Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Kate Mosse / Top 10 Ghost Stories

Kate Mosse's top 10 ghost stories

From Henry James to Susan Hill, the author of Labyrinth selects tales that deliver 'the fun of the shudder'
The Turn of the Screw
Shudders ... Rebecca Evans in English National Opera's production of The Turn of the Screw. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Kate Mosse is the bestselling author of five novels, two books of non-fiction, short stories and a play, Syrinx, which won a Broadcasting Press Guild award in 2009. The first novel in her Languedoc Trilogy, Labyrinth, won Richard & Judy's Best Read award in 2006 and topped the bestseller lists for six months; the second, Sepulchre, was also an international bestseller; and the third, Citadel, will be published in 2011. Her current novel, The Winter Ghosts, is published in paperback this week.

             "Spirits and apparitions, headless monks and white ladies, the traditional ghost story still exerts a hold on our imaginations. Their habitat is ancient woods, ruined abbeys, isolated old houses and crumbling monasteries. But what makes a ghost story? Though purists might quibble, I'd say there are three distinct types of ghost story – as opposed to tales of horror, which have a different dynamic and purpose, or novels that have ghosts in them, such as Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude or Ben Okri's The Famished Road.
             "The traditional ghost story is often inspired by folklore and a sense of decaying history, and is similar in tone to the Gothic novels that came before it. In the psychological ghost story, the emphasis is on the mental state of the victim rather than the actions – the existence, even – of the ghost or poltergeist. These stories implicitly, sometimes explicitly, question the reliability and sanity of the heroine or hero, and often reference social or political issues of the day. Finally, there's the antiquarian ghost story which is associated with a certain sort of Edwardian Englishness. Like their traditional counterparts, they draw on old mythologies and folklore, but are rooted in realism and the sense of the ordinary disrupted or made extraordinary. I see the influence of all three traditions in my own books – though The Winter Ghosts is my first pure ghost story – but in the end, as with the choices that follow, what matters is that each has what the great Edith Wharton called 'the fun of the shudder'."


1. "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)

From the master of the morbid imagination, this gem of a story blurs the edges between horror and ghost fiction. A murderer's guilty conscience gets the better of him, driving him to confess his crime. The unnamed narrator murders an old man with a "vulture eye". He plans carefully and hides the body by dismembering it, but his guilt will not let him rest. Is he imagining the beating of the heart beneath the floorboards or is there something there? Gripping and horrifying, the perfect mix of horror and Gothic, the forerunner of the psychological ghost stories that were to come into vogue.


2. "The Signalman" by Charles Dickens (1866)

This perfectly balanced, beautifully judged story both preys on both the anxiety provoked by the new technology of railways and deeply held beliefs that a ghost can be an alarum for events to follow. Three times, the ringing of a spectral bell is followed by the appearance of a ghost, harbinger of a dreadful accident. Creepy, clever, and has you looking over your own shoulder.


3. "At Chrighton Abbey" by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1871)

Another classic of ghost-story writing, with a doomed family and a crumbling, historic house at the heart of it. The narrator, Sarah, returns to her childhood home as a guest, having been obliged to work as a governess. There, although the halls are brightly lit and the old servants delighted to see her, a sense of disaster hangs over the festivities and Sarah's glimpse of a ghostly hunt forewarns of tragedy to come.


4. "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" by MR James (1894)

This is the very first story in the first published MR James collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. A young Englishman and scholar leaves his friends for the day to spend time alone in a claustrophobic, decaying French cathedral city in the Pyrenees. He is encouraged by the sacristan to buy an antique manuscript volume which is possessed of older and evil memories. Wonderfully atmospheric, wonderfully creepy.


5. "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James (1898)

This is, possibly, the most exquisite and perfect of all psychological ghost stories. Again, an unnamed narrator, another governess, a different manuscript that claims to tell the story of mysterious country house, a widower and his children and two ghosts of former servants of the house. It is never clear if the ghosts are real or the product of the governess's increasingly unstable mind. And here, unlike in many ghost stories, there are several strong and engaging characters, not least of all the strange children, Miles and Flora. Simply, a masterpiece.


6. Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories by Algernon Blackwood (1912)

Blackwood is the neglected master of the Edwardian ghost story renaissance. Gentlemen travellers and scholars fill his pages, but always with a psychological – often animist – slant on things. For Blackwood, Nature always has a capital 'N' and was a living, breathing thing, sometimes benign, but often sinister. This collection is the place to start, even though my favourite story is "The Man Whom the Trees Loved", where a wife finds herself powerless to save her husband from the trees he loves. The forest does seem to be alive, getting closer and closer to the house, until the husband vanishes all together. Atmospheric, beautiful, a very subtle story of a peculiar haunting.


7. "The Listeners" by Walter de la Mare (1912)

De la Mare was a significant writer of ghost stories, publishing some 40 supernatural tales in collections such as Eight Tales and On the Edge, but I'm choosing perhaps his most famous work, this lyrical and haunting poem. It's never clear what bargain the traveller has made, and with whom, only that he has kept his word to come to the deserted house in the wood. The opening line still makes my hair stand on end: "'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller, knocking on the moonlit door."


8. "Bewitched" by Edith Wharton (1925)

The celebrated author of novels such as The House of Mirth, Wharton was also a terrific writer of ghostly tales. A blend of Poe, Hawthorne and Henry James, she has a lightness of touch that belies the often very grisly tale. This story, first published in the Pictorial Review in 1925, has a fabulous sense of place and is a revenant story with a twist. It leaves the reader doubting their interpretation of events. Clever stuff.


9. "The Ghosts" by Antonia Barber (1969)

This is my favourite children's ghost story, a wonderful time-slip novel set during the first world war. Lucy and Jamie Allen move with their mother and baby brother to the country, where their mother has been engaged by a mysterious gentleman, Mr Blunden, as caretaker of an abandoned house until the rightful owner can be traced. One day, Lucy is walking in the garden to explore and to pick flowers when she meets Sara and Georgie. It becomes clear that the children are ghosts, children of the house who died 100 years ago in the fire that destroyed the estate. It's a gentle, thoughtful ghost story, of parallel time and the chance to make amends for mistakes in an earlier life. The novel won the Carnegie Medal and was filmed in 1972 as The Amazing Mr Blunden.


10. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1982)

For my money, the greatest of the contemporary ghost writers. Hill creates believable period characters, she creates a hermetic world that yet speaks of wider superstitions and histories, and creates plots with tension, pace and jeopardy without ever becoming heavy-handed. This is a story of vengeance, of an old curse from an embittered woman, all centred on the brooding Eel Marsh House, gloomy and isolated and cut off from the mainland at high tide. As the tension of premonition and disaster builds and builds, the ghostly screams of an accident long ago will haunt the reader's imagination long after the last page has been turned. Perfect.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Obituaries / Dmitri Nabokov

Dmitri Nabokov with a picture of his father, who described him as 'dazzlingly fearless'. 
Photograph: Donald Stampfli/AP
Dmitri Nabokov obituary
Translator and editor dedicated to his father's literary legacy

Brian Boyd
Monday 27 February 2012 18.00 GMT

Dmitri Nabokov, who has died aged 77, was the only child of the writer Vladimir Nabokov, and became his translator and editor, and fierce keeper of the flame of his father's reputation. For Dmitri, living in the shadow of a famous father was almost all reward: intense pride in his father as writer and man ("the best person I ever met"); an income from the post-Lolita success; and a 50-year translating career. But he also had a rich life of his own, as an opera singer, racing driver and playboy.
When Dmitri was born, in Berlin, his parents, Vladimir and Véra, were poor Russian émigrés and he "their only luxury", fed the juice of a dozen fresh oranges a day. In 1937 the family fled Germany for France and at last managed to escape to the US, where they settled in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Dmitri, as the indulged son of two doting parents, found it hard to adjust to his numerous schools, but eventually achieved distinction.
Vladimir had to borrow to send his son to Harvard University in 1951. He reported that Dmitri's interests there were "mountaineering, girls, music, track, tennis and his studies, in that order ... He is completely and as it were dazzlingly fearless, loved by his friends, endowed with a magnificent brain, but a stranger to study." At his father's prompting, Dmitri wrote an honours thesis on Pushkin's use of Shakespeare, and surprised everyone by earning a cum laude for his degree.
In the summer of 1955 Vladimir secured for his son the role of translating Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time into English, only to have to complete the translation himself. Dmitri began to train as an opera bass in the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also worked as translator and editor for the Current Digest of the Soviet Press.
After the success of Lolita in the US in 1958, Vladimir offered Dmitri the job of translating an earlier novel, Invitation to a Beheading, from the Russian. He welcomed Dmitri's rich English vocabulary, his offering multiple options for difficult locutions, and his readiness to let his father have the last word. The translation, published in 1959, would become the basis of a long working partnership, lasting until Vladimir's death.
In 1959 Vladimir travelled to Europe, where his Italian publisher helped Dmitri find a singing coach at La Scala. A year later Dmitri won a competition that entitled him to an opera debut. Journalists came to hear the son of Lolita's author and ended up writing more about the tenor also making his debut, Luciano Pavarotti. In 1962, Dmitri began to race cars competitively but in 1965 was persuaded to focus on his singing and until 1982 maintained a professional operatic career as a basso profundo.
He also continued to translate with his father many of his Russian works, including the novels The Eye (1965), King, Queen, Knave (1968) and Glory (1971), and three volumes of short stories. In 1977, after his father died, Dmitri wrote a moving memoir, On Revisiting Father's Room, in which he recalled a visit to the Alps together in the mid-1970s: "He told me then, in one of those rare moments when father and son discuss such matters, that he had accomplished what he wanted in life and art, and was a truly happy man."
Dmitri ended with an account of their "penultimate farewell": "After I had kissed his still-warm forehead – as I had for years when saying goodnight or goodbye – tears suddenly welled in father's eyes. I asked him why. He replied that a certain butterfly was already on the wing; and his eyes told me he no longer hoped that he would live to pursue it again."
Five years later, in Switzerland, Dmitri spun out of control in one of his five Ferraris. Badly burned and with a broken neck, he vowed to dedicate the rest of his life to his father's literary legacy. He began by translating Vladmir's Russian plays and editing his essays on drama, then translating The Enchanter (1986), the 1939 Russian novella that first sketched out the paedophile-marries-mother-to-possess-daughter theme. With Matthew J Bruccoli, Dmitri edited Selected Letters 1940-1977 (1989).
After the death of his mother in 1991, Dmitri assumed responsibility for the estate and sold the remainder of the Nabokov archive to the New York public library in 1992. He attended conferences dedicated to his father and used them, along with editorial forewords or afterwords, to attack with relish and disdain those who offended against Nabokovian principles. He approved the screenplay of the 1997 Adrian Lyne remake of Lolita and enjoyed his role in its production.
Suffering from diabetes and polymyalgic neuropathy, he used a wheelchair for most of his last decade. Intermittently he tried to write his memoirs. Financial troubles, and a change in 2008 to a new literary agent, Andrew Wylie, contributed to his controversial decision to publish his father's last, unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, in 2009, despite Vladimir's instruction to burn it if it remained incomplete. It sold well in Russia but fared poorly elsewhere.
He once told reporters that he had "come close to marriage several times – but I escaped! My life has been too complicated to inflict myself on others."
 Dmitri Vladimirovich Nabokov, translator, opera singer and racing driver, born 10 April 1934; died 22 February 2012

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Philip Ardagh / Top 10 children´s books by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl
Poster by T.A.

Philip Ardagh's top 10 children's books by Roald Dahl

To mark Roald Dahl Day, the winner of the Funny prize set up in his memory selects his favourite tales from 'the master'

Philip Ardagh
The Guardian
Monday 13 September 2010

Roald Dahl
Funny guy ... Roald Dahl. Photograph: Stephen Hyde / Rex Features
Children's author Philip Ardagh won the upper age category in last year's Roald Dahl Funny Prize for the first of his Grubtown Tales, and his Eddie Dickens adventures have been translated into 34 languages. He's also written funny stuff for radio (including BBC radio's first ever truly interactive drama) and is an "irregular regular reviewer" of children's books for the Guardian.

This year, he's a judge for the Roald Dahl Funny prize, which has given him "an excuse to immerse [him]self in some wonderfully inventive fiction from some of today's funniest children's writers".
He has an impressively large beard.

"Dahl was the master. When he died, I was working in a library. A child asked me: 'Who will write Roald Dahl books now he's dead?' Fortunately, his books live on for whole new generations, while we oldies have the excuse of reading them to our children."
In no particular order, his top 10 favourites are:

1. The Twits

Beard-hating Dahl at his best in this tale of an ever-warring couple: repulsive Mr Twit and his equally repulsive glass-eyed wife. Not forgetting the monkeys. You mustn't forget the monkeys. If I tell you any more I might spoil the story. Read it. It's bonkers.

2. Matilda

Matilda is a lovely girl. Her parents aren't. Matilda loves books and reading. Her parents love conning people and watching telly. School, ruled by the evil Miss Trunchbull, whose speciality is swinging children by their hair and throwing them out of the window, isn't much better. Then Matilda discovers that she has supernatural powers ...

3. The Witches

The Grand High Witch has a simple but fiendishly clever plan to rid England of its children: her hags will take over all the sweet shops, and sell doctored sweets to the children, turning them into mice. (Did I say simple?) Fortunately, a boy overhears their villainous scheming. Unfortunately, he's turned into a mouse before you can say Jack Robi—

4. James and the Giant Peach

An everyday story of evil aunts (Sponge and Spiker), a giant, flying fruit (the peach of the title) inhabited by characterful, giant insects (including the Old-Green-Grasshopper) and, of course, James himself. Lots of funny policemen, too.

5. George's Marvellous Medicine

George's grandma is such a groucher, a grumbler and a griper that he decides to mix up some medicine to try to cure her of her nastiness. As with 94.8% of plans in Roald Dahl books, this one doesn't turn out quite the way George intended. The results are explosive!

6. Fantastic Mr Fox

Mr Fox is the good guy, looking out for his foxy family (at least that's how he sees it). Farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean are certainly the baddies. In this battle of wits between farmer and "vermin", Mr Fox is tunnelling for food whilst the farmers are trying to dig him out. A simple tale told as only Dahl can.

7. The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me

A giraffe with an extending neck, a pelican with a bucket-sized beak, a dancing monkey and a boy with big ideas join forces to create the Ladderless Window-Cleaning Company. Their biggest job? To clean all 677 – yes, six hundred and seventy-seven – of the Duke of Hampshire's windows. Expect chaos in this lavishly illustrated silliness.

8. Esio Trot

Spell "Esio Trot" backwards and you get the word "tortoise", which should give you a clue as to how crazy this (very short) novel is. It's about Mr Hoppy's unrequited love for Mrs Silver downstairs who, in turn, only has eyes for her pet tortoise, Alfie.

9. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Dahl's best-known book has everything: grotesque characters, ludicrous situations and, of course, chocolate! Who could ask for more? When Charlie Bucket wins the last "Golden Ticket" to get a free tour of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, he soon discovers that his fellow winners have bitten off far more than they can chew.

10. The BFG

If flatulence, royalty and a giant with disproportionately large ears are what you're after in a story, this is the book for you. Throw in kidnapped orphan Sophie (snatched and taken to Giant Land) and a trumpet that blows dreams into sleeping children's rooms, and the result is an extraordinary Dahl-esque/Dali-esque vision.
NOTE: All of the above are illustrated by Quentin Blake. What a marriage made in Heaven that was!

Classics corner 139 / Collected Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer / Review


No 126

Collected Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer – review

These peculiar tales of life in eastern Europe showcase Isaac Bashevis Singer's genius for storytelling

Anthony Cummins
Sunday 26 February 2012 00.05 GMT

he Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991) filled his fiction with demons and imps rather than Zionists or antisemites: he felt writers could leave the real world to politicians and sociologists. Most of the four dozen or so tales in this book unfold in Jewish eastern Europe before Hitler and Stalin arrived. Among their protagonists are a cuckolded baker, a cross-dressing schoolgirl and Satan, a narrator several times over, whose dupes include a precocious scripture buff coaxed into Christianity. "If everything goes well," the devil wheedles, "they'll make you pope one day." The story ends in hell.

Singer, who won a Nobel prize in 1978, left Poland for New York before the second world war, and later pieces here draw more on Brooklyn literary life than old country folklore. While the supernatural element recedes, much peculiarity remains, and things get even funnier. A magazine asks a grumpy critic for an essay on Yiddish writers and, instead, receives one about horses, well past the deadline. The editor sees in his boss's eyes "something like the grief of a doctor when a patient comes to complain about a head cold and it turns out to be a malignant tumour".
Singer's gossipy, buttonholing style ("now listen to what happened") crackles with wit: one character learns early in life that "if one wanted to be a real Jew there was no time for anything else". Many of the best tales owe their appeal to inexplicable deeds. In "The Manuscript", a refugee crosses back into Nazi-held Warsaw to retrieve the draft novel her lover left behind. That alone would make a story, but when she returns only to find the author in bed with another woman, our shock leaves us entirely in sympathy with her impulsive response – and  in wonder at Singer's manipulative skill.

Friday, February 24, 2012

My hero / Graham Greene

My hero: 

Graham Green by Richard Holloway

'I loved him then and love him now because his art deals with the spiritual loser's lust for redemption'

Richard Holloway

Friday 24 February 2012 22.50 GMT

I once lived for two years in a house in which Graham Greene had stayed for a while, and I felt in communion with his shade, which was still glooming round the place. I loved him then and love him now because his art deals with the spiritual loser's lust for redemption. Here's Minty in England Made Me: "But again he was detained. A church claimed him. The darkness, the glow of the sanctuary lamp drew him on more than food. It was Lutheran, of course, but it had the genuine air of plaster images, of ever-burning light, of sins forgiven."
Being a broken man himself, Greene knew how to probe the pain and romance of faith and its failed practitioners better than anyone else. Even those of us who never ended up in a prison in Mexico waiting for execution, like the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory, knew what his self-disgust felt like. We knew what Greene was on about when he described the sadness of missing happiness by seconds at an appointed place. A little more self-discipline and maybe our tormented hearts would have ceased tormenting yet. But we also knew somewhere inside that it was our failures that kept us human.
Being a priesthood themselves, great writers understand this better than most. Tennessee Williams knew that if he'd exorcised his demons he'd have destroyed his angels as well. And the poet Ian Crichton Smith understood that "from our weakness only are we kind". Greene would have agreed with them both. There was human solidarity in weakness, fellowship in failure. That's why the spoiled priest in his greatest novel was overwhelmed with compassion for other losers. When you looked at other men and women, "you could always begin to feel pity. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination." And that had to include self-hatred. In Greeneland, in the end, everyone is forgiven because everyone is understood.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Esther Freud / Top 10 Love Stories

Esther Freud's top 10 love stories

From Boris Pasternak to Nancy Mitford, the novelist lines up the stories that have broken her heart

Esther Freud
The Guardian
Wednesday 28 April 2010

Dr Zhivago
Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in the film version of Dr Zhivago.
Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd. / Allstar

               Esther Freud was named by Granta magazine as one of the 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 1993. Her books include Hideous Kinky (1992), Peerless Flats (1993) and Gaglow (1997). Her most recent novel is Love Falls (2007).
              She is a judge of the 2010 Le Prince Maurice prize for literary love stories. The shortlist for this year's prize is East of the Sun by Julia Gregson; Small Wars by Sadie Jones and Whatever Makes you Happy by William Sutcliffe. The winner will be announced in Mauritius on 5 June, 2010.
            "The love stories that have stayed with me are the ones that broke my heart. Novels that managed to create the unbearable longing of two people to be together as well as the misunderstandings, disenchantment and lost hope when love slips beyond their reach."


1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

This was the first book I read that took me on that journey. Rhett Butler's slow, cool devotion to Scarlett through so much of the novel, and the terrible moment when he stops loving her, and she realises she does, in fact, love him, had me feverishly begging fate, or Margaret Mitchell to intervene. My copy was battered and tear-stained by the time the book was finished.


2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre was responsible for a misguided belief in the power of romance that complicated my teenage years. The idea that you could lean out of your window and whisper your lover's name, and that he might actually hear you, appealed to me too much.


3. Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Who can ever forget the moment when Tess fails to find the letter that has been pushed under her door? The scene is seared into the hearts of millions of readers across the world.


4. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Possibly the greatest novel ever written. Tolstoy captures the rollercoaster arc of Anna's passion for Vronsky, and shows us the impossibility of her love ever being a match for what she's lost. The scenes between her and her small son whom she must abandon, are heartbreaking in their restraint, and it is these moments you remember, when Vronsky's ardour begins to fade.


5. Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

It's hard to beat a Russian love story, especially this epic tale, set against the backdrop of war, but Zhivago's love for Lara and the unexpected chance they have to re-ignite their passion when fate throws them together in exile, is hard to resist.


6. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Like consuming the most delicious treat. An acutely funny novel, it is told from the point of view of Fanny whose mother "The Bolter", has left her to be brought up by an aunt. She spends much of her time with her cousins, the eccentric, glamorous Radletts, and it is Linda Radlett – a composite of Mitford and her sisters – whose search for the perfect companion is at the heart of this wonderful book.


7. The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

First published in 1936, this was years ahead of its time in its description of a young woman's affair with a married man. Lehmann takes you on her journey – the waiting, the bright moments of hope – without ever allowing you to lose sympathy for any of the characters. Passionate and brutally honest in its portrayal of how love can overwhelm your life.


8. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

In this collection of stories, Lahiri gives us three linked stories. Hema and Kaushik are two Bengali Americans whose parents were friends when they were young and who meet by chance in Rome. They are drawn to each other, irresistibly, even though Hema is about to be married. As the feelings between them intensify, you are consumed with longing for them to take courage and alter the course of their lives. But then fate – or nature – intervenes, and the pain of the ending had me gasping in physical pain.


9. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

A many stranded novel about loneliness and the chances missed in love. Alma, a 15-year-old girl attempts to make sense of her life after her father's death by unravelling the story of the novel her mother is translating. This beautiful, funny and mysterious story draws its characters together in the most unlikely but life-affirming way.


10. One Day by David Nicholls

Following the story of Emma and Dexter through 20 years of friendship, infatuation, missed opportunities, misguided marriages and eventual coming together, this is a brilliantly structured, hysterical and ultimately heartbreaking book.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Beautiful Women / Sophie Turner

Sophie Turner at the Fox Reality Channel's Really Awards on 13 September 2009



BornSophie Turner
30 April 1984 (1984-04-30) (age 27)
Melbourne, Australia
Years active2001–present
Height5 ft 9 in (1.75 m)
Hair colorBlonde
Eye colorBlue
Measurements36-24-36 (US)
Weight125 lbs
Dress size2–4



Sophie Turner is an Australian model and reality television personality who first gained notoriety as a contestant on the Australian television series Search for a Supermodel.

 Sophie Turner was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1984, the youngest of four children. Turner was first scouted at the age of 14, while she was on a suburban Adelaide beach. She was asked to enter a swimsuit competition, which she won. Sophie was titled Australia’s ‘Miss Beach’ in 1997. In 2008, Turner earned a Bachelor of Laws from Flinders University of South Australia.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Wislawa Szymborska Dies at 88

Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel-Winning Polish Poet, Dies at 88

Wislawa Szymborska, a gentle and reclusive Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, died on Wednesday in Krakow, Poland. She was 88.           
          The cause was lung cancer, said David A. Goldfarb, the curator of literature and humanities at the  Polish Cultural Institute in New York, a diplomatic mission of the Polish Embassy.       
Wislawa Szymborska
with her Nobel Prize medal in 1996
          Ms. Szymborska (pronounced vees-WAH-vah shim-BOR-ska) had a relatively small body of work when she received the Nobel, the fifth Polish or Polish-born writer to have done so since the prize was created in 1901. Only about 200 of her poems had been published in periodicals and thin volumes over a half-century, and her lifetime total was something less than 400.
          The Nobel announcement surprised Ms. Szymborska, who had lived an intensely private life. “She was kind of paralyzed by it,” said Clare Cavanagh, who, with Stanislaw Baranczak, translated much of Ms. Szymborska’s work into English.
          “Her friends called it the ‘Nobel tragedy,’ ” Dr. Cavanagh, a professor of literature at Northwestern University, said in an interview on Wednesday. “It was a few years before she wrote another poem.”
         Ms. Szymborska lived most of her life in modest conditions in the old university city of Krakow, working for the magazine Zycie Literackie (Literary Life). She published a thin volume of her verse every few years.
          She was popular in Poland, which tends to make romantic heroes of poets, but she was little known abroad. Her poems were clear in topic and language, but her playfulness and tendency to invent words made her work hard to translate.
           Much of her verse was contemplative, but she also addressed death, torture, war and, strikingly, Hitler, whose attack on Poland in 1939 started Worl War II in Europe. She depicted him as an innocent — “this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe” — being photographed on his first birthday.
          Ms. Szymborska began writing in the Socialist Realist style. The first collection of what some have called her Stalinist period, “That’s What We Live For,” appeared in 1952, followed two years later by another ideological collection, “Questions Put to Myself.”
         Years later she told the poet and critic Edward Hirsch: “When I was young I had a moment of believing in the Communist doctrine. I wanted to save the world through Communism. Quite soon I understood that it doesn’t work, but I’ve never pretended it didn’t happen to me.
           “At the very beginning of my creative life I loved humanity. I wanted to do something good for mankind. Soon I understood that it isn’t possible to save mankind.”
           By 1957, she had renounced both Communism and her early poetry. Decades later, she was active in the Solidarity movement’s struggle against Poland’s Communist government. During a period of martial law, imposed in 1981, she published poems under a pseudonym in the underground press.
           She insisted that her poetry was personal rather than political. “Of course, life crosses politics,” she said in an interview with The New York Times after winning the Nobel in 1996. “But my poems are strictly not political. They are more about people and life.”
          Ms. Szymborska “looks at things from an angle you would never think of looking at for yourself in a million years,” Dr. Cavanagh said on the day of the Nobel announcement. She pointed to “one stunning poem that’s a eulogy.”
         “It’s about the death of someone close to her that’s done from the point of view of the person’s cat,” she said.
        That poem, “Cat in an Empty Apartment,” as translated by Dr. Cavanagh and Mr. Baranczak, opens:

Die — You can’t do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here,
but nothing is the same.
Nothing has been moved,
but there’s more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit.
Footsteps on the staircase,
but they’re new ones.
The hand that puts fish on the saucer
has changed, too.
Something doesn’t start
at its usual time.
Something doesn’t happen
as it should. Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared.

           Wislawa Szymborska was born on July 2, 1923, near Poznan, in western Poland. When she was 8, her family moved to Krakow. During the Nazi occupation, she went to a clandestine school, risking German punishment, and later studied literature and sociology at the prestigious Jogiellonian University in Krakow.
           Her marriage to the poet Adam Wlodek ended in divorce. Her companion, the writer Kornel Filipowicz, died in 1990. She had no children, and no immediate family members survive.
           Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish exile who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, said of Ms. Szymborska’s Nobel selection: “She’s a shy and modest person, and for her it will be a terrible burden, this prize. She is very reticent in her poetry also. This is not a poetry where she reveals her personal life.”
          Her work did, however, reveal sympathy for others — even the biblical figure who looked back at Sodom and turned into a pillar of salt. Ms. Szymborska speculated in the opening lines of “Lot’s Wife” on why she looked back:

They say I looked back out of curiosity,
but I could have had other reasons.
I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
So I wouldn’t have to keep staring at the righteous nape
Of my husband Lot’s neck.
From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead
He wouldn’t so much as hesitate.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Checking for pursuers.
Struck by the silence, hoping God had changed his mind.

           Her last book to be translated, “Here,” was published in the United States last year. Reviewing it for The New York Review of Books, the poet Charles Simic noted that Ms. Szymborska “often writes as if on an assigned subject,” examining it in depth. He added: “If this sounds like poetry’s equivalent of expository writing, it is. More than any poet I can think of, Szymborska not only wants to create a poetic state in her readers, but also to tell them things they didn’t know before or never got around to thinking about.”
            In her Nobel lectura, Ms. Szymborska joked about the life of poets. Great films can be made of the lives of scientists and artists, she said, but poets offer far less promising material.
           “Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic,” she said. “Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines, only to cross out one of them 15 minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens. Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?”
          Paul Vitello contributed reporting.
            This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: February 3, 2012. Because of an editing error, an obituary on Thursday about the Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska misstated the pronunciation of her given name. It is vees-WAH-vah, not VEES-mah-vah.

        A version of this article appeared in print on February 2, 2012, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: Wislawa Szymborska, 88, Nobel Poet.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Philip Routh / The Rise and Fall of Jerzy Kosinski



Fifty years ago Jerzy Kosinski stepped off a plane at Idlewild Airport. The 24-year-old from Poland arrived in New York with little money and few contacts – two of his early jobs were parking lot attendant and movie theatre projectionist – but he swiftly rose to a pinnacle. One from which he would precipitously fall.
      Fall indeed. Many today would ask: Who is Jerzy Kosinski?
Jerzy Kosinski      Foremost, he was a writer.
     His first novel, The Painted Bird, published in 1965 (eight years after Kosinski's arrival), was heralded as a classic by the likes of Elie Wiesel and Arthur Miller. Widely translated, it received France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger.
       Steps, his second novel, won the National Book Award in 1969.
        Being There (1971) was made into a film starring Peter Sellers. Kosinski's screenplay was cited as best of the year by The Writers' Guild of America and The British Academy.
       His next five novels were best sellers.
          He served two terms as president of P.E.N., the international organization of writers and editors.
          There was an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and teaching stints at Princeton and Yale, but Kosinski's renown extended beyond the written word.
           He was a 12-time guest on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."
          He played a small but significant role in the movie Reds, directed by his friend Warren Beatty (he got billing over Jack Nicholson).
          He would have been at the Beverly Hills home of another Hollywood friend, Roman Polanski, on the night that Polanski's wife Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by members of Charles Manson's "Helter Skelter" family; but, on his flight from Paris to Los Angeles, his luggage was unloaded by mistake in New York, which delayed him by a day.
         He posed half naked for the cover of The New York Times Magazine.
         Away from the public spotlight, at dinner and cocktail parties held in New York penthouses, Kosinski was on a first name basis with the famous – Henry Kissinger, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, theatre critic John Simon, Senator Jacob Javits – and also with those anonymous bankers and industrialists whose decisions drive the world's economy. He was often the center of attention, for he had the gift of beguiling.
          His appearance was striking. His face was framed by a dense mass of tightly-curled black hair. His eyes, under wizard-like brows, were large, black and bright. His nose had the hook of a predatory bird's beak. His mouth, unusually long and thin, seems, in photographs, to be clamped shut like an oyster shell.
           But that mouth opened, and out came exotic stories told in an exotic accent. Accounts of his adventures in the cryptic world of communist Poland and the Soviet Union, chilling tales of his childhood in Nazi-dominated Eastern Europe, stories about his visits to sex clubs that catered to every desire.
          Kosinski was a kind of emissary, one dressed in suit and tie, bringing dispatches from life's underbelly. Yet he did it with a raconteur's wit, and he always retained a sense of mystery. Did he participate in the sexual circus he described or was he just an observer? In all his stories, what was truth, what was made up?
         Despite his free-wheeling lifestyle, Jerzy Kosinski had a wife. She did not accompany him on his night time prowls (other women did), but it was entirely due to her that he was in a room entertaining the affluent and powerful.
          Before the marriage he had been an academic studying social psychology and had written two books of anti-communist essays under the pseudonym of Joseph Novak. Mary Hayward Weir, the widow of an industrialist, admired his writing, which led to their first meeting. She employed the young man to catalogue the books in her library.
           When they married Jerzy was 29, Mary 47.
          Kosinski was suddenly part of a world that included a Park Avenue duplex, homes and vacation retreats in Southampton, London, Paris, Florence. There were servants, a private jet, a boat with a crew of seventeen. And, of course, those parties.
         The marriage ended after four years (two years later Mary died of brain cancer). Though his life of opulence was over, he had published The Painted Bird, and thereafter his writing provided him with a substantial income. He traveled extensively, skied, played polo.
       Shortly after Mary Weir's death, Kosinski began a relationship with Katherina (Kiki) von Fraunhofer, a descendent of Bavarian aristocracy. After 20 years together, they married; four years later, in 1991, Jerzy Kosinski committed suicide. He was 57.

        Eight years before he got into a bathtub and put a plastic bag over his head, the writing career of Jerzy Kosinski had been fatally damaged. The first blow came in the form of a Village Voice articled entitled "Jerzy Kosinski's Tainted Words."Jerzy Kosinski
        Three major accusations were made.
       One was that Kosinski didn't deserve credit as the author of his books. Someone came forward claiming that he had written The Painted Bird; others said that Kosinski wrote it in Polish and that the translator had not been acknowledged. As for the seven episodic novels that followed, it was alleged that Kosinski provided the ideas but editors did the actual writing; the books were, in effect, ghostwritten.
       Another accusation was plagiarism -- that Kosinski filched the concept and structure of Being There from a 1932 Polish novel entitled The Career of Nikodem Dyzma by Tadeusz Dolega Mostowicz.
           The third accusation was the most damning. Kosinski had always insisted – at parties, in interviews, in writing – that he was the boy in The Painted Bird (which, he said, was not strictly a novel but was "auto-fiction"). This nameless boy, who has black hair and black eyes and is thus suspected of being a Jew or a Gypsy, is six when World War II breaks out. He wanders from village to village. In the first printing the locale is central Poland, but in every subsequent edition it is Eastern Europe. For four years he is witness to and victim of horrific cruelty and barbarism – committed not by the Nazis but by peasant villagers, who are superstitious, ignorant and brutal. After being thrown into a pit of excrement, in which he nearly suffocates, the boy loses the power of speech. At the end of the novel he regains it.
          Poles who read the book were highly indignant about how they were depicted (for 23 years the novel was banned in Poland). Then accusations from Polish researchers began to emerge. Kosinski's story was a lie. He had not suffered atrocities at the hands of Polish peasants. Instead, he and his family had lived through the years of Nazi occupation not only in safety, but in comfort. And their protectors? – Poles.
         Documents, personal accounts and even photographs were produced. In the Polish version, the Jewish Lewinkopf family, to escape the Nazis, moved from Lodz (where the Lodz ghetto and the nearby Chelmno Extermination Camp would claim hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives) and changed their name to Kosinski, a common Polish one. They lived in the homes of Poles and their true identity was concealed by Poles. They carried on their lives as Catholics. Jerzy was baptized and received Holy Communion; he served as an altar boy. The Lewinkopf/Kosinski family was in fearful hiding, but not in a potato cellar or barn. They even employed a maid.
      The Poles branded Jerzy Kosinski a Holocaust profiteer because the novel, which drew critical comparison with The Diary of Anne Frank, was immediately granted the status of a chronicle of the Holocaust.
      But Anne Frank was in that attic. If you take away the authenticity of The Painted Bird, what is left?

Jerzy Kosinski      Truth can be elusive. The information about Kosinski's rise and his years of success should be fairly accurate, since it is a matter of public record or comes, undisputed, from multiple sources. But the accusations that precipitated his fall present problems. I encountered so many contradictory and questionable "facts" that everything I read became suspect. I began to believe nothing.
       Kosinski – the man who, according to both friends and foes, liked to operate from behind smoke and mirrors – was no help in clearing up matters. One example: When he writes about his relationship with Mary Weir, what emerges is a picture of a devoted couple separated only by her tragic death. Why does he omit the fact that they divorced? Could it be that he did not want his marriage to a wealthy socialite 18 years his senior to be perceived as a career move? Reading Kosinski on his personal life, I constantly sensed I was being steered in a direction that suited his purposes.
      I consulted two highly-respected texts. Contemporary Authors, published by Gale Research, relates the story of how Kosinski, as a boy, lived through the experiences depicted in The Painted Bird, while American Writers (edited by Jay Parini) bluntly states that Kosinski lied about his wartime experiences; he was safe with his parents. Two teams of "experts," working with the same information, came to opposing conclusions.
          At this point I decided to take a different approach in this essay – a personal one. Though my emotions will come into play, they will be in response to Kosinski's work, not to the man. I'll rely on simple logic, and for my texts I'll use the novels he wrote (or didn’t write).
         The easiest accusation to tackle is the one about plagiarism. I believe that a Polish novel entitled The Career of Nikodem Dyzma exists, but I find no indication that it was translated into English. So I cannot compare it to Being There. Still, how could a novel written in Poland in 1932 correspond closely to the adventures of Chauncey Gardiner (a.k.a. Chance the Gardener) in New York in the 1960s? Television had not been invented in 1932; Chance is a product of television. He moves into the lofty realms of corporate wealth. Being There remains strikingly relevant to the media-driven America of 2007. Kosinski may have borrowed the premise of the idiot whose simpleminded utterances are interpreted as profundities, but he had to considerably shape this premise to fit his purposes.
         Did Kosinski write his novels? I came across no solid, unassailable proof that he didn't: only people making those claims and others refuting them (some being editors stating that they did nothing more that normal editorial work on his books). We do have Kosinski's admission that he was not only very receptive to editorial advice, but that he actively solicited help. He would send copies of a novel-in-progress to friends, asking them to mark places that "didn't sound right" (he lacked confidence in his command of the English idiom). He was a compulsive reviser. In his 1972 Paris Review interview there is a facsimile of a galley proof page of Passion Play with Kosinski's handwritten changes. A note states that, between the first and third set of galley proofs, he shortened the novel by one third, cutting over 100 pages. This can be seen as a sign of insecurity. But insecurity is no fault – not if it motivates the writer to work hard to get it right.
         I find Kosinski's novels to be stylistically similar. The prose is detached, flat, terse, and it has an emotional remoteness that is unique. The voice of the novels comes across as that of one person.
         Next we move to the thorniest accusation. Even though documents, personal testimonials and even photographs have been produced by Polish researchers which "prove" that Jerzy Kosinski spent his boyhood in safety, I had my doubts. Documents can be forged, personal accounts can be fabricated, old photographs of a black-haired boy do not constitute evidence. Could resentment about how Kosinski depicted the Polish peasant have led to a campaign to discredit his book?
           On the other hand, those who see The Painted Bird as a realistic portrayal (the words "brutal truth" are often used in reviews) may be predisposed to accept as true that which isn't. We expect monsters when we think about Europe in the throes of World War II, and Kosinski provides them in abundance. That these monsters are not jack-booted Nazis would seem to undermine the Holocaust connection. The explanation given by his supporters is that Kosinski's broad theme was the victimization of the powerless; if the evildoers in this firsthand account were peasants in Poland, so be it. Kosinski's comments on the novel's title corroborate these arguments. He states that he witnessed, as a child, a favorite entertainment of villagers. They would trap a bird, paint its feathers vivid colours, and then release it. When the painted bird returned to its flock the other birds attacked and killed it.
       The first time I read The Painted Bird, I was unaware of these complexities. I believed that the book was a fictionalized account of events which the author had actually experienced. But as I moved from one gruesome scene to another I lost that belief. A gut feeling grew, and a strong one. These things never happened.
        In chapter four a miller gouges a plowboy's eyes out with a spoon. In chapter five a mob of women attack a character named Stupid Ludmila; one of them pushes a bottle filled with excrement up her vagina and kicks it so that it breaks; then they beat her to death. In chapter six a carpenter is devoured by rats.
         Any one of these horrors might be accepted as the truth, but the stringing together of one after another (and many more follow) is highly suspect. I came to believe that I was reading the fantasies of a sick mind.
        All this is done artfully. Kosinski establishes a pervasive sense of dread; he builds up to each event with deliberation; he describes it with imagery that penetrates deep into the reader's consciousness. I am not questioning the power of the writing. I am questioning its morality. Detractors have called the novel pornographic, contending that it excites a form of lust. Some act out that lust, in basements with bloodstained concrete floors. Marauding armies seem to be infected with it. Leaders of countries have conducted reigns of terror based on it. It’s a deplorable but undeniable part of the history of man. And, as a confirmation of its existence in the here and now, there are writers and filmmakers who make millions by providing grisly fare to a public that wants to vicariously enjoy it. Kosinski recognized that his novel had this appeal. In an interview conducted seven years after the novel was published, he talks of readers who "pursue the unusual, masochists probably, who 'want' sensations. They will all read The Painted Bird, I hope."
          But, as befits the man, Kosinski's literary ambitions were extravagant. If The Painted Bird was to be considered a serious work of art, he knew that its sensationalistic aspects must be overshadowed. What redeeming element could raise it above its parade of repellent scenes? How could he get a reputable publisher to consider the novel? The solution was something an expert dissembler like Kosinski was well-equipped to carry off. What greater significance, what greater validation could he bestow upon the novel than to claim it to be the truth?
         At parties held in Mary Weir's penthouse, Kosinski told stories of his childhood during the war. Since these parties were well-represented by the artistic set, people in publishing were present. It is easy to imagine Kosinski taking a senior editor aside -- suddenly serious, his black eyes intense – and confiding that the stories weren't fabrications, that they had actually happened to him. And more, much worse than anything he had spoken of. But he had written about these things. It was something he was compelled to do, to tell it all.
         Executives at Houghton Mifflin promoted the book as a true account of what the author endured, and it was widely accepted as such by critics, most of whom gave it extravagantly glowing reviews. With his first novel, Kosinski had reached a pinnacle.
         Stripped of its authenticity, The Painted Bird is still a Holocaust novel. It is not about the acts of peasants but about the damaged psyche of Jerzy Kosinski. I believe that as a boy he hid in comfort, but he was still hiding from monsters. Hiding from the trains that took Jews to extermination camps, where they were herded into ovens. Of these things he surely knew, and they haunted his thoughts.
         The cover of my Bantam edition of The Painted Bird shows a detail from the Hell panel of Hieronymus Bosch's "The Last Judgment." The painting is crowded with grotesque tortures that fascinate and repel. But was Bosch ever in hell? Did he witness what he depicted? We are seeing the same type of sickness that afflicted Kosinski, though Bosch's was religiously motivated. There is no indication that Kosinski had any religious beliefs. He may have worshiped power. It would have been one of the childhood lessons he absorbed into his blood and bones, along with lessons about the need to lie, the need to hide. But power was most important. It is the prevailing theme of his work. Steps, his second novel, is composed of brief, disconnected episodes that portray variations on the relationship between victim and victimizer. Brutality is present, though not nearly to the intensity as in The Painted Bird. In Steps the means of subjugation are mainly psychological.
        The Painted Bird can be seen as an exercise in power. It is an attack on the reader's sensibilities. It is also an act of seduction, for Kosinski entices the reader into complicity with his dark inner world. As the miller twists the spoon in the plowboy's eyes, we are made both victim and victimizer.

Jerzy Kosinski        The 1982 Village Voice article and the swirl of controversy that followed it marked the end of the literary career of Jerzy Kosinski. The string of novels that he was producing every two or three years came to a halt. One more book, The Hermit of 69th Street, was published six years after the article appeared. It was long (over 500 pages) and was about an author besieged by false accusations. It quickly sank into obscurity.
         Whatever Kosinski felt inwardly, he did not live the life of a hermit. He devoted much time and energy to social and humanitarian causes. He worked for the creation of the Jewish Presence Foundation, aimed at "empowering" Jews. He also was involved with the establishment of AmerBank, the first Western bank chartered in post-communist Poland.
         He still had money; he still traveled; he still had friends. It is fitting that Kosinski’s last night was spent at a crowded party in an Upper East Side townhouse. Fitting because that's where his life of fame and fortune began.
         The party was given by the author Gay Talese. According to The New York Times, Talese detected no signs of depression. "Last night, he was moving in and out of the crowd as I've seen him on so many occasions."
         Kiki told police that she had last seen her husband at 9 p.m., before he left for the party. The next morning she found him in his bathroom (they had separate bedrooms and bathrooms). He was naked in a tub half-filled with water, a plastic shopping bag twisted around his head. She said that he had been depressed about a heart condition. He had left a note in his office. In it were these words: "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call the time Eternity."
          In researching his death, I again came across conflicting reports: the seriousness of his heart condition is definitely in doubt; some accounts of his suicide include barbiturates washed down with alcohol.
           In the end, I don't understand Jerzy Kosinski. At some level, he must have judged his life as successful. Using his talent, wits, boldness and determination, he went far, if you consider the boy growing up under the most menacing of shadows. Was he happy? There is so much darkness in his novels, I wonder how much brightness there was in his life (inside him, in the place he kept hidden). I am left with a sense of pity, which I'm sure he would not want me to feel. He would prefer respect. And I can grant him that.
          In the last moments of his life he again displayed an indomitable will. For Jerzy Kosinski, old age, with its frailties and loss of independence, was something he chose not to deal with. He 'chose.' He acted. He would not be a victim -- even of Time.