Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

22 APRIL, 2013

Nabokov and Homeland Security: How Russia’s Most Revered Literary Émigré Became an American

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How a broken lock, a suitcase of dead butterflies, and a pair of boxing gloves became the backdrop of the making of a legend.

Born on April 22, 1899, Vladimir Nabokov — beloved author, butterfly-lover, no-bullshit lecturer, hater of clichés, man of strong opinions — endures as Russia’s most revered literary émigré export. While his journey to cultural acclaim in America was in many ways a story of hope, it was also one underpinned by profound sadness and loss that would come to permeate his work. After the Bolshevik Revolution, when Nabokov was only eighteen, his family was forced to flee their hometown of St. Petersburg. As refugees in nomadic exile, they finally settled in Berlin in 1920. Two years later, Nabokov’s father, who had become secretary of Russian Provisional Government, was killed by accident while trying to shield the real target of a political assassination. Shortly thereafter, Nabokov’s mother and sister moved to Prague, but he remained in Berlin and garnered considerable recognition as a poet. In 1923, he met Véra Evseyevna Slonim, the Jewish-Russian love of his life, with whom he’d remain for the rest of his days.

But Nabokov wasn’t destined for stable refuge. In 1940, when their only son Dmitri was just six years old, the Nazi occupation swept Europe as World War II reared its ominous head. In May of 1940, the Nabokovs, who had settled in France, fled from the menacing advance of the German troops and boarded the SS Champlain for America.

In The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov (public library), Andrea Pitzer, founder of Harvard’s narrative nonfiction site Nieman Storyboard, shines an unprecedented, kaleidoscopic spotlight on the author’s largely enigmatic life and its complex political context, including his emigration to America:

Just before departure, Dmitri came down with a blistering fever. It was not clear whether or not he could travel, or would be permitted to. After a visit with their doctor, the Nabokovs got sulfa tablets to treat Dmitri’s symptoms and boarded their train. By the time they finished the six-hour ride to the harbor in a sleeping car, he had recovered.

The Champlain pulled away from the dock on May 19, 1940, leaving a continent behind. Two weeks later, bombs would fall on Paris. The following month, France would surrender and Luftwaffe planes flying over St. Nazaire would kill more than four thousand British soldiers in the midst of evacuating.

But the Nabokovs managed to outrun the havoc of war. On the ship’s roster, Nabokov was listed as Russian, Véra as Hebrew, and Dmitri as Russian, distinctions that would have become relevant if they had missed their ship. But they did not miss their ship, and could revel for a moment in the possibilities of what the New World might bring. None of them had seen it before, though surely it would have more to offer than the mossy corner of his mother’s property in Russia that her family had once nicknamed America. … Shipboard, he carried the story of a Central European refugee with a passion for young girls and a tale of a Russian émigré crushed by tragedy, along with a novel of two brothers and the distance between them that is fixed by death.

By the time the passengers on the Champlain lost sight of Europe, the first building of the Auschwitz concentration-camp complex had opened a thousand miles away in Poland.

[…]

Aboard the Champlain, the crew fired its guns at a whale, mistaking it for an enemy submarine, while Nabokov sailed more than three thousand miles across the Atlantic in a first-class cabin. The elegance of the trip contrasted sharply with the passengers’ desperation. Germany and Russia marched deeper into chaos; Paris wobbled at their departure. Arriving on May 26, the ship anchored off Quarantine for a day before sailing into New York Harbor.

Vladimir Nabokov's United States Immigration Identification Card

(Image courtesy Andrea Pitzer)

Though the circumstances of the Nabokovs’ escape were as devastating as history could afford, the logistics of their arrival in America seemed just as mundanely yet exasperatingly bureaucratic as what those of us who go through the process today face:

On the forms, Nabokov listed himself as an author and Véra as a housewife. Immigrants also had to answer a standard battery of questions about polygamous tendencies, physical defects, and mental health problems, and were required to assert repeatedly that they were not anarchists and had no intent to overthrow the government. The United States was not at war, but was very much worried about Communists and revolutionaries entering the country.

After they finished with immigration, the Nabokovs’ luggage still had to clear customs, but Véra could not find the key to their trunk. Waiting for a locksmith, Nabokov asked where to find a newspaper, and was given The New York Times by a porter. With the persuasion of an iron bar, the lock yielded to the locksmith, who promptly relocked it by mistake. When the trunk had finally been opened for good, customs officials remarked on the dead butterflies Nabokov had packed, and began to spar with the boxing gloves they found inside. Vladimir Nabokov was on his way to becoming an American.

Vladimir Nabokov's United States Certificate of Naturalization

(Image courtesy Andrea Pitzer)

Despite derailed plans by their greeting party, the ex-wife of Nabokov’s cousin, the family took a cab to her apartment and so began their new life in the city that, as E. B. White famously termed it, “blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.” Pitzer writes:

Gifted with unfettered liberty (so long, apparently, as they did not promote anarchy), Vladimir and Véra made their way into Manhattan with a $100 bill and hope for better prospects.

For all the thrill of arrival on a new continent, Nabokov’s routine in the first few weeks must have seemed dispiritingly familiar. Living in a succession of temporary quarters, he once again tried to sell himself and his literary talents — the thing in which he had the most confidence in the world — to a public ignorant of their value.

And yet that very public would come to elevate Nabokov to the status of literary über-celebrity. What few realize, however — and what Pitzer reveals through newly-declassified intelligence files and rigorously researched military records — is that Nabokov wove serious and unsettling political history into the fabric of his fiction, which had gone undetected for decades: until now. Absorbing and illuminating, The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov paints an unparalleled portrait of the author’s dimensional life and legacy, remarkably, without stripping his work of any of its magic.

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19 APRIL, 2013

Frida Kahlo’s Passionate Hand-Written Love Letters to Diego Rivera

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“Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain.”

Mexican painter and reconstructionist Frida Kahlo is among the most remarkable figures of contemporary culture. At a young age, she contracted polio, which left her right leg underdeveloped — an imperfection she’d later come to disguise with her famous colorful skirts. A decade later, as one of only thirty-five female students at Mexico’s prestigious Preparatoria school, she was in a serious traffic accident, which resulted in multiple body fractures and internal lesions inflicted by an iron rod that had pierced her stomach and uterus. It took her three months in full-body cast to recover and though she eventually willed her way to walking again, she spent the rest of her life battling frequent relapses of extreme pain and enduring frequent hospital visits, including more than thirty operations. As a way of occupying herself while bedridden, Kahlo made her first strides in painting — then went on to become one of the most influential painters in modern art.

Two years after the accident, in 1927, she met the painter Diego Rivera, whose work she’d come to admire and who became her mentor. In 1929, despite the vocal protestations of Kahlo’s mother, Frida and Diego were wedded and one of art history’s most notoriously tumultuous marriages commenced. Both had multiple affairs, the most notable of which for bisexual Kahlo were with French singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker and Russian Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky. And yet her bond with Diego was one of transcendental passion and immense love.

Kahlo’s love letters to Rivera, found in The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (public library) and stretching across the twenty-seven-year span of their relationship, bespeak the profound and abiding connection the two shared, brimming with the seething cauldron of emotion with which all fully inhabited love is filled: elation, anguish, devotion, desire, longing, joy. In their breathless intensity, they soar in the same stratosphere of love letters as those exchanged between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, and Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

Diego.
Truth is, so great, that I wouldn’t like to speak, or sleep, or listen, or love. To feel myself trapped, with no fear of blood, outside time and magic, within your own fear, and your great anguish, and within the very beating of your heart. All this madness, if I asked it of you, I know, in your silence, there would be only confusion. I ask you for violence, in the nonsense, and you, you give me grace, your light and your warmth. I’d like to paint you, but there are no colors, because there are so many, in my confusion, the tangible form of my great love.

F.

Diego:

Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.

Auxochrome — Chromophore. Diego.

She who wears the color.
He who sees the color.
Since the year 1922.

Until always and forever. Now in 1944. After all the hours lived through. The vectors continue in their original direction. Nothing stops them. With no more knowledge than live emotion. With no other wish than to go on until they meet. Slowly. With great unease, but with the certainty that all is guided by the “golden section.” There is cellular arrangement. There is movement. There is light. All centers are the same. Folly doesn’t exist. We are the same as we were and as we will be. Not counting on idiotic destiny.

My Diego:

Mirror of the night

Your eyes green swords inside my flesh. waves between our hands.

All of you in a space full of sounds — in the shade and in the light. You were called AUXOCHROME the one who captures color. I CHROMOPHORE — the one who gives color.

You are all the combinations of numbers. life. My wish is to understand lines form shades movement. You fulfill and I receive. Your word travels the entirety of space and reaches my cells which are my stars then goes to yours which are my light.

Auxochrome — Chromophore

It was the thirst of many years restrained in our body. Chained words which we could not say except on the lips of dreams. Everything was surrounded by the green miracle of the landscape of your body. Upon your form, the lashes of the flowers responded to my touch, the murmur of streams. There was all manner of fruits in the juice of your lips, the blood of the pomegranate, the horizon of the mammee and the purified pineapple. I pressed you against my breast and the prodigy of your form penetrated all my blood through the tips of my fingers. Smell of oak essence, memories of walnut, green breath of ash tree. Horizon and landscapes = I traced them with a kiss. Oblivion of words will form the exact language for understanding the glances of our closed eyes. = You are here, intangible and you are all the universe which I shape into the space of my room. Your absence springs trembling in the ticking of the clock, in the pulse of light; you breathe through the mirror. From you to my hands, I caress your entire body, and I am with you for a minute and I am with myself for a moment. And my blood is the miracle which runs in the vessels of the air from my heart to yours.

The green miracle of the landscape of my body becomes in your the whole of nature. I fly through it to caress the rounded hills with my fingertips, my hands sink into the shadowy valleys in an urge to possess and I’m enveloped in the embrace of gentle branches, green and cool. I penetrate the sex of the whole earth, her heat chars me and my entire body is rubbed by the freshness of the tender leaves. Their dew is the sweat of an ever-new lover.

It’s not love, or tenderness, or affection, it’s life itself, my life, that I found what I saw it in your hands, in your month and in your breasts. I have the taste of almonds from your lips in my mouth. Our worlds have never gone outside. Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain.

Your presence floats for a moment or two as if wrapping my whole being in an anxious wait for the morning. I notice that I’m with you. At that instant still full of sensations, my hands are sunk in oranges, and my body feels surrounded by your arms.

For my Diego

the silent life giver of worlds, what is most important is the nonillusion. morning breaks, the friendly reds, the big blues, hands full of leaves, noisy birds, fingers in the hair, pigeons’ nests a rare understanding of human struggle simplicity of the senseless song the folly of the wind in my heart = don’t let them rhyme girl = sweet xocolatl [chocolate] of ancient Mexico, storm in the blood that comes in through the mouth — convulsion, omen, laughter and sheer teeth needles of pearl, for some gift on a seventh of July, I ask for it, I get it, I sing, sang, I’ll sing from now on our magic — love.

Pair The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait with more exquisite love letters by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Balzac, Rilke, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

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18 APRIL, 2013

E. B. White on Egoism and the Art of the Essay

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“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.”

The question of what makes a great essay is an inexhaustible source of fascination, and there is hardly a greater master virtuoso at it than E. B. Whitechampion of literary style, defender of the writer’s responsibility, custodian of the free press, little-known New Yorker cover artist, lover of New York.

In April of 1977, in the foreword to the indispensable anthology Essays of E. B. White (public library), the beloved author examines the very form he had so mesmerizingly mastered, with equal parts irreverence and love:

The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new “attempt,” differs from the last and takes him into new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.

White offers a morphology of essayistic dispositions:

There are as many kinds of essays as there are human attitudes or poses, as many essay flavors as there are Howard Johnson ice creams. The essayist arises in the morning and, if he has work to do, selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe:he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter — philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast. I like the essay, have always liked it, and even as a child was at work, attempting to inflict my young thoughts and experiences on others by putting them on paper.

While he professes to “fall back on the essay form” whenever an idea strikes, White, with the characteristic self-consciousness and self-deprecation of a proper essayist, puts the essay in its place on the literary ladder:

I am not fooled about the place of the essay in twentieth-century American letters — it stands a short distance down the line. The essayist, unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen. A writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs had best write a novel, a poem, or a play, and leave the essayist to ramble about, content with living a free life and enjoying the satisfactions of a somewhat undisciplined existence.

Little did White know that a mere year later, he’d be awarded an honorary Pulitzer Prize for the full body of his work, which consisted — per his self-professed preference — largely of essays.

More so than any other writing form, White argues, the essay requires a unique commitment to truth and discipline:

There is one thing that the essayist cannot do, though — he cannot indulge himself in deceit or in concealment, for he will be found out in no time. Desmond MacCarthy, in his introductory remarks to the 1928 E. P. Dutton & Company edition of Montaigne, observes that Montaigne “had the gift of natural candour. . . .” It is the basic ingredient. And even the essayist’s escape from discipline is only a partial escape: the essay, although a relaxed form, imposes its own disciplines, raises is own problems, and these disciplines and problems soon become apparent and (we all home) act as a deterrent to anyone wielding a pen merely because he entertains random thoughts or is in a happy or wandering mood.

Echoing Joan Didion’s conception of writing as access to one’s self and George Orwell’s contention that the first universal motive for writing is “sheer egotism,” White returns to the solipsism of the essayist:

I think some people find the essay the last resort of the egotist, a much too self-conscious and self-serving form for their taste; they feel that it is presumptuous of a writer to assume that his little excursions or his small observations will interest the reader. There is some justice in their complaint. I have always been aware that I am by nature self-absorbed and egoistical; to write of myself to the extent I have done indicates a too great attention to my own life, not enough to the lives of others. I have worn many shirts, and not all of them have been a good fit. But when I am discouraged or downcast I need only fling open the door of my closet, and there, hidden behind everything else, hangs the mantle of Michel de Montaigne, smelling slightly of camphor.

White goes on to discuss his choice of essays for the anthology and their order, noting of his most famous masterpiece — the exquisite Here Is New York:

Some, like “Here Is New York,” have been seriously affected by the passage of time and now stand as period pieces. I wrote about new York in the summer of 1948, during a hot spell. The city I described has disappeared, and another city has emerged in its place — one that I’ not familiar with. … The last time I visited New York, it seemed to have suffered a personality change, as though it had a brain tumor as yet undetected.

Place has played an important role in White’s relationship with the written word, as becomes evident in the selected essays. He notes:

I spent a large part of the first half of my life as a city dweller, a large part of the second half as a countryman. In between, there were periods when nobody, including myself, quite knew (or cared) where I was: I thrashed back and forth between Maine and New York for reasons that seemed compelling at the time. Money entered into it, affection for The New Yorker entered in. And affection for the city.

I have finally come to rest.

White spent the remaining years of his life at his home in North Brooklin, Maine.

Essays of E. B. White is required reading, a pinnacle of the form from one of its greatest masters. Complement it with White on the role and responsibility of the writer and why brevity isn’t the gold standard for style.

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