatment of this famous text. Maurice Bailey selects seven poems from the book to produce a set of seven songs for upper voices and piano or instrumental ensemble. The set begins with a short narration—a direct quotation of the book’s first four paragraphs—and the first song takes up the image of Alice sitting by the riverbank, setting the scene with the performance direction ‘like a warm and lazy summer afternoon’. Each song has a distinct character:

  • ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!’ is jovial, with a gentle swing feel;
  • ‘You are old, Father William’ is solemn and dramatic;
  • ‘How doth the little crocodile’ is a peaceful, chorale-like setting;
  • ‘Will you walk a little faster?’ has a deliberate feel, featuring call-and-response imitation;
  • ‘Beautiful Soup’ is in the manner of a leisurely waltz; and
  • ‘They told me you had been to her’ is mysterious and energetic, with evocative musical language.

In all the songs, the piano or instrumental ensemble is a key component in the drama, rather than being simply a supportive accompanying force. There is also some scat singing, recitation, and spoken text. ‘You are old, Father William’ in particular exploits recitation to great dramatic effect, requiring a member of the choir to take on the part of Father William, which is entirely spoken, while the rest of the choir adopt the role of narrator, with sung interjections that complete the story.

Chilcott’s Mouse Tales, for SA and piano, is in two movements: the second setting the familiar poem ‘The Mouse’s Tale’ from the published version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and the first setting the poem that Carroll included in its place in his original manuscript. Both movements have an abundance of character, and Chilcott marks the first movement ‘sassy’, a term that perfectly describes the musical style and that encourages the singers to give a characterful performance. The first movement has a jazz flavour, while the energetic second movement features driving ostinatos in the piano and accents in the vocal lines that place emphasis on unexpected beats of the bar, keeping the singers on their toes. Like Bailey, Chilcott employs scat singing and spoken interjections such as ‘you did?’ and ‘nice!’ for dramatic effect, as well as a catchy refrain to present the well-known proverb ‘when the cat’s away, then the mice will play’.

Sarah Quartel. Devin Card Photography
Sarah Quartel. Devin Card Photography

Unlike the other two composers, Sarah Quartel uses Carroll’s story as the basis for her own text, in which we encounter characters such as the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, and the Hatter. The piece, for SSA and piano, has great potential for dramatic performance, with sections of a cappella scat singing and spoken text and a catchy refrain that centres around the Cheshire Cat’s declaration that ‘we’re all mad here’, where the part-writing encourages playful interaction between the different sections of the choir. The choir adopts the role of Alice, and Quartel helps the singers to convey Alice’s responses to the narrative through performance directions such as ‘with distinct character, telling a story’, ‘playful, like a caucus-race’, ‘indignant!’, and ‘with awe!’. Naturally, the music itself contributes to the characterization. For example, a march-like figure is employed to represent the Queen, while the music for the flustered White Rabbit features rapidly ascending and descending scales in the piano. Indeed, once again, the piano is a key component in the portrayal of the drama, and the rapid movement through different keys also helps to convey Alice’s mixture of confusion and wonder at the strange world she inhabits.

As we have seen, there are certain similarities in the three composers’ responses to this influential work of children’s literature. Perhaps unsurprisingly, each of the composers elected to write for upper voices, so that their settings might be performed by children’s choir. Imaginative and descriptive performance directions play an important part, assisting the singers in their characterization of the unusual protagonists in the story that they are telling. Again, unsurprisingly, the book appears to inspire a certain theatricality in the writing and music; it requires the performers to give a dramatic performance that has a strong sense of fun. Spoken text and scat singing are also prevalent in all three works, and the piano makes an integral contribution to the musical characterization. With its adventurous heroine, extraordinary characters, and unapologetic celebration of the quirky and the ‘mad’, it is little wonder that the text has proven a source of inspiration for composers since its inception and will undoubtedly continue to do so.

Headline image credit: Иллюстрация к главе Бег по кругу книги Алиса в стране чудес. Image by Gertrude Kay. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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2. The myth-eaten corpse of Robert Burns

‘Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt,’ so wrote the other bard, Shakespeare.

Scotland’s bard, Robert Burns, has had a surfeit of biographical attention: upwards of three hundred biographical treatments, and as if many of these were not fanciful enough hundreds of novels, short stories, theatrical, television, and film treatments that often strain well beyond credulity.

Burns has been pursued beyond (or properly in) the grave in even more extreme ways. His remains have been disinterred twice, the second time so that his skull might be examined for the purposes of phrenology. In death he has been bothered again very recently in the run up to Scotland’s referendum in October 2014. Would Burns have been a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ voter, a Nationalist or a Unionist, was often posed and answered across media outlets.

This de-historicised Burns, someone who never actually had any kind of political vote in life, who had no access to nationalist, or indeed, unionist ideology, in the modern senses is nothing new. During World War I, the minute book of the Dumfries Volunteer Militia, in which Burns had enlisted in 1795 in the face of threatened French invasion, was rediscovered. It was published in 1919 by William Will of the London Burns Club with a rather emotional introduction claiming that the minute-book’s records showing Burns’s impeccable conduct as a militiaman was proof of the poet’s sound British patriotism and how he might be compared to the many brave British soldiers who had just taken on the Kaiser. In response, those who had been recently constructing a pacifist Burns spluttered with indignation. Wasn’t the Scottish Bard the man who had written ‘Why Shouldna Poor Folk Mowe [make love]’ during the 1790s:

When Princes and Prelates and het-headed zealots
All Europe hae set in a lowe             [noisy turmoil]
The poor man lies down, nor envies a crown,
And comforts himself with a mowe.

Image Credit: Portrait of Robert Burns, Ayr, Scotland. Library of Congress.
Portrait of Robert Burns, Ayr, Scotland. Library of Congress.

This is an increasingly obscene song, an anti-war text saying, ‘a plague on all your houses’ (to paraphrase the other bard again): the poor should choose love, and not war – the latter being the result of much more shameful shenanigans by their supposed lords and masters.

Ironically enough in ‘To A Louse’, Burns wrote:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
        An’ foolish notion

The problem is that Burns would be dizzy with the multifarious contradictoriness of it all if he could truly emerge from the grave and attempt to see himself as others have seen him. Ultimately, what we have with Burns is the man who may or may not have been Scotland’s greatest poet, but who is certainly Scotland’s greatest song-writer (with the production of twice as many songs as poems) — the nearest Scotland has, a bit cheesy though the comparison is, to Lennon and McCartney. These songs and poems express indeed many different ideas, moods, emotions, and characters. They sympathise with radically different viewpoints (for instance, Burns can write empathetically on occasion about both Mary Queen of Scots (Catholic Stuart tyrant) and the Covenanters (Calvinist fanatics, according to their respective detractors)). Burns’s work is both his living achievement and the real remains over which we ought to pore. In the end there is no real Burns, but instead a fictional one and the important fictions are of his making.

Image Credit: Scottish Highlands by Gustave Doré (1875). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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3. The works of Walter Savage Landor

Though he’s largely forgotten today, Walter Savage Landor was one of the major authors of his time—of both his times, in fact, for he was long-lived enough to produce major writing during both the Romantic and the Victorian eras. He kept writing and publishing promiscuously through his long life (he died in his ninetieth year) which puts him in a unique category. Maybe the problem is that he outlived his own reputation. Byron, Shelly and Keats all died in their twenties, and this fact somehow seals-in their importance as poets. Landor’s close friend Southey died at the beginning of the 1840s. Landor lived on, writing and publishing poetry, prose, drama, English and Latin. He forged friendships now with men like Robert Browning—who was deeply influenced by Landor’s writing—John Forster and Charles Dickens (Dickens named his second son Walter Savage Landor Dickens in his friend’s honour). His Victorian reputation was higher than his sales; but and if we’re puzzled by how completely his literary reputation was eclipsed during the 20th century in part that may simply be a function of his prolixity. Landor’s Collected Works was published between 1927 and 1936 in sixteen fat volumes; and even that capacious edition doesn’t by any means contain everything Landor published. It omits, for instance, his voluminous Latin writing—for Landor was the last English writer to produce a substantial body of work in that dead language. In late life he once said ‘I am sometimes at a loss for an English word; for a Latin—never!’

His most substantial prose writings were the Imaginary Conversations: dozens and dozens of prose dialogues between famous historical figures, and occasionally between fictionalised versions of living individuals, varying in length from a few pages each to seventy or eighty. The prose is exquisite, balanced, beautifully mannered and expressed and full of potent epigrams and apothegms on art, society, history, morals and religion. Nobody reads the Imaginary Conversations any more. Then there are the epics—his masterpiece, Gebir (1798), an heroic poem of immense ambition, was greeted by bafflement and ridicule on its initial publication. Landor’s experimental epic idiom was simply too obscure for his readers even to understand—though Lamb claimed the poem has ‘lucid interludes’, and Shelley loved it. Critic William Gifford was less kind: he called the poem ‘a jumble of incomprehensible trash; the effusion of a mad and muddy brain.’ Landor decided to address the question of the poem’s obscurity the best way he knew: by translating the entire epic into Latin (Gebirus, 1803). Ah, those were the days!

He wrote shoals of beautiful lyrics and elegies. He wrote volumes-full of plays, all cod-Shakespearian blank-verse dramas. He wrote historical novels, one of which (Pericles and Aspasia, 1836) is very good. He wrote classical idylls, pastoral poetry—he was a passionate gardener—epigrams and epitaphs in English and Latin. The sheer amount of work he produced may explain the decline in his reputation; for looking new readers surveying the cliff-face of text to climb may find it offputting.

Walter_Savage_Landor_ILN
The late Walter Savage Landor. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

It’s worth the ascent, though. Landor was a choleric individual, given to sudden rages, whilst also magnanimous, kind-hearted and loyal to his friends. Dickens wrote him into Bleak House as the character Boythorn; and a Boythorn-ish energy and vitality very often breaks through the classical refinement of the verse. Unhappily married (he and his wife separated in 1835) he lived through a series of towering, unrequired passions for other, married women. This hopelessness, paradoxically, gives force to some of the best poetry Landor ever wrote: love poems in which the impossibility of love only magnifies the intensity of affection. It’s idea Landor understands better almost than any other writer: that the strongest feelings are predicated upon absence rather than presence.  Here’s his short lyric ‘Dirce’ (1831):

Stand close around, ye Stygian set,

With Dirce in one boat convey’d,

Or Charon, seeing, may forget

That he is old, and she a shade.

This says that Dirce is so beautiful that, were he to see her, Charon might ‘forget himself’, and presumably ignore the obstacles of his own dotage and the fact that she is ‘a shade’ to make erotic advances.  But in fact the ‘forgetting’ in this lyric involves a much more complex mode of amnesia.  It’s tempting to read the poem as being about a particular affect: the melancholy, hopeless desire of an old man for the ideal of youthful female beauty.  Desire haunted by the sense that, really, it would be better not to feel desire at all—that to desire is in some sense to ‘forget yourself.’  That idiom is an interesting one, actually; as if an old man feeling sexual desire is in some sense ‘forgetting’ not just that he is old, and that young girls aren’t interested in clapped-out old codgers, but more crucially forgetting that he isn’t the sort of person who feels in that way at all.  Perhaps we tend to think of desire not as something to be remembered or forgotten, but as something experienced directly.  In its compact way this poem suggests otherwise.

Renunciation is another of Landor’s perennial themes.  One of his most famous quatrains runs:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;

Nature I loved; and next to Nature, Art.

I warmed both hands before the fire of life;

It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Written in 1849, on the occasion of Landor’s 74th birthday, this has a certain clean dignity, both stylistically and in terms of what it is saying; although it takes part of its force from the knowledge that (as I mention above) Landor actually strove with people all the time, all through his life: personally, cholerically, in law courts, in print and face-to-face.  The second line of the poem, by (it seems to me) rather pointedly omitting ‘people’ from the things that Landor has spent his life loving, rather reinforces this notion.  One consequence of a man, particularly a large man like Landor, standing in front of the fire to warm his hands is to block off the heat from everybody else in the room. And that seems appropriate too, somehow.

Featured image credit: ‘Inscription from Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) to Robert Browning (1812-1889)’ by Provenance Online Project. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

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4. A Show-Trial: An excerpt from Bengt Jangfeldt’s Mayakovsky

9780226056975

“A Show-Trial”

Excerpted from Mayakovsky: A Biography by Bengt Jangfeldt

***

Mayakovsky returned to Moscow on 17 or 18 September. The following day, Krasnoshchokov was arrested, accused of a number of different offenses. He was supposed to have lent money to his brother Yakov, head of the firm American–Russian Constructor, at too low a rate of interest, and to have arranged drink– and sex–fueled orgies at the Hotel Europe in Petrograd, paying the Gypsy girls who entertained the company with pure gold. He was also accused of having passed on his salary from the Russian–American Industrial Corporation ($200 a month) to his wife (who had returned to the United States), of having bought his mistress flowers and furs out of state funds, of renting a luxury villa, and of keeping no fewer than three horses. Lenin was now so ill that he had not been able to intervene on Krasnoshchokov’s behalf even if he had wanted to.

His arrest was a sensation of the first order. It was the first time that such a highly placed Communist had been accused of corruption, and the event cast a shadow over the whole party apparatus. Immediately after Krasnoshchokov’s arrest, and in order to prevent undesired interpretations of what had happened, Valerian Kuybyshev, the commissar for Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, let it be known that “incontrovertible facts have come to light which show Krasnoshchokov has in a criminal manner exploited the resources of the economics department [of the Industry Bank] for his own use, that he has arranged wild orgies with these funds, and that he has used bank funds to enrich his relatives, etc.” He had, it was claimed, “in a criminal manner betrayed the trust placed in him and must be sentenced to a severe punishment.”

Krasnoshchokov was, in other words, judged in advance. There was no question of any objective legal process; the intention was to set an example: “The Soviet power and the Communist Party will […] root out with an iron hand all sick manifestations of the NEP and remind those who ‘let themselves be tempted’ by the joys of capitalism that they live in a workers’ state run by a Communist party.” Krasnoshchokov’s arrest was deemed so important that Kuybyshev’s statement was printed simultaneously in the party organ Pravda and the government organ Izvestiya. Kuybyshev was a close friend of the prosecutor Nikolay Krylenko, who had led the prosecution of the Socialist Revolutionaries the previous year, and who in time would turn show trials and false charges into an art form.

When Krasnoshchokov was arrested, Lili and Osip were still in Berlin. In the letter that Mayakovsky wrote to them a few days after the arrest, the sensational news is passed over in total silence. He gives them the name of the civil servant in the Berlin legation who can give them permission to import household effects (which they had obviously bought in Berlin) into Russia; he tells them that the squirrel which lives with them is still alive and that Lyova Grinkrug is in the Crimea. The only news item of greater significance is that he has been at Lunacharsky’s to discuss Lef and is going to visit Trotsky on the same mission. But of the event which the whole of Moscow was talking about, and which affected Lili to the utmost degree—not a word.

Krasnoshchokov’s trial took place at the beginning of March 1924. Sitting in the dock, apart from his brother Yakov, were three employees of the Industry Bank. Krasnoshchokov, who was a lawyer, delivered a brilliant speech in his own defense, explaining that, as head of the bank, he had the right to fix lending rates in individual cases and that one must be flexible in order to obtain the desired result. As for the charges of immoral behavior he maintained that his work necessitated a certain degree of official entertainment and that the “luxury villa” in the suburb of Kuntsevo was an abandoned dacha which in addition was his sole permanent dwelling. (It is one of the ironies of history that the house had been owned before the Revolution by the Shekhtel family and accordingly had often had Mayakovsky as a guest—see the chapter “Volodya”). Finally, he pointed out that his private life was not within the jurisdiction of the law.

This opinion was not shared by the court, which ruled that Krasnoshchokov had lived an immoral life during a time when a Communist ought to have set a good example and not surrender to the temptations offered by the New Economic Policy. Krasnoshchokov was also guilty of having used his position to “encourage his relatives’ private business transactions” and having caused the bank to lose 10,000 gold rubles. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment and in addition three years’ deprivation of citizen’s rights. Moreover, he was excluded from the Communist Party. His brother was given three years’ imprisonment, while the other three coworkers received shorter sentences.

Krasnoshchokov had in fact been a very successful bank director. Between January 1923 and his arrest in September he had managed to increase the Industry Bank’s capital tenfold, partly thanks to a flexible interest policy which led to large American investments in Russia. There is a good deal of evidence that the charges against him were initiated by persons within the Finance Commissariat and the Industry Bank’s competitor, the Soviet National Bank. Shortly before his arrest Krasnoshchokov had suggested that the Industry Bank should take over all the National Bank’s industrial–financial operations. Exactly the opposite happened: after Krasnoshchokov’s verdict was announced, the Industry Bank was subordinated to the Soviet National Bank.

There is little to suggest that the accusations of orgies were true. Krasnoshchokov was not known to be a rake, and his “entertainment expenses” were hardly greater than those of other highly placed functionaries. But he had difficulties defending himself, as he maintained not one mistress but two—although he had a wife and children. The woman who figured in the trial was not, as one might have expected, Lili, but a certain Donna Gruz—Krasnoshchokov’s secretary, who six years later would become his second wife. This fact undoubtedly undermined his credibility as far as his private life was concerned.

When Lili and Elsa showed Nadezhda Lamanova’s dresses in Paris in the winter of 1924, it attracted the attention of both the French and the British press, where this photograph was published with the caption “soviet sack fashion.—Because of the lack of textiles in Soviet Russia, Mme. Lamanoff, a Moscow fashion designer, had this dress made out of sackcloth from freight bales.”

By the time the judgment was announced, Lili had been in Paris for three weeks. She was there for her own amusement and does not seem to have had any particular tasks to fulfill. But she had with her dresses by the Soviet couturier Nadezhda Lamanova which she and Elsa showed off at two soirees organized by a Paris newspaper. She would like to go to Nice, she confided in a letter home to Moscow on 23 February, but her plans were frustrated by the fact that Russian emigrants were holding a congress there. She was thinking of traveling to Spain instead, or somewhere else in France, to “bake in the sun for a week or so.” But she remained in Paris, where she and Elsa went out dancing the whole time. Their “more or less regular cavaliers” were Fernand Léger (whom Mayakovsky had got to know in Paris in 1922) and an acquaintance from London who took them everywhere with him, “from the most chic of places to the worst of dives.” “It has been nothing but partying here,” she wrote. “Elsa has instituted a notebook in which she writes down all our rendezvous ten days in advance!” As clothes are expensive in Paris too, she asks Osip and Mayakovsky to send her a little money in the event of their managing to win “some mad sum of money” at cards.

When she was writing this letter, there were still two weeks to go before Krasnoshchokov’s trial. “How is A[lexander] M[ikhailovich]?” she asked, in the middle of reporting on the fun she was having. But she did not receive a reply, or if she did, it has not been preserved. On 26 March, after a month in Paris, she took the boat to England to visit her mother, who was in poor health, but that same evening she was forced to return to Calais after being stopped at passport control in Dover—despite having a British visa issued in Moscow in June 1923. What she did not know was that after her first visit to England in October 1922 she had been declared persona non grata, something which all British passport control points “for Europe and New York” had been informed of in a secret circular of 13 February 1923.

 

 

“You can’t imagine how humiliating it was to be turned back at the British border,” she wrote to Mayakovsky: “I have all sorts of theories about it, which I’ll tell you about when we I see you. Strange as it may seem, I think they didn’t let me in because of you.” She guessed right: documents from the Home Office show that it was her relationship with Mayakovsky, who wrote “extremely libellous articles” in Izvestiya, which had proved her undoing. Strangely enough, despite being refused entry to Britain, she was able to travel to London three weeks later. The British passport authorities have no record of her entry to the country. Did she come in by an illegal route?

At the same time that Lili traveled to Paris, Mayakovsky set out on a recital tour in Ukraine. Recitals were an important source of income for him. During his stay in Odessa he mentioned in a newspaper interview that he was planning to set out soon on a trip round the world, as he had been invited to give lectures and read poems in the United States. Two weeks later he was back in Moscow, and in the middle of April he went to Berlin, where Lili joined him about a week later. According to one newspaper, Mayakovsky was in the German capital “on his way to America.”

The round–the–world trip did not come off, as Mayakovsky failed to obtain the necessary visas. It was not possible to request an American visa in Moscow, as the two countries lacked diplomatic ties. Mayakovsky’s plan was therefore to try to get into the United States via a third country. Britain’s first Labour government, under Ramsay MacDonald, had scarcely recognized the Soviet Union (on 1 February 1924) before Mayakovsky requested a British visa, on 25 March. From England he planned to continue his journey to Canada and India. In a letter to Ramsay MacDonald, Britain’s chargé d’affaires in Moscow asked for advice about the visa application. Mayakovsky was not known to the mission, he wrote, but was “a member of the Communist party and, I am told, is known as a Bolshevik propagandist.” Mr. Hodgson would not have needed to do this if he had known that on 9 February, the Home Office had also issued a secret circular about Mayakovsky, “one of the principal leaders of the ‘Communist’ propaganda and agitation section of the ‘ROSTA,’” who since 1921 had been writing propaganda articles for Izvestiya and “should not be given a visa or be allowed to land in the United Kingdom” or any of its colonies. In Mayakovsky’s case the circular was sent to every British port, consulate, and passport and military checkpoint, as well as to Scotland House and the India Office. But in the very place where people really ought to have known about it, His Majesty’s diplomatic mission in Moscow, they were completely unaware of it.

While he waited for an answer from the British, Mayakovsky made a couple of appearances in Berlin where he talked about Lef and recited his poems. On the 9 May he traveled back to Moscow in company with Lili and Scotty, the Scotch terrier she had picked up in England, tired of waiting for notification that never came. When he got to Moscow he found out that on 5 May London had instructed the British mission in Moscow to turn down his visa application.

VLADIMIR ILYICH

The preliminary investigation and subsequent trial of Krasnoshchokov caused a great stir, but it would certainly have got even more column inches if it had not been played out in the shadow of a significantly more important event. On 21 January 1924, Vladimir Lenin died after several years of illness.

Among the thousands of people jostling one another in the queues which snaked around in front of Trade Unions House, where the leader of the Revolution lay in state, were Mayakovsky, Lili, and Osip. Lenin’s death affected Mayakovsky deeply. “It was a terrible morning when he died,” Lili recalled. “We wept in the queue in Red Square where we were standing in the freezing cold to see him. Mayakovsky had a press card, so we were able to bypass the queue. I think he viewed the body ten times. We were all deeply shaken.”

Mayakovsky with Scotty, whom Lili bought in England. The picture was taken in the summer of 1924 at the dacha in Pushkino. Scotty loved ice cream, and, according to Rodchenko, Mayakovsky regarded “with great tenderness how Scotty ate and licked his mouth.” “He took him in his arms and I photographed them in the garden,” the photographer remembered. “I took two pictures. Volodya kept his tender smile, wholly directed at Scotty.” The photograph with Scotty is in fact one of the few where Mayakovsky can be seen smiling.

The feelings awakened by Lenin’s death were deep and genuine, and not only for his political supporters. Among those queuing were Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam, who shared a far more lukewarm attitude to the Revolution and its leader. “Lenin dead in Moscow!” exclaimed Mandelstam in his coverage of the event. “How can one fail to be with Moscow in this hour! Who does not want to see that dear face, the face of Russia itself ? The time? Two, three, four? How long will we stand here? No one knows. The time is past. We stand in a wonderful nocturnal forest of people. And thousands of children with us.”

Shortly after Lenin’s death Mayakovsky tackled his most ambitious project to date: a long poem about the Communist leader. He had written about him before, in connection with his fiftieth birthday in 1920 (“Vladimir Ilyich!”), and when Lenin suffered his first stroke in the winter of 1923 (“We Don’t Believe It!”), but those were shorter poems. According to Mayakovsky himself, he began pondering a poem about Lenin as early as 1923, but that may well have been a rationalization after the event. What set his pen in motion was in any case Lenin’s death in January 1924.

Mayakovsky had only a superficial knowledge of Lenin’s life and work and was forced to read up on him before he could write about him. His mentor, as on so many other occasions, was Osip, who supplied him with books and gave him a crash course in Leniniana. Mayakovsky himself had neither the time nor the patience for such projects. The poem was written during the summer and was ready by the beginning of October 1924. It was given the title “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin” and was the longest poem Mayakovsky ever wrote; at three thousand lines, it was almost twice as long as “About This.” In the autumn of 1924 he gave several poetry readings and fragments of the poem were printed in various newspapers. It came out in book form in February 1925.

The line to the Trade Unions’ House in Moscow, where Lenin was lying in state.

So the lyrical “About This” was followed by an epic poem, in accordance with the conscious or unconscious scheme that directed the rhythm of Mayakovsky’s writing. If even a propaganda poem like “To the Workers in Kursk” was dedicated to Lili, such a dedication was impossible in this case. “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin” was dedicated to the Russian Communist Party, and Mayakovsky explains why, with a subtle but unambiguous reference to “About This”:

I can write
about this,
about that,
but now
is not the time
for love–drivel.
All my
resounding power
as a poet
give to you,
attacking class.

In “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin” Lenin is portrayed as a Messiah–like figure, whose appearance on the historical scene is an inevitable consequence of the emergence of the working class. Karl Marx revealed the laws of history and, with his theories, “helped the working class to its feet.” But Marx was only a theoretician, who in the fullness of time would be replaced by someone who could turn theory into practice, that is, Lenin.

The poem is uneven, which is not surprising considering the format. From a linguistic point of view—the rhyme, the neologisms—it is undoubtedly comparable to the best of Mayakovsky’s other works, and the depiction of the sorrow and loss after Lenin’s death is no less than a magnificent requiem. But the epic, historical sections are too long and prolix. The same is true of the tributes to the Communist Party, which often rattle with empty rhetoric (which in turn can possibly be explained by the fact that Mayakovsky was never a member of the party):

I want
once more to make the majestic word
“PARTY”
shine.
One individual!
Who needs that?!
The voice of an individual
is thinner than a cheep.
Who hears it—
except perhaps his wife?

The party
is a hand with millions of fingers
clenched
into a single destroying fist.
The individual is rubbish,
the individual is zero  …
We say Lenin,
but mean
The Party.
We say
The Party,
but mean Lenin.

One of the few reviewers who paid any attention to the poem, the proletarian critic and anti–Futurist G. Lelevich, was quite right in pointing out that Mayakovsky’s “ultraindividualistic” lines in “About This” stand out as “uniquely honest” in comparison with “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin,” which “with few exceptions is rationalistic and rhetorical.” This was a “tragic fact” that Mayakovsky could only do something about by trying to “conquer himself.” The Lenin poem, wrote Lelevich, was a “flawed but meaningful and fruitful attempt to tread this path.”

Lelevich was right to claim that “About This” is a much more convincing poem than the ode to Lenin. But the “tragic” thing was not what Lelevich perceived as such, but something quite different, namely, Mayakovsky’s denial of the individual and his importance. In order to “conquer” himself, that is, the lyrical impulse within himself, he would have to take yet more steps in that direction—which he would in fact do, although it went against his innermost being.

If there is anything of lasting value in “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin,” it is not the paeans of praise to Lenin and the Communist Party—poems of homage are seldom good—but the warnings that Lenin, after his death, will be turned into an icon. The Lenin to whom Mayakovsky pays tribute was born in the Russian provinces as “a normal, simple boy” and grew up to be the “most human of all human beings.” If he had been “king–like and god–like” Mayakovsky would without a doubt have protested and taken a stance “opposed to all processions and tributes”:

I ought
to have found words
for lightning–flashing curses,
and while
I
and my yell
were trampled underfoot
I should have
hurled blasphemies
against heaven
and tossed
like bombs at the Kremlin
my: NO!

The worst thing Mayakovsky can imagine is that Lenin, like Marx, will become a “cooling plaster dotard imprisoned in marble.” This is a reference back to “The Fourth International,” in which Lenin is depicted as a petrified monument.

I am worried that
processions
and mausoleums,
celebratory statues
set in stone,
will drench
Leninist simplicity
in syrup–smooth balsam—

Mayakovsky warns, clearly blind to the fact that he himself is contributing to this development with his seventy–five–page long poem.

The fear that Lenin would be canonized after his death was deeply felt—and well grounded. It did not take long before Gosizdat (!) began advertising busts of the leader in plaster, bronze, granite, and marble, “life–size and double life–size.” The busts were produced from an original by the sculptor Merkurov—whom Mayakovsky had apostrophized in his Kursk poem—and with the permission of the Committee for the Perpetuation of the Memory of V. I. Lenin. The target groups were civil–service departments, party organizations and trade unions, cooperatives, and the like.

After his return from Berlin in May 1924, Mayakovsky met with the Japanese author Tamisi Naito, who was visiting Moscow. Seated at the table next to Mayakovsky and Lili is Sergey Tretyakov’s wife, Olga. To left of Naito (standing in the center) are Sergey Eisenstein and Boris Pasternak.

The Lef members’ tribute to the dead leader was of a different nature. The theory section in the first issue of Lef for 1924 was devoted to Lenin’s language, with contributions by leading Formalists such as Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eikhenbaum, Boris Tomashevsky, and Yury Tynyanov—groundbreaking attempts to analyze political language by means of structuralist methods. Lenin was said to have “decanonized” the language, “cut down the inflated style,” and so on, all in the name of linguistic efficiency. This striving for powerful simplicity was in line with the theoretical ambitions of the Lef writers but stood in stark contrast to the canonization of Lenin which was set in train by his successors as soon as his corpse was cold.

This entire issue of Lef was in actual fact a polemic against this development—indirectly, in the essays about Lenin’s language, and in a more undisguised way in the leader article. In a direct reference to the advertisements for Lenin busts, the editorial team at Lef in their manifesto “Don’t Trade in Lenin!” sent the following exhortation to the authorities:

We insist:
Don’t make matrices out of Lenin.
Don’t print his portrait on posters, oilcloths, plates, drinking
vessels, cigarette boxes.
Don’t turn Lenin into bronze.
Don’t take from him his living gait and human physiognomy,
which he managed to preserve at the same time as he led history.
Lenin is still our present.
He is among the living.
We need him living, not dead.
Therefore:
Learn from Lenin, but don’t canonize him.
Don’t create a cult around a man who fought against all kinds of
cults throughout his life.
Don’t peddle artifacts of this cult.
Don’t trade in Lenin.

In view of the extravagant cult of Lenin that would develop later in the Soviet Union, the text is insightful to the point of clairvoyance. But the readers of Lef were never to see it. According to the list of contents, the issue began on page 3 with the leader “Don’t Trade in Lenin!” But in the copies that were distributed, this page is missing and the pagination begins instead on page 5. The leadership of Gosizdat, which distributed Lef, had been incensed by the criticism of the advertisements for Lenin busts and had removed the leader. As if by some miracle, it has been preserved in a few complimentary copies which made it to the libraries before the censor’s axe fell.

To read more about Mayakovsky, click here.

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5. South of the Border, West of the Sun

Following the coming-of-age of Hajime, a lonely only child, into his young adulthood, marriage, and adult life, South of the Border, West of the Sun is a melancholy tale of a life of longing. Exploring love, attraction, sexuality, and happiness, Murakami's brilliant novel visits a marriage on the knife-edge of disaster. The tension, the indecision, [...]

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6. The Powell’s Playlist: Ned Beauman

I did have a playlist that I listened to over and over again while I was writing Glow, but three years on I'm a bit bored of those songs, which got their final blast at my book party in London last year. So here are the B-sides, so to speak: other good songs by the [...]

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7. From Musician to Novelist

I was asleep on the floor of the magicians' apartment. Not one, but three magicians lived there, and their mysterious, mischievous, and sometimes macabre props surrounded my living-room floor futon. A straitjacket hung on the coat rack, a mini-guillotine sat over the fireplace, a mechanical monkey poked out from behind the couch, and an artificial [...]

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8. After Dark

Somewhere between the edge of sleep and wakefulness, After Dark resides. Told in one evening, with chapters indicated by time-stamps, Murakami's tale of both somnambulists and insomniacs is still, stark, and seductive. With a bonus delicious, "thriller-ish" story thread, After Dark is a little slice of Murakami heaven. Books mentioned in this post

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9. The Powell’s Playlist: Mary Helen Specht

Migratory Animals is mostly set in Texas during the first years of the most recent recession, when the cast of characters — an eclectic group of college friends now in their 30s — are coming to the realization that, in a world of shrinking resources, a good education is no longer enough to ensure an [...]

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10. I Think You’re Totally Wrong

In this hilarious and thought-provoking book, Powell and Shields spend an extended weekend at a cabin debating the merits of each of their chosen lifestyles. Powell, a stay-at-home dad, is committed to embracing life to the fullest. Shields, a prolific author, believes that life should be devoted to the creation of art. It's an argument [...]

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11. Five Hundred Mountains Destroyed for a @*&%$! Allegory!

I found a hole in the perimeter fence on a Sunday when the haul trucks were idle and I could work my way up the shoulder of mountain undetected. About 100 yards from the site rim, I came into a collar of dying trees — leaves dusted with grey mountain gilings, a forest floor of [...]

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12. Star Bright Title Makes Headlines


A local newspaper based out of Manchester, Indiana has written an article profiling Neil Wollman and Abigail Fuller, the co-authors of the recently published What Animal Needs a Wig?! The article (which can be expanded above) highlights both the lives of the co-authors, as well as the background on their hilarious new book.

In contrast to the research-based academic reports and activism publications that both Neil Wollman, a former psychology professor, and wife Abigail fuller, a current sociology professor, are accustomed to working on, What Animal Needs a Wig? came about much more casually. During long trips to visit Fuller's family in Massachusetts, Wollman would make jokes and puns with his family regarding animals. Curious to see if anything could come of it, Wollman decided to team  up with Fuller and her sister, illustrator Frances Baldwin, to construct a compilation of well-researched, interesting, and funny factoids and puns about nature.

Everyone at Star Bright Books would like to extend congratulate Neil Wollman and Abigail Fuller for writing such an amazing book, and our warmest thanks to writer Eric Seaman for writing this article. For more information regarding What Animal Needs a Wig?, please visit our website, starbrightbooks.com






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13. Alice Kaplan on Patrick Modiano

AKaplan_150_225

 

Below follows, in full, an interview with Alice Kaplan on the career of recent Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano. The interview was originally published online via the French-language journal Libérationshortly after the Nobel announcement.

***

The American academic Alice Kaplan, author of the outstanding The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach, and more recently, Dreaming in French, teaches Modiano at Yale University, where she chairs the Department of French. She evokes for us the particular aura of the French Nobel Laureate in the United States.

Is Patrick Modiano well known in American universities?

There have been sixteen PhD dissertations on Modiano in American universities since 1987, a significant number, given that he is a both foreigner and a contemporary novelist. Yale University Press has just published a trilogy of novels originally published by the Editions du Seuil under the title Suspended Sentences. Modiano’s attraction comes from his style, which is laconic and beautiful but also quite accessible, in English as well as in French. Then there is the particular genre he invented, inspired by detective fiction, familiar to American readers. The obstacle is obviously the number of references to specific places in Paris that are everywhere in his books—all those street names and addresses that capture so well the atmosphere of different neighborhood, so that it’s probably necessary to have visited Paris at least once to really get him. At the same time, he knows exactly how to create an atmosphere. I always think about Edward Hopper when I read Modiano, there is a sense in his books that something horrible has happened; a crime is floating in the air, and a sense of someone or something missing. Modiano could write stories that take place in Brooklyn or in New Jersey. He’s invented such a specific a notion of place that you can think of certain places as being “Modianesque.”

Does he have many American readers?

It is difficult to say. He is published by David R. Godine, an editor of fine literary fiction, not a mass market publisher. My sense is that he is appreciated by the kind of reader who appreciates James Salter, for example, or by the kind of American reader who might have read Hélène Berr’s wartime diary in translation—which Modiano prefaced in the original French edition. His novel Dora Bruder has been widely read in the U.S. by intellectuals interested in the memory of the Holocaust—precisely because it is a book about forgetting. Historians find Modiano especially interesting because he offers a challenge to a certain kind of positivism with respect to memory. In the United States, people are always hunting for their identities. Genealogical search engines like ancestry.com, and television shows like Finding your roots are phenomenally successful. And here comes a writer who understands the mixed nature of ancestry, the racial and cultural mix fundamental to American identity and who describes the desire to understand where we come from, but also—and this is important—the impossibility of knowing everything, the confusion. I teach Dora Bruder in a class on the archives and the relationship of history to literature, because it is a book that tells us that we must also respect what we can’t know. In Modiano’s books, the person who knows the answer has just died, or else the narrator is so tired of searching that he stops before he gets to the last garage on his list. Modiano is often compared to Proust and even considered a kind of modern day Proust, and there is something to this, except that Proust is never tired of searching for lost time! The fact that Modiano’s fiction seems to slip through our fingers is an integral part of his literary project. He helps us understanding forgetting, the same way Proust helps us understand jealousy, or Stendhal ambition.

What does research on Modiano look like?

The last thesis I directed on Modiano investigated his use of the first person, the fact that he doesn’t engage in what the French call “autofiction”—i.e., fictional autobiography—but in something much more subtle. You can’t read Modiano for the identity politics that have become so fundamental in the American academy, where we read systematically through the grid of race and gender. Modiano is always questioning those categories, by showing the error of simplistic shortcuts. You cannot, for example, categorize him as a “Jewish writer.”

How did you discover his books?

I read La Place de L’Etoile while I was working on Céline’s anti-Semitic writing. I find it astonishing that Modiano published that book (a parody of anti-semitic prose) in 1968, well before the great wave of consciousness about the French collaboration with the Nazis that came in the wake of Robert Paxton’s groundbreaking research. Think about it: Modiano was alone, not part of any literary school, and he wrote about French anti-Semitism with incredible intuition. He was especially attuned to the anti-Semitic rhetoric around Jewish names. After La Place de l’Etoile, I devoured all of his books.

To read more by Alice Kaplan, click here.

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14. 35 Seconds

Late at night on September 22, 2014, at a housing project basketball court in Brooklyn, a white cop pushes a black man against a chain link fence. They stand face-to-face, the black man, Lamard Joye, a little taller than the cop, William Montemarino. Joye wears a hooded sweatshirt, printed collage-style with pictures of the Notorious [...]

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15. 10:04

I think this next statement is true, and it is deeply troubling: as a culture and as artists, we are trying to figure out how to live in a world that has been devastated ecologically and economically, but isn't all over yet. Where does parenthood (creation), relationships (belonging), and — Lerner's biggest question — art [...]

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16. The Powell’s Playlist: Songs for Not Sleeping by Tim Johnston

I once told a medical-profession-type lady that I didn't sleep well, that I awoke all through the night and was awake for hours. "What do you do when that happens?" she asked. I said I lie there listening to music and thinking. "Thinking about what?" she asked. I said everything, but mainly about whatever I'm [...]

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17. The Rosie Effect

In this follow-up to The Rosie Project, Don and Rosie are back for round two, this time in New York and with a new twist to challenge Don’s linear, logical, not-so-flexible way of interacting with the world: Rosie is pregnant. This sequel is just as funny as the first book. Books mentioned in this post [...]

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18. The Boston Girl

Diamant's new historical fiction novel follows the life of Addie, daughter of Jewish Russian immigrants. Addie defies her parent’s restrictive expectations; she is an early feminist, attends high school, joins the workforce, and delves into artistic society. Her lifelong love of literature makes the read extra enjoyable for booklovers. Books mentioned in this post The [...]

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19. 10 medically-trained authors whose books all doctors should read

Sir William Osler, the great physician and bibliophile, recommended that his students should have a non-medical bedside library that could be dipped in and out of profitably to create the well rounded physician. Some of the works mentioned by him, for example Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne is unlikely to be on most people’s reading lists today. There have been several recent initiatives in medical schools to encourage and promote the role of humanities in the education of tomorrow’s doctors. Literature and cinema has a role to play in making doctors more empathetic and understanding the human condition.

My idiosyncratic choice of books is as follows.

Firstly, I start with a work by the most respected physician of the twentieth century, Sir William Osler himself. The work I choose is Aeqanimitas, published in 1905 and is a collection of essays and addresses to medical students and nurses with essays ranging in title from “Doctor and Nurse,” “Teacher and Student,” “Nurse and Patient,” and “The Student Life”. They are as relevant today as the day they were penned with a prose style combining erudition and mastery of language rarely seen in practicing physicians. Osler was the subject of the great biography, written by the famous neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing, who was to win a Pulitzer prize for his efforts. (I am not including this biography on my list, however.)

Anton Chekhov is included in my list for his short stories ( he was also a successful playwright). Chekhov was a qualified Russian doctor who practiced throughout his literary career, saying medicine was his lawful wife and literature his mistress. In addition to a cannon of short stories and plays, he was a great letter writer with the letters, written primarily while he traveled to the penal colony in Sakhalin. He was so moved by the inhumanity of the place, that these letters are considered to be some of his best. Chekhov succumbed to tuberculosis and died in 1904, aged only 44 years.

William Somerset Maugham, the great British storyteller was once described by a critic as a first rate writer of the second rank. Maugham suffered from club foot and was educated at the King’s School, Canterbury, and St. Thomas’s hospital, London where he qualified as a doctor. His first novel Liza of Lambeth, published in 1897 describes his student experience of midwifery work among the slums of Lambeth led him to give up medicine and earn a living writing. He became a prolific author of novels, short stories, and plays. His autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage describes his medical student years at St. Thomas’s Hospital. Many of his stories and novels were turned into successful films.

A portrait of W. Somerset Maugham Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
A portrait of W. Somerset Maugham. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Another medical student from the United Guy’s and St. Thomas’s Hospital who never practiced as a doctor ( although he walked the wards of Guy’s Hospital and studied under the distinguished surgeon Astley Cooper), was John Keats, who lived a tragically short life, but became one of the greatest poets of the English language. His first poem “O Solitude,” published in The Examiner in 1816, laid the foundations of his legacy as a great British Romantic poet. Poems the first volume of Keats verse was not initially received with great enthusiasm, but today his legacy as a great poet is undisputed. Keats died, aged 25, of tuberculosis.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous North American nineteenth-century physician, poet and writer, and friend and biographer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, popularized the term “anaesthesia,” and invented the American stereoscope, or 3D picture viewer. Perhaps his best known work is The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table his 1858 work dealing with important philosophical issues about life.

In Britain over a century later, in 1971, the distinguished physician Richard Asher published a fine collection of essays, Richard Asher Talking Sense which showcase his brilliant wit, verbal agility and ability to debunk medical pomposity. His writings went on to influence a subsequent generation of medical writers.

In the United States, another great physician and essayist was Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon whose accessible 1994 work How We Die became one of the twentieth centuries great books on this important topic a discourse on man’s inevitably fate.

Two modern authors next. The popular American writer Michael Crichton was a physician and immunologist before becoming an immensely successful best-selling author of books like Five Patients, The Great Train Robbery, Congo, and Jurassic Park, which was of course turned into a very popular film by the American film director Stephen Spielberg.

Khaled Hosseini the Afghan-born American physician turned writer is a recent joiner of the club of physician-writers, having achieved great fame with his books The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

I suppose we must finally include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the Scottish physician and author. His stories of the sleuth Sherlock Holmes have given generations pleasure and entertainment, borne of the sharp eye of the masterful physician in Conan Doyle.

Heading image: Books. Public Domain via Pixabay

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20. Almost paradise: heaven in imaginative literature

Paradise, a 1982 knock-off of the movie Blue Lagoon, stars Phoebe Cates and Willie Aames as teenagers who find themselves alone in a place of natural beauty and experiencing the ultimate joy together. Ann Wilson of Heart and Mike Reno of Loverboy can see forever in each other’s eyes in “Almost Paradise,” their Top Ten hit from the Footloose soundtrack (“Almost paradise / We’re knocking on Heaven’s door”).  Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) references the Elysian Fields, a paradise beyond this one where the blessed go when they die. And the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue has more than once run a story – or titled an entire issue — “Paradise Found.” Literature and popular culture are awash with references to or appropriations of Heaven.

The Baylor Survey of Religion determined in 2011 that the vast majority of Americans (two thirds of us, and over ninety per cent of Americans who identify as “very religious”) believe that Heaven exists. Something about the idea of a heavenly realm — call it Zion, call it Paradise, call it Elysium, call it Shangri-La, call it Nirvana — meets a deep-seated need of human beings to hope for something more after this life. Whether because it fits our sense of justice that the good should be rewarded, or because it appeals to our ingrained hope that this sometimes difficult existence isn’t all that we will ever experience, the idea of Heaven has helped to dry the tears of the suffering and offered the possibility of some greater meaning in many earthly lives.

But Heaven is as much a concept as an actual place, even for those who believe in the actual place. The human imagination has served a vital role in helping us to imagine what Heaven might be. Dante and Milton, for example, crucially shaped our conceptions of a paradisiacal realm beyond human speech and reckoning. In Canto XXX of the Paradiso, Dante offers us a vision of light and joy, describing the saints in Heaven arranged as a rose with the Virgin Mary at its center even as he speaks at length about his inability to speak of what he has seen.

Heaven1
Heaven, photo by Martin Andersson CC-by-2.0 via Flickr

John Milton shows us God enthroned, and in glorious language supplies the dignity and beauty most human descriptions of Heaven would necessarily leave lacking:

Now had the Almighty Father from above,

From the pure Empyrean where he sits

High Thron’d above all highth, bent down his eye,

His own works and their works at once to view:

About him all the Sanctities of Heaven

Stood thick as Stars, and from his sight receiv’d

Beatitude past utterance; on his right

The radiant image of his Glory sat,

His onely Son; (Paradise Lost, Book IV, 56-64)

We require this sort of imaginative view of Heaven partly because the Bible (whether in the Hebrew or Christian testaments) contains very little teaching about Heaven as a place for the faithful departed. N. T. Wright notes in the book Surprised by Hope that most Christians assume that when the Bible speaks of something called heaven it is talking about the place where Christians go after death. Because they start with that belief, they misread Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God or, in the Gospel of Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven. Assuming that Jesus “is indeed talking about how to go to heaven when you die” may make us feel secure about the afterlife, but, says Wright, it “is certainly not what Jesus or Matthew had in mind.” (18) So, barring those mentions of Heaven in Jesus’ cryptic kingdom teachings, we are left with some references to a heavenly realm in apocalyptic writings like Daniel and Revelation, and some few sayings of Jesus. (The Paradise of Islam is mentioned considerably more often in the Qur’an and in the hadiths and other teachings).

“How we live now may be shaped by what we believe is happening to us in a next life”

Many Christians formed their understanding of Heaven from one of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of John: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:2-3, NRSV) This teaching has entered into our thinking from the King James Version, where “dwelling place” is translated as “mansions,” and prompted many to think of Heaven as a place where believers will have their own mansions (although the Greek monai« has no such denotative or connotative meaning; it simply means “a place where one may remain or live”).

But don’t tell those believers who have taken those expected mansions, shaken them with the Book of Revelation’s streets of gold, and served themselves a heavenly gated community where every occupant has a holy-water Jacuzzi with diamond handles. For many who have suffered in this life, it seems only just and right that they spend eternity in luxury. What is Paradise if it isn’t better than the world we know?

And if, like them, your image of Heaven is of a place where you will walk streets of gold and pluck a harp while holding forth with the saints, then you are certainly not in the minority. Jon Meacham notes in a recent TIME magazine cover story that this version of Heaven appears across Christian history, and is tied up in “culture, politics, economics, class, and psychology.” How we live now may be shaped by what we believe is happening to us in a next life, and can affect everything from how we vote to how we give. But more importantly, our stories about Heaven offer us consolation; they assure us that a just God will surely reward the faithful and punish the faithless, no matter what happens to us in this life. For that reason, those stories are vital to our peace of mind.

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21. Best of Powells.com 2014: Editor’s Picks

A lot of amazing authors contribute to Powell's Blog, and not all of them get the attention they deserve. Here's a look back at some of the most thought-provoking author posts to appear on Powells.com this year — along with four interviews that you really shouldn't miss. The World of Publishing: 1991 vs. 2014 by [...]

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22. Once upon a quiz

From Little Red Riding Hood to Frozen, the contemporary fairy tales we know today had their beginnings in classic versions that may seem less familiar at first glance. Inspired by Once Upon a Time by Marina Warner, we’re testing your knowledge of well-known favorites with the quiz below. Do you know your Cinderella from your Sleeping Beauty? Try your hand at the questions to see if you have what it takes to be King or Queen of fairy tale lore.

Your Score:  

Your Ranking:  

We hope you enjoyed taking this quiz. If you still don’t want to leave the world of ‘happily ever afters’, why not discover who the OUP staff chose as their favourite characters from fairy tale history?

Featured image credit: Beauty and the Beast, by Warwick Goble. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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23. Embark on six classic literary adventures

Despite fierce winds, piles of snow, and the biting cold, winter is the best season for some cozy reading (and drinking hot chocolate). If you’re inclined to stay in today, check out these favorite classics of ours that will take you on wild adventures, all while huddled underneath your sheets.

Jules Verne’s The Extraordinary Journeys: Around the World in Eighty Days

What starts out as a bet to settle an argument between club members transforms into a grand adventure. It is fascinating, fast-paced, and enchanting, and brings you around the world in just eighty days!

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote de la Mancha

In following the journey of Alonso Quixano, we find ourselves both amused and sad at the protagonist’s delusion of the world around him. The satirical elements of Don Quixote have permeated our modern literary culture and vocabulary: the term “quixotic” describes one who is too idealistic.

Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo

Jealousy, revenge, romance, hope, and justice flavor this jam-packed classic. After being thrown into jail for accused treason, Edmond Dantès only escapes after his fellow prisoner discloses the location of a vast wealth on the island of Monte Cristo. Once Dantès retrieves the hidden treasure, he poses as the Count of Monte Cristo and thus begins his plot of revenge against the men who put him away.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

From the land of people no larger than six inches tall, to the land of horse people called Houyhnhnms, Lemuel Gulliver finds himself in lands like no other. His travels are sparked by (what we assume to be) a mid-life crisis, when his business fails. In a number of expeditions, Gulliver takes to the seas in a wanderlust sort of way, visiting his wife and children in between travels.

Image by Igor Ilyinsky. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Image by Igor Ilyinsky. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island

In this six-part adventure, Jim Hawkins narrates his journey from the death of a patron at his family’s inn — leaving behind a map and other clues pointing to buried treasure — to encounters with pirates on the high seas. Treasure Island captivates with its simple, yet lively prose. It’s a coming-of-age story for anyone at any age.

Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers

Athos, Porthos, and Aramis—the three musketeers—join up with a young noble named d’Artagnan, who seems to find trouble for himself. In this riveting tale full of assassination attempts, a scandalous love affair, and revenge, there is also fierce loyalty, camaraderie, and energy among the four musketeers.

Headline image credit: Irving Johnson. Original photo courtesy of Glenn Batuyong, Port of San Diego. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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24. Techno-magic: Cinema and fairy tale

Movie producers have altered the way fairy tales are told, but in what ways have they been able to present an illusion that once existed only in the pages of a story? Below is an excerpt from Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time that explores the magic that movies bring to the tales:

From the earliest experiments by George Meliès in Paris in the 1890s to the present day dominion of Disney Productions and Pixar, fairy tales have been told in the cinema. The concept of illusion carries two distinct, profound, and contradictory meanings in the medium of film: first, the film itself is an illusion, and, bar a few initiates screaming at the appearance of a moving train in the medium’s earliest viewings, everyone in the cinema knows they are being stunned by wonders wrought by science. All appearances in the cinema are conjured by shadow play and artifice, and technologies ever more skilled at illusion: CGI produces living breathing simulacra—of velociraptors (Jurassic Park), elvish castles (Lord of the Rings), soaring bionicmonsters (Avatar), grotesque and terrifying monsters (the Alien series), while the modern Rapunzel wields her mane like a lasso and a whip, or deploys it to make a footbridge. Such visualizations are designed to stun us, and they succeed: so much is being done for us by animators and filmmakers, there is no room for personal imaginings. The wicked queen in Snow White (1937) has become imprinted, and she keeps those exact features when we return to the story; Ariel, Disney’s flame-haired Little Mermaid, has eclipsed her wispy and poignant predecessors, conjured chiefly by the words of Andersen’s story

A counterpoised form of illusion, however, now flourishes rampantly at the core of fairytale films, and has become central to the realization on screen of the stories, especially in entertainment which aims at a crossover or child audience. Contemporary commercial cinema has continued the Victorian shift from irresponsible amusement to responsible instruction, and kept faith with fairy tales’ protest against existing injustices. Many current family films posit spirited, hopeful alternatives (in Shrek Princess Fiona is podgy, liverish, ugly, and delightful; in Tangled, Rapunzel is a super heroine, brainy and brawny; in the hugely successful Disney film Frozen (2013), inspired by The Snow Queen, the younger sister Anna overcomes ice storms, avalanches, and eternal winter to save Elsa, her elder). Screenwriters display iconoclastic verve, but they are working from the premise that screen illusions have power to become fact. ‘Wishing on a star’ is the ideology of the dreamfactory, and has given rise to indignant critique, that fairy tales peddle empty consumerism and wishful thinking. The writer Terri Windling, who specializes in the genre of teen fantasy, deplores the once prevailing tendency towards positive thinking and sunny success:

The fairy tale journey may look like an outward trek across plains and mountains, through castles and forests, but the actual movement is inward, into the lands of the soul. The dark path of the fairytale forest lies in the shadows of our imagination, the depths of our unconscious. To travel to the wood, to face its dangers, is to emerge transformed by this experience. Particularly for children whose world does not resemble the simplified world of television sit-coms . . . this ability to travel inward, to face fear and transform it, is a skill they will use all their lives. We do children—and ourselves—a grave disservice by censoring the old tales, glossing over the darker passages and ambiguities

Fairy tale and film enjoy a profound affinity because the cinema animates phenomena, no matter how inert; made of light and motion, its illusions match the enchanted animism of fairy tale: animals speak, carpets fly, objects move and act of their own accord. One of the darker forerunners of Mozart’s flute is an uncanny instrument that plays in several ballads and stories: a bone that bears witness to a murder. In the Grimms’ tale, ‘The Singing Bone’, the shepherd who finds it doesn’t react in terror and run, but thinks to himself, ‘What a strange little horn, singing of its own accord like that. I must take it to the king.’ The bone sings out the truth of what happened, and the whole skeleton of the victim is dug up, and his murderer—his elder brother and rival in love—is unmasked, sewn into a sack, and drowned.

This version is less than two pages long: a tiny, supersaturated solution of the Grimms: grotesque and macabre detail, uncanny dynamics of life-in-death, moral piety, and rough justice. But the story also presents a vivid metaphor for film itself: singing bones. (It’s therefore apt, if a little eerie, that the celluloid from which film stock was first made was itself composed of rendered-down bones.)

Early animators’ choice of themes reveals how they responded to a deeply laid sympathy between their medium of film and the uncanny vitality of inert things. Lotte Reiniger, the writer-director of the first full-length animated feature (The Adventures of Prince Achmed), made dazzling ‘shadow puppet’ cartoons inspired by the fairy tales of Grimm, Andersen, and Wilhelm Hauff; she continued making films for over a thirty-year period, first in her native Berlin and later in London, for children’s television. Her Cinderella (1922) is a comic—and grisly— masterpiece.

Early Disney films, made by the man himself, reflect traditional fables’ personification of animals—mice and ducks and cats and foxes; in this century, by contrast, things come to life, no matter how inert they are: computerization observes no boundaries to generating lifelike, kinetic, cybernetic, and virtual reality.

Featured image credit: “Dca animation building” by Carterhawk – Own work. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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25. Cecilia Ekbäck: The Powells.com Interview

During these cold, dark days of winter, there's nothing I enjoy more than losing myself in a book that evokes the mood of the season. Set in Swedish Lapland in the early 18th century, Wolf Winter is a wonderfully atmospheric novel that perfectly captures what it's like to live in a remote, unforgiving landscape. Debut [...]

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