NEW LIFE FOR DORMANT BOOKS
New York City
As a longtime admirer of André Schiffrin's publishing programs, I was disappointed by a conspicuous omission in his coverage of developments in the book industry ["The Eurocrush on Books," Dec. 31, 2001]. The single most significant technological development to affect publishing since, arguably, the paperback revolution is the maturing of print-on-demand technology. Print-on-demand publishing, when applied to deep backlist (i.e., older) books, means that publishers need not put a book out of print or overprint it by the hundreds or thousands. Presses can now simply meet demand as it arises, whether a single copy or a hundred. Print-on-demand technology renders the economies of scale that have so fettered publishers--particularly such publishers of serious nonfiction as university presses and Schiffrin's New Press--largely obsolete, to the advantage of all.
At Oxford University Press, we have breathed new life into literally thousands of dormant books, much to the delight of our authors and of readers and booksellers everywhere. We, and many other presses, both commercial and academic, are simply applying new technologies to do what we do best: publish good books and, now, with print-on-demand, keep them available ad infinitum.
Oxford University Press
Gee, it's heartening to see reviews of poetry by women, especially those working in an experimental vein [Eileen Myles, "Not Betsy Rosses," March 11]. I hope The Nation plans more coverage of the subversive issues that these poets explore: power, ideology and subjectivity at the levels of syntax of everyday language, (non)aestheticized ideas of composition and the disruption of, to paraphrase the poet Martha Ronk, the easy-to-digest, like breast milk or nostalgia--in effect, the Romantic project that has dominated US literary consciousness.
It may be useful to readers of Dodie Bellamy's Cunt-Ups to go beyond Myles's characterization of it as a book that "uses overtly sexual texts, her own and ones written by others" to turn to the author's statement in Issue 7 of Chain, the premiere literary journal of experimental poetry, where Bellamy wrote, "I used a variety of texts written by myself and others, including the police report of Jeffrey Dahmer's confession (which I bought on eBay).... I cut each page of this material into four squares. For each Cunt-Up I chose two or three squares from my own source text, and one or two from the other sources. I taped the new Frankenstein page together, typed it into my computer and then re-worked the material. Oddly, even though I've spent up to four hours on each Cunt-Up, afterwards I cannot recognize them--just like in sex, intense focus and then sensual amnesia. They enter the free zone of writing; they have cut their own ties to the writer. She no longer remembers them as her text." Then Bellamy asks provocatively: "Is the cut-up a male form? I've always considered it so--needing the violence of a pair of scissors in order to reach nonlinearity," and she devilishly continues by claiming that her finished poems remind her of Adrienne Rich's "Twenty-One Love Poems," which begin:
Whenever in this city, screens flicker
with pornography, with science-fiction vampires
and concludes by dedicating her Cunt-Ups to Rich and "to Kathy Acker, who I was reading when I started the project and who inspired me to behave this badly."
HIS PROSE IS POETRY
Taline Voskeritchian's fine review "Lines Beyond the Nakba" [Feb. 11] points out that there are almost no translations of Mahmoud Darwish's poetry in English but doesn't mention that Darwish's prose is also his poetry. I would like to recommend Memory for Forgetfulness/August, Beirut, 1982 to readers who wish to learn more about the blending of Darwish's prose, poetry and poetic sensibilities. In the introduction to his translation, Ibrahim Muhawi, following talks with the poet, points out that Darwish does not distinguish aesthetically between prose and poetry. This will become readily apparent while reading one of the world's great meditations on life in the face of death.
FANTASY THAT CAN'T BE FILMED
Hats off to The Nation and Meredith Tax for giving Ursula Le Guin her due ["In the Year of Harry Potter, Enter the Dragon," Jan. 28]. When Harry Potter failed to grab me, I wondered if I had a wizard allergy. To test the idea I turned to A Wizard of Earthsea. It delighted me, and it taught me that, as Tax notes, "style is key in fantasy." Tax's discussion of the literalness of most modern fantasy is right on target. Certainly "fantasy" films (e.g., Star Wars) have contributed to this hard-edged realism, with their need to fill every frame with concrete detail. Although I wish Le Guin riches in royalties, I like to think of her work as defying translation to film. Thanks for telling us about Tales From Earthsea. I plan to request it for my seventy-fifth birthday.
BARBARA M. WALKER
John Leonard's "The Jewish Cossack" [Nov. 26, 2001] is a truly wise and erudite review of Isaac Babel's life and work against the background of the epic nightmare of Russian literature in the twentieth century. However, when he mentions that Bruno Schultz was murdered about the same time as Isaac Babel, some may not be aware that Bruno Schultz, a Jew like Babel, who brought radical and fresh depth to the Polish language, was shot by the Nazis in a ghetto in eastern Poland. His death has to be properly assigned to the other murderous ideology of Europe.
As the author of Tangled Loyalties, a biography of Ilya Ehrenburg, I would like to clarify several aspects of the friendship John Leonard alludes to between Isaac Babel and Ehrenburg. After citing Ehrenburg's loving remarks about Babel in his memoirs, Leonard implies that Ehrenburg "wouldn't say so in public until it was safe," as if Ehrenburg would acknowledge his closeness to Babel only once Stalin was dead. But it was Ehrenburg, during the First Soviet Writers' Congress, in 1934, who defended Babel for publishing so little. In 1939, following Babel's arrest, only Ehrenburg's secretary came to Babel's Moscow wife, Antonina Pirozhkova, and gave her money.
Ehrenburg was in Paris when Babel was arrested, but he was not in Paris for convenience, as Leonard implies. As Stalin was negotiating with Hitler, Ehrenburg's articles stopped appearing in the Soviet press; he was too much the Jew and the outspoken opponent of Fascism. Following the signing of the Nonaggression Pact, Ehrenburg lost the ability to swallow solid food for eight months and prolonged his stay in Paris to protest Stalin's new alliance. Leonard seems to think Ehrenburg was never that vulnerable. But in the spring of 1940, his dacha in Peredelkino was taken, and he was publicly condemned as a defector, leaving his daughter Irina the subject of abusive late-night phone calls that could have come only from one source.
Leonard also refers to Ehrenburg's troubling encounters with Evgenia Gronfein, Babel's first wife, who lived in Paris for many years. It was cruel for Ehrenburg, in 1956, to tell her so abruptly about Babel's other widow and daughter in Moscow and to ask her to sign a statement that she and Babel were divorced, which wasn't true. I am convinced that he wanted to preserve Pirozhkova's status as Babel's legitimate widow (and heir) in Moscow. He always brought her copies of Western editions of Babel's works (I saw scores in her Moscow apartment in 1984), just as he brought foreign editions of Doctor Zhivago to Pasternak's family. Pirozhkova remained devoted to Ehrenburg, in part because of his solicitude for her and her family. When he died in 1967, she sat with his widow at the funeral and often stayed with her at the dacha. Ehrenburg could not save Babel, but, next to Babel's wives and children, he did more to preserve his memory and make his work available to generations who were supposed to have forgotten him.
THE COOING 'FEMINIST'
Thank you, thank you, thank you, to Susan J. Douglas and Meredith Michaels, for their review of Naomi Wolf's latest excretion, Misconceptions (oh, the delicious irony of the title that is apt in unintended ways) ["The Belly Politic," Nov. 26, 2001]. I urge women and friends of women everywhere to send this review to anyone interested or implicated in the debate about essentialist views of pregnancy and motherhood. Wolf's book is as pernicious as it is narcissistic, for two reasons: She is (was?) considered a feminist, and it is hard to argue with the authority of experience. If a writer speaks with the authority of the first person, especially the persuasive and pseudo-confessional narrative of self-discovery, it is usually cited as hard proof. The last thing women need is for a high-profile so-called feminist to start spouting essentialism. Her book can, and no doubt will, be used against women who try to put forward a different narrative of pregnancy. Here's a book by one of you feminists, we will be told. Read this and it will make you see what you should be feeling. If a feminist admits she has cuddle hormones and needs a man, then that must be what is best for all women, right? Wolf may not have intended for her narrative to be used against women who argue for a different experience of pregnancy, but that's exactly what will happen, and she must take responsibility for how her book will be used in the ongoing motherhood debates.
UNCLE MILTY, R.I.P.
Santa Monica, Calif.
My 88-year-old writing partner, Irv Brecher, had a rough week, losing two friends. And then he went to the Milton Berle funeral without me, the bastard. Jan Murray spoke ("way too fucking long," said Irv, "not offended" that he wasn't asked), and Red Buttons said some things. Rickles too. Larry Gelbart read a wonderful tribute.
"It was a show," Irv said. "It went two and a half hours, and then we all went over to the Rainbow Room for a feast at 4 o'clock."
Irv said both Gelbart and Sid Caesar came over and asked him why he didn't speak, since Milton Berle gave Irv his first job writing gags for him at the Loews State Theater in Manhattan, in March of 1933. Here's what Irv told me about his friend Milton: "He was, after all, 93. He had a great life. He was an original, outstanding at his craft, and he taught them all. I might not be here if it weren't for him. Your life turns on not only what you do, but what everyone else does."
About being at the Hillside cemetery Irv said, "The way it is these days, when I go there I leave the motor running."
"Are you going to Billy Wilder's funeral?" I asked him. (Irv and Billy took morning walks together around Holmby Park in Westwood for years. I wondered if they talked about writing and great filmmaking, etc. He told me no, "Wilder did birdcalls mostly, and the birds sneered at him.")
"No," Irv replied. "I'm not going to his funeral. And I'm trying to arrange not going to mine either." I was wondering what Red Buttons had said when Irv told me this about life and death: "When you're 88, time is of the essence. At my age, hurry."