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Foucault in California, Vasily Grossman’s Accomplishment, and Old-Time Thrillers

Another day, another theory explaining the Voynich manuscript [1]: “In a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Romance Studies, Gerard Cheshire, a research associate at the University of Bristol, argues the manuscript is ‘a compendium of information on herbal remedies, therapeutic bathing and astrological readings’ focusing on female physical and mental health, reproduction and parenting. Rather than being written in code, he believes its language and writing system were commonplace at the time it was written, and he claims the document is the sole surviving text written in proto-Romance.”

After the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote nonstop—though not always with publication in mind [2]: “Lee had arrived in Alexander City with such enthusiasm and chased her story with such determination that publication of The Reverend seemed imminent, but her second book, like the Second Coming, appeared to be delayed. She spent years working on The Reverend, some of them under the watchful eye of her sisterly Cerberus in Eufaula. Three years after that stint in Barbour County, her new literary agent, Julie Fallowfield, said, ‘It’s my understanding Miss Lee is always working.’ Nine years later, Fallowfield told another reporter the same thing: ‘She’s always working on something.’ That Harper Lee was always writing was obvious to anyone who knew her, if only because they were reminded whenever they opened their mail. Lee’s correspondence constitutes its own archive, not only of her life, the heres and theres and sometimes the nowheres of her adventures, but also of her mind.”

“In May 1975, Michel Foucault watched Venus rise over Zabriskie Point while Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths) blared from the speakers of a nearby tape recorder. Just a few hours earlier he had ingested LSD for the first time and was in the process of undergoing what he saw as ‘one of the most important experiences’ of his life. And he wasn’t alone. Two newly acquired companions had brought Foucault to Death Valley for this carefully choreographed trip complete with a soundtrack, some marijuana to jumpstart the effects, and cold drinks to combat the dry mouth. It was all spurred on by the hope that Foucault’s visit to ‘the Valley of Death’, as he called it, would elicit ‘gnomic utterances of such power that he would unleash a veritable revolution in consciousness’.” Spoiler: It didn’t really [3], but it did bring out the real Foucault, who apparently confessed that he worked five hours a day, loved teaching but hated grading (join the club), preferred Faulkner to Godard, and, of course, liked to get high.

 Michael Dirda recommends [4] a handful of “delightful old-time thrillers.”

What’s great and not so great about WWF wrestling [5].

Anthony Madrid once picked up a 1772 Venice print of Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia at a neighbor’s house who was giving everything away. He’s read it in translation a couple of times. It’s not that great, except for the last chapter, “which is magnificent—and a game-changer.” Find out why [6].

Essay of the Day:

Vasily Grossman was not a great novelist, but he wrote a very important book, Joseph Epstein argues [7] in Commentary:

“Grossman is best known for his two connected and hefty novels—together, in their New York Review editions, they weigh in at a combined 1,830 pages. These are Stalingrad and Life and Fate. His unfinished novel Everything Flows (1961), written toward the end of his life, is a root-and-branch attack on Soviet Communism as told through the lucubrations of a man, one Ivan Grigoryevich, who had spent nearly 30 years in the Gulag.

“The story of the publication of Grossman’s books under Soviet Communism could be the source of an impressively complex novel of its own. Grossman wrote his Stalingrad while Stalin was still alive, and thus under the artistically crushing restraints of Socialist Realism, which Maxim Gorky defined as ‘the ability to see the present in terms of the future’ and which Grossman later said was as ‘convention-ridden as the bucolic romances of the 18th century.’ What Socialist Realism actually meant was that no art was allowed that did not support, defend, extol the Soviet Union, which of course meant no art of any independence, complexity, ultimate worth was permitted publication.

“In his introduction to Life and Fate and his afterword to Stalingrad, the translator Robert Chandler offers an admittedly partial account of the fiery hoops through which Grossman had to jump to get his work published. The editors of the Soviet journal Novy Mir made so many radical editorial suggestions to render Stalingrad ‘safe’—including cutting some characters, adding others, altering the occupations of still others—that the original manuscript underwent six heavy revisions and was set in type no fewer than three times before finally being run in serialization in a much-altered version. About the no less complicated editorial maze through which Grossman’s Life and Fate was put, it is more than enough to say that its author failed to live long enough to see it in print. He died in 1964.

“Grossman’s book was arrested instead of its author; Grossman spoke of Life and Fate as being ‘imprisoned.’ The novel in fact wasn’t published in the Soviet Union until the late 1980s, and even today Grossman is apparently not all that well known in his native land. Imagine the utter frustration, leading to the deep depression that Grossman suffered, of having written a masterpiece of world literature and never getting to see it in print!”

* * *

Stalingrad qualifies nicely as one of Henry James’s ‘loose and baggy monsters,’ those novels without the aesthetic form that for James was essential. The novel has no fewer than 151 characters, not counting those who appear only once. These run from Soviet scientists to German generals to Russian peasants to Stalin and Hitler, who put in appearances, the former in a full-length portrait . . . It is a splendid, an important, book, possibly a great book, but not, alas, a great novel. Stalingrad is too diffuse to have the special power, the concentration and intensification, that only fiction carries. At its end, too many loose ends have not been ravelled, significant characters go unaccounted for, themes are set out but left inadequately unexplored. Much of this may well be owing to the endless editing and relentless revisions that beset the book by its Soviet editor-censors. One is nonetheless pleased to have read Stalingrad, not alone for its bringing one of the great battles of history down to personal cases, but for its testimony on behalf of the brave dead.”

Read the rest. [7]

Timelapse: USS Abraham Lincoln transits the Suez Canal [8]

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