Category Archives: Literature

Changing the Definition of Literature in the Eyes of the Law

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Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book:
The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses

      James Joyce’s enigmatic masterpiece novel Ulysses was first published in book form in France in 1922. Portions of the novel had by then already appeared as magazine excerpts in the United States and Great Britain. The previous year, a court in the United States had declared several such excerpts obscene, and British authorities  followed suit in 1923. In The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham describes the furor which the novel provoked and the scheming that was required to bring the novel to readers.

     Birmingham, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, characterizes his work as the “biography of a book” (p.2). Its core is the twofold story of the many benefactors who aided Joyce in maneuvering around publication obstacles; and of the evolution of legal standards for judging literature claimed to be obscene. Birmingham also provides much insight into Joyce the author, his view of art, and the World War I era literary world in which he operated. The book, Birmingham’s first, further serves as a useful introduction to Ulysses itself for those readers, myself emphatically included, who have not yet garnered the courage to tackle Joyce’s masterpiece.

     Ulysses depicted a single day in Dublin, June 16, 1904. On the surface, the novel follows three central characters, Stephen Daedalus, Leopold Bloom, and his wife Molly Bloom. But Ulysses is also a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, with the three main characters serving as modern versions of Telemachus, Ulysses, and Penelope. Peering into the 20th century through what Birmingham terms the “cracked looking glass of antiquity” (p.54), Joyce sought to capture both the erotic pleasures and intense pains of the human body; fornication and masturbation, defecation and disease were all part of the human experience that Joyce sought to convey. He even termed his work an “epic of the human body” (p.14).

     Treating sexuality in a more forthright manner than what public authorities in the United States and Great Britain were willing to countenance — sex at the time “just wasn’t something a legitimate novelist portrayed” (p.64) — Ulysses was deemed a threat to public morality, and was subject to censorship, confiscation and book burning spectacles. But the charges levied against Ulysses were about “more than the right to publish sexually explicit material” (p.6), Birmingham contends. They also involved a clash between two rising forces, modern print culture and modern governmental regulatory power, and were thus part of a larger struggle between state authority and individual freedom that intensified in the early twentieth century, “when more people began to challenge governmental control over whatever speech the state considered harmful” (p.6).

     There is a meandering quality to much of Birmingham’s narrative, which shifts back and forth between Joyce himself, his literary friends and supporters, and those who challenged Ulysses in the name of public morality. At times, it is difficult to tie these threads together. But the book regains its footing in a final section describing the definitive trial and landmark 1934 judicial ruling, the case of United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses, which held that the novel was not obscene. The decision constituted the last significant hurdle for Joyce’s book, after which it circulated freely to readers in the United States and elsewhere.  In his section on this case, Birmingham’s central point comes into full focus:  Ulysses changed not only the course of literature but also the “very definition of literature in the eyes of the law” (p.2).

* * *

     James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, educated at Catholic schools and University College, Dublin. As a boy, Joyce and his family moved so frequently within Dublin that Joyce could plausibly claim to know almost all the city’s neighborhoods.  But Joyce spent little of his professional career in Dublin. Sometime in 1903 or 1904, Joyce met and fell in love with Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid from rural Galway then working in a Dublin hotel. Barnacle followed Joyce across Europe, bore their children, inspired his literary talent, and eventually became his wife. Joyce and Barnacle lived for several years in the Italian port city of Trieste, then in Zurich and Rome. But the two are best known for their time in Paris, where Joyce became one of the most renowned expatriate writers of the so-called Lost Generation. In 1914, Joyce published his first book, Dubliners, a collection of 15 short stories. Two years later, he completed his first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While not a major commercial success, the book caught the attention of the American poet, Ezra Pound, then living in London. During this time, Joyce also began writing Ulysses.

      The single day depicted in the novel, June 16, 1904, was the day that Joyce and Barnacle first met. Although there may have been single-day novels before Ulysses, “no one thought of a day as an epic. Joyce was planning to turn a single day into a recursive unit of dazzling complexity in which the circadian part was simultaneously the epochal whole. A June day in Dublin would be a fractal of Western civilization” (p.55). The idea of Homeric correspondences and embedding references to the Odyssey into early 20th century Dublin may seem “indulgent,” Birmingham writes, yet Joyce executed it “so subtly that the novel can become a scavenger hunt for pedants . . . Some allusions are so obscure that their pleasure seems to reside in their remaining hidden” (p.130-31).

     In the early 20th century, censors sought to ban obscene works in part to protect the sensibilities of women and children, especially in large urban centers like London and New York. It is thus ironic that strong and forward- minded women are central to Birmingham’s story, standing behind Joyce and assuming the considerable risks which the effort to publish Ulysses entailed. The first two, Americans Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were co-publishers of an avant-garde magazine, The Little Review, an “unlikely product of Wall Street money and Greenwich Village bohemia” (p.7-8), and one of several small, “do-it-yourself” magazines which Birmingham describes as “outposts of modernism” (p.71). From London, Erza Pound linked Joyce to Anderson and Heap, and The Little Review began to publish Ulysses in 1918 in serial form.

      In 1921, New York postal authorities sought to confiscate portions of Ulysses published in The Little Review under the authority of the Comstock Act, an 1873 statute that made it a crime, punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine, to utilize the United States mail to distribute or advertise obscene, lewd or lascivious materials. The Comstock Act adopted the “Hicklin rule” for determining obscenity, a definition from an 1868 English case, Regina v. Hicklin: “whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall” (p.168).

     The Hicklin rule’s emphasis upon “tendency” to deprave and corrupt defined obscenity by a work’s potential effects on “society’s most susceptible readers – anyone with a mind ‘open’ to ‘immoral influences.’ . . . Lecherous readers and excitable teenage daughters could deprave and corrupt the most sophisticated literary intent” (p.168). The Hicklin rule further permitted judges to look at individual words or passages without considering their place in the work as a whole and without considering the work’s artistic or literary value. Finding that portions of Ulysses under review were obscene under the Hicklin rule, a New York court sentenced Anderson and Heap to 10 days in prison or $100 fines. The Post Office sent seized copies of The Little Review to the Salvation Army, “where fallen women in reform programs were instructed to tear them apart” (p.197). The court’s decision served as a ban on publication and distribution of Ulysses in the United States for another 10 years.

     The court’s decision also highlighted the paradoxical role of the Post Office in the early 20th century. Although the postal service “made it possible for avant-garde texts to circulate cheaply and openly to wherever their kindred readers lived,” it was also the institution that could “inspect, seize and burn those texts” (p.7). Moreover, government suppression of sexually explicit material in the United States during and immediately after World War I shaded into its efforts to stamp out political radicalism. Ulysses encountered obstacles to publication in the United States not so much because “vigilantes were searching for pornography but because government censors in the Post Office were searching for foreign spies, radicals and anarchists, and it made no difference if they were political or philosophical or if they considered themselves artists” (p.109).

     Meanwhile, in Great Britain, Harriet Shaw Weaver, a “prim London spinster” (p.12) published Ulysses in serial form in a similarly obscure London publication, The Egoist, also supported by Erza Pound. After Leonard and Virginia Woolf refused to publish Ulysses in Britain, Weaver imported a full version of the novel from France. In 1923, Sir Archibald Bodkin, head of the Crown Prosecution Service, concluded that Ulysses was “filthy” and that “filthy books are not allowed to be imported into this country” (p.253; Bodkin also vigorously prosecuted war resisters during World War I, as discussed in Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, reviewed here in November 2014). Sir Archibald’s ruling authorized British authorities to seize and burn in the “King’s Chimney” 500 copies of Ulysses coming from France.

      The copies subject to Bodkin’s ruling had been printed at the behest of Sylvia Beach, the American expatriate who founded the iconic Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Company, a “hybrid space, something between an open café and an ensconced literary salon” (p.150), and a home away from home for Joyce, the young Ernest Hemmingway, and other members of the Lost Generation of expatriate writers. After Beach became the first to publish Ulysses in book form in 1922, she went on to publish eight editions of the novel and Shakespeare & Company “became a pilgrimage destination for budding Joyceans, several of whom asked Miss Beach if they could move to Paris and work for her” (p.260).

     Over the next decade, Joyce’s novel became an “underground sensation” (p.3), banned implicitly in the United States and explicitly in Great Britain. Editions of Ulysses were smuggled from France into the United States, often through Canada. The book was “literary contraband, a novel you could read only if you found a copy counterfeited by literary pirates or if you smuggled it past customs agents” (p.3). Throughout the decade, Joyce’s health deteriorated appreciably. He had multiple eye problems and, despite numerous ocular surgeries – described in jarringly gruesome detail here — he lost his sight. He also contracted syphilis. By the mid-1920s, Birmingham writes, Joyce was “already an old man. The ashplant cane that he had used for swagger as a young bachelor in Dublin became a blind man’s cane in Paris. Strangers helped him cross the street, and he bumped into furniture as he navigated through his own apartment” (p.289).

* * *

     In 1932, Beach relinquished her claims for royalties from Ulysses.  The upcoming New York publishing firm, Random House, under its ambitious young owner Bennett Cerf, then signed a contract with Joyce for publication and distribution rights in the United States, even though the 1921 court decision still served as a ban on distribution of the novel. To formulate a test case, Random House’s attorney, Morris Ernst, a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, almost begged Customs inspectors to confiscate a copy of Ulysses. Initially, an inspector responded that “everybody brings that [Ulysses] in. We don’t pay attention to it” (p.306).  But the book was seized and, some seven months later, the United States Attorney in New York brought a case for forfeiture and confiscation under a statute that allowed an action against the book itself, rather than its publishers or importers. The United States Attorney instituted the test case in the fall of 1933, a few short months after the first book burnings in Nazi Germany.

     The case was assigned to Judge John Woolsey, a direct descendant of the 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards. Ernst sought to convince Judge Woolsey that the first amendment to the United States Constitution should serve to protect artistic as well as political expression and that the Hicklin rule should be discarded. Under Ernst’s argument, Ulysses merited first amendment protection as a serious literary work, “’too precious’ to be sacrificed to unsophisticated readers” (p.320). Ernst went on to contend that obscenity was a “living standard.” Even if Ulysses had been obscene at the time The Little Review excerpts had been condemned a decade earlier, it could still be protected expression in 1933, given the vast changes in public morality standards since The Little Review ruling.

     Unlike the judges who had considered The Little Review excerpts, Judge Woolsey  took the time to read the novel and ended up agreeing with Ernst. He found portions of the book “disgusting” with “many words usually considered dirty.” But he found nothing that amounted to “dirt for dirt’s sake” (p.329). Rather, each word of the book:

contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers. . . when such a great artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture? (p.329).

Answering his question in the negative, Judge Woolsey ruled that Joyce’s novel was not obscene and could be admitted into the United States.

     A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge’s Woolsey’s decision, 2-1. The majority consisted of two of the most renowned jurists of the era, Learned Hand, who had been pushing for a more modern definition of obscenity for years; and his cousin, Augustus Hand, who wrote the majority opinion.  Once the appeals court issued its decision, Cerf inserted Judge Woolsey’s decision into the Random House printings of the novel, making it arguably the most widely distributed judicial opinion in history.  Two years later, the trial and appellate court decisions in the United States influenced Britain to abandon the 1868 Hicklin rule. Obscenity in Britain would no longer be a matter of identifying a book’s tendency to deprave and corrupt. Rather, the government must “consider intent and context – the character of a book was all contingent” (p.336).

     United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses established a test for determining whether a work is obscene and thus outside the protection of the first amendment, that, in somewhat modified form, still applies today in the United States.  This test requires a court to consider: (1) the literary worth of the work as a whole, not just selected excerpts; (2) the effect on an average reader, rather than an overly sensitive one; and (3) evolving contemporary community standards.  The decision, Birmingham argues, removed “all barriers to art” and led to “unfettered freedom of artistic form, style and content – literary freedoms that were as political as any speech protected by the First Amendment” (p.11).

* * *

     It is an open question whether Birmingham’s book will inspire readers who have not yet read Joyce’s masterwork to do so. But even those reluctant to undertake Joyce’s work should appreciate Birmingham’s account of how forward-minded early 20th century publishers and members of the literary world schemed to bring Ulysses to the light of day; and how judicial standards evolved to allow room for literary works treating human sexuality candidly and openly.

Thomas H. Peebles
Silver Spring, Maryland
July 29, 2016

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Filed under American Society, History, Literature

Nobel Crime

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Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, The Zhivago Affair:

The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book  

       Boris Pasternak, although one of Russia’s greatest 20th century poets, is best known for his only novel, Doctor Zhivago, initially published in Italian in 1957. One year later, after becoming an international best seller which was banned in the Soviet Union, Doctor Zhivago was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. Under pressure from Soviet authorities, Pasternak renounced the prize, “triggering one of the great cultural storms of the Cold War” (p.13), Peter Finn and Petra Couvée write in The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book. Finn is national security editor for the Washington Post. Couvée is an affiliated researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands who also teaches at Saint Petersburg University in Russia.

        In a work that reads at times like a novel itself, Finn and Couvée address the Cold War machinations surrounding the publication of Doctor Zhivago.  The authors notably lay out for the first time the role which the CIA played in the novel’s publication. Rumors implicating the CIA existed almost from the time Doctor Zhivago first appeared, although many surmised that the agency had been only marginally involved. To the contrary, the authors demonstrate, the CIA was “in fact deeply involved” (p.17) in the publication of Pasternak’s novel. But its involvement is less central to the authors’ story than its prominent place in their sub-tittle indicates.

       Finn and Couvée create a vivid if bleak picture of the literary environment in post-World War II Soviet Union and they delve deeply into Pasternak, his enigmatic character and his tumultuous personal life. During the period in which he was writing Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak split his time between his wife Zinaida and his mistress Olga Ivinskya. Ivinskya became Pasternak’s literary alter ego and was imprisoned twice by Soviet authorities as a result of her association with Pasternak, the second time after Pasternak’s death in 1960.

       The other lead character in the drama is Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian Communist yet a man of means from a leading Milan industrial family. Feltrinelli arranged for the final manuscript of Pasternak’s novel to be smuggled out of the USSR in a suitcase in 1956 and published in Milan in 1957. Although Feltrinelli and Pasternak never met, they forged what the authors term “one of the greatest partnerships in the history of publishing.” Their secret correspondence, carried in and out of the Soviet Union by appointed messengers, serves today as a “manifesto on artistic freedom” (p.13).

* * *

       The authors describe Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago as “[b]oth epic and autobiographical” (p.10), recounting the life, loves and losses of a fictional  Russian physician Yuri Zhivago during the turmoil and chaos which the 1917 Russian Revolution wrought (“zhivago” means “the living” in Russian). Serving in a field hospital during World War I, the married Zhivago met and fell in love with nurse Lara Antipova. The two witnessed first hand the atrocities of the Russian Civil War that followed the revolution, committed both by the Bolsheviks and the anti-Bolshevik forces known as the White Russians. With the consolidation of Bolshevik power, Yuri and Lara parted, never to see one another again. When Zhivago returned to Moscow after the revolution, he found a city “wracked by chaos,” with his familiar world of art, leisure and intellectual contemplation “erased” (p.11).

        The power of Pasternak’s novel, the authors contend, lies in in its “individual spirit, Pasternak’s wish to find some communion with the earth, some truth in life, some love. Like Dostoevsky, he wanted to settle with the past and express this period of Russia’s history through ‘fidelity to poetic truth’” (p.16). Zhivago, they write, was like Pasternak himself, “from a lost past” of the Moscow intelligentsia, a “world to be disdained” (p.10) in the new Soviet order. Millions who never read the novel became familiar with the story from the 1965 David Lean film, in which Omar Sharif played Zhivago and Julie Christie was Lara.

        Pasternak disavowed any anti-Bolshevik agenda in his book but, with pages of disdain for the “deadening and merciless” Bolshevik ideology (p. 16), it is difficult to read Doctor Zhivago as anything but a harsh indictment of the revolutionary changes that the Bolsheviks sought to effectuate throughout Russian society. Doctor Zhivago appeared after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died in 1953, a time when the Soviet Union sought to distance itself from the harshest manifestations of Stalinist rule and defuse tensions with the West, while staying loyal to core Bolshevik principles. Yet Stalin’s ghost most assuredly haunted Communist Party General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and the Kremlin authorities under him as they tried to figure out how to handle the potentially subversive novel.

 

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       Pasternak was born in 1895, and was thus 22 years old when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, 62 when Doctor Zhivago was first published in 1957. His father was a renowned artist and illustrator whose father, Pasternak’s grandfather, was a Jewish innkeeper in the Black Sea town of Odessa. Pasternak’s mother was an accomplished musician. The authors describe the Pasternaks at the time of the Revolution as a “prominent family within Moscow’s intelligentsia, who looked to the West, and were disposed to support the political reform of an autocratic, sclerotic system” (p.22).

       In the land of Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy, writers in pre-revolutionary Russia enjoyed revered status. The post-World War II Soviet Union was still a society where novels, poems and plays were not only “hugely significant forms of communication and entertainment” but also the “subjects of fierce ideological disputes” (p.14). Because of his accomplishments as a poet, Pasternak was entitled to live in Peredelkino, an exclusive “writer’s colony” outside Moscow, with perks unimaginable for average Soviet citizens.  Within the Soviet literary establishment, however, recognition of Pasternak’s talent was tempered by “doubts about his political commitment, and for long periods original work by the poet was not published” (p.5). In 1946, Pasternak was removed from the Board of Union of Soviet Writers, which considered Pasternak “lacking in ideology and remote from Soviet reality” (p.56). By 1949, when at work at Dr. Zhivago, Pasternak had been “banished to the edges of literary life in Moscow” (p.66). Throughout the post-war period, he earned a living as a translator of foreign literature, becoming one of the premier Russian interpreters of Shakespeare’s’ plays and Goethe’s Faust.

       Pasternak wrote Dr. Zhivago in fits and starts after the termination of World War II hostilities. As was customary in Russia, Pasternak shared early drafts of Dr. Zhivago with fellow writers. While working on these drafts, Pasternak met Olga Ivinskaya, 20 years his junior, twice married – her first husband committed suicide, her second died during the war — and an editor of the literary magazine Novy Mir, then the official organ of the powerful Union of Soviet Writers. “Pretty, voluptuous and sexually self-confident despite the prudish mores of Soviet society” (p.62), Ivinskya was commonly thought to be the model for Lara Antipova in Pasternak’s novel. Although Pasternak never left his wife Zinaida, his extramarital relationship with Ivinskaya lasted up to his death in 1960.

       Within the Russian literary world, Ivinskya’s affair with Pasternak set off “chattering about the deliciously scandalous liaison” (p.65). But the affair also attracted the attention of Soviet authorities who, on Stalin’s orders, had begun to crackdown on ideologically suspect writers. As a means of building a case against Pasternak, authorities interrogated Ivinskaya. Suspected of spying for Western powers and planning to escape the USSR, Ivinskaya was charged with having “close contact with persons suspected of espionage” (p.73) and, in July 1950, sentenced to five months imprisonment. She was released shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953.

       Although Pasternak had submitted his work to local publishers, he realized that Dr. Zhivago could not be published in the Soviet Union because it failed to conform to what he termed the Soviet Union’s “official cultural guidelines” (p.7). Pasternak knew also that he assumed a huge risk if he sought to have his novel published outside the Soviet Union. Hovering over all Soviet writers was the fate of Boris Polnyak, who was shot on Stalin’s orders in 1937 after being accused of seeking foreign publication for a novel. But Pasternak was willing to assume this risk. He was determined that his “final happiness and madness” (p.10), as he termed Dr. Zhivago, see the light of day.

       In 1956, Feltrinelli, the “unlikely Communist” (p.85), arranged through an emissary for the manuscript to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union. This was the period of Khrushchev’s not-so-secret February 1956 speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Union, in which he denounced Stalin’s crimes as a perversion of Bolshevik ideals. The thaw that followed the speech was “short lived; it would die with the Soviet invasion of Hungary” in October 1956 (p.89). But during this brief clearing when Feltrinelli received Doctor Zhivago, “[c]ooperation with Soviet writers and publishers seemed particularly opportune now that reform was gusting through the Kremlin” (p.89). Feltrenelli, who did not read Russian, sent the work to an Italian specialist in Russian literature.   Having read the manuscript in Russian, the specialist concluded that failure to publish the novel would constitute a “crime against culture” (p.89).

       Ivinskaya, already imprisoned because of her association with Pasternak, feared for her own safety if Dr. Zhivago was published abroad. Pasternak’s wife also firmly opposed Pasternak’s foreign publication plans and numerous Western friends urged him not to have the novel published abroad. But Pasternak held firm, signing a secret contract with Feltrinelli’s firm, sent to him by courier. Despite desperate efforts by the Soviet Union to prevent publication, the first edition of Doctor Zhivago, translated into Italian, was printed in Milan on November 15, 1957. A second run of three thousand copies followed five days later. The book was an immediate international best seller, but was officially banned within the Soviet Union.

        The editorial board of the official Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir scolded Pasternak for his “non-acceptance of the socialist revolution. The general tenor of your novel is that the October Revolution, the Civil War and the social transformation involved did not give the people anything but suffering, and destroyed the Russian intelligentsia, either physically or morally” (p.99) — a conclusion which many historians today would characterize as accurate. But one of Pasternak’s biographers noted that the Novy Mir board missed the novel’s “most heretical insinuation: by artistically conflating the Stalinist period with early revolutionary history,” Pasternak implied that the “tyranny of the last twenty-five year was a direct outcome of Bolshevism” (p.100). For Pasternak, Stalinism and the purges were not, as Khrushchev was then contending, a terrible aberration but rather a “natural outgrowth of the system created by Lenin” (p.100).

 

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        Frustrated by its inability to “roll back” communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the CIA realized that Doctor Zhivago presented an opportunity to embarrass the Soviet government by placing the spotlight on Soviet suppression of a work of great literature in the tradition of Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. CIA involvement in the publication of Doctor Zhivago was one of the agency’s first efforts to leverage books as “instruments of political warfare” (p. 264), part of a broader agency effort to fund cultural activities and publications across Europe which would “manifest diversity and difference of view” between Soviet and American approaches (p.118), and thereby slowly undermine Soviet authority.

       President Eisenhower thus authorized a secret operation to publish Doctor Zhivago in Russian, with exclusive CIA control over the novel’s exploitation. Instead of having the State Department or the United States Information Agency trumpet the novel publicly, secrecy was employed, the agency contended, to prevent the “possibility of personal reprisal against Pasternak or his family” (p.116-117). The agency’s director, Allen Dulles, whose role in many far more nefarious plots is the subject of Stephen Kinzer’s book, The Brothers, reviewed here in October 2014, oversaw the operation. In some senses, the authors contend, the CIA was perfect for the Doctor Zhivago operation. Its budget was itself a secret and the agency “believed with genuine fervor that the Cold War was also cultural” (p.118).

       The 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, an event which a large number of Soviet citizens and Eastern European nationals were slated to attend, was the CIA’s target for distribution of the Russian version. The agency decided to use a New York publisher to prepare a Russian-language edition in the United States, but take the proofs to Europe for printing so no American paper stock would be used. If the Europeans printers obtained the copyrights from Feltrinelli “all the better.” If not the CIA decided, “we’ll do it black’’ (p.130). In the first week of September 1958, the Russian language edition of Doctor Zhivago rolled off the printing presses, bound in a blue-linen cover. The title page acknowledged the copyright of Feltrinelli, but botched the translation of his name in the Cyrillic alphabet. The copyright acknowledgment was a last minute addition “after a small number off early copies were printed without any acknowledgement of the Italian publisher”   (p.138). The book was handed out to Soviet and Eastern European visitors to the Brussels World’s Fair at the Vatican Pavilion.

 

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            The Soviet Union’s widely reported hostility to Doctor Zhivago “ensured that a novel that might otherwise have had a small elite readership became an international best seller” and made Pasternak an “almost inevitable choice” for the Swedish Academy’s 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature (p.13-14). Pasternak had previously been under consideration for a Nobel Prize and yearned for the recognition that such an honor would bring.  In the aftermath of the decision to award Pasternak the Nobel prize, however, the Soviet Union “orchestrated a relentless internal campaign to vilify the writer as a traitor” (p.14).  Pasternak was frequently described as a “Judas” who had betrayed his homeland for “thirty pieces of silver” (p.166).   At Khrushchev’s urging, a speech to the Komosol, the youth wing of the Soviet Communist Party, referred to Pasternak as the “mangy sheep” of Soviet society who as a writer had “fouled the spot where he ate and cast filth on those by whose labor he lives and breathes” (p.180).

     Most ominously for Pasternak, Soviet authorities threatened him with expulsion from the Soviet Union. Ivinskya drafted a letter to Khrushchev, which Pasternak signed, pleading not to expel him from the Soviet Union. “I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and by work,” the letter read. “I cannot conceive of my destiny separate from Russia, or outside it” (p.182). In a telegram to Nobel authorities in Sweden, Pasternak renounced the prize, to the great disappointment of his fellow artists, both in the Soviet Union and worldwide, many of whom regarded his renunciation as an act of betrayal. A then- obscure schoolteacher named Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn “writhed with shame” that Pasternak would “demean himself by pleading with the government” (p.201).

       Editorialists around the world weighed in on the “startling virulence of the assault on a solitary writer” (p.186). A French newspaper described the Pasternak affair and its effect upon Soviet global standing as Khrushchev’s “intellectual Budapest” (p.186). American political cartoonist Bill Maudlin won a 1958 Pulitzer prize for his depiction of a scruffy Pasternak in a Soviet prison camp wearing a ball and chain and chopping wood in the snow with a fellow prisoner. The caption read: “I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What was your crime?” (p.186).

Maudlin

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       Amidst the worldwide controversy, the ever-enigmatic Pasternak died of lung cancer in May 1960. The Soviet Union did not report Pasternak’s death, although it was front-page news around the world. But the Pasternak controversy continued after his death, with Ivinskaya again paying a heavy price for her association with Pasternak. She was arrested for the second time, accused of being Pasternak’s link with Western publishers in dealing in hard currency for Doctor Zhivago. In the West, prosecution of Ivinskaya was seen as a “continuation of the Nobel campaign against Pasternak” (p.251). Ivinskaya was not released until 1964.  Feltrinelli drifted out of publishing and into the Italian anarchist left of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was killed in 1972, when a bomb he and co-conspirators planned to use to cut off electrical power in a Milan suburb went off prematurely.

       Khrushchev, for his part, was driven from office in 1964. In forced retirement, he had time, finally, to read Doctor Zhivago. The former Communist Party General Secretary concluded that he should not have banned the novel. “I should have read it myself. There’s nothing anti-Soviet in it” (p.256), he reportedly told his son.   Khrushchev made the point explicitly in his own secret memoirs, dictated when he was a “virtual prisoner in his own home” (p.265). In an “irony that would surely have brought a small smile to Pasternak’s face,” Khrushchev allowed the tapes containing his memoirs to be “spirited out of the Soviet Union and published in the West’ (p.265).

 

 * * *

 

        The idea that a novel could change people’s minds and make a difference in the Cold War confrontations between the Soviet Union and their Western adversaries seems today quixotic, “almost quaint” (p.263), as the authors put it. Yet that was the idea that motivated the CIA to put its resources, human and financial, behind its efforts to shine a spotlight on Doctor Zhivago.  Uncovering the full extent of the agency’s disguised role in the dissemination of Pasternak’s novel constitutes a scoop for Finn and Couvée.  But that role is a secondary theme in their book,  overshadowed by  the authors’ detailed and engrossing depictions of Pasternak himself and the post-Stalin 1950s Soviet literary world in which he operated, and by their always-timely account of the world-wide debate over intellectual and artistic freedom which the publication of Dr. Zhivago precipitated.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 12, 2015

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Filed under American Politics, European History, Intellectual History, Literature, Politics, Soviet Union, United States History

Into Thin Air

Schiff

Stacy Schiff, Saint-Exupery: A Biography

           When I was in the 9th grade, I had a charismatic English teacher who, in addition to requiring his pupils to memorize 3,000 vocabulary words and diagram sentences – even then, very unfashionable teaching approaches – introduced us to the world of serious literature. Among the authors we met were Dickens (“Great Expectations”), Faulkner (“The Bear”), and Shakespeare (“Julius Caesar”). But the centerpiece of our 9th grade literary experience was Antoine St. Exupéry‘s “The Little Prince,” which my teacher considered one of the best books ever written – my recollection is that he said it was the best book. Since then, I have often asked myself whether this lofty elevation of St. Exupéry’s iconic work was anything more than hyperbole spooned out to gullible 9th graders. In posing that question over the years, I realized that I knew next to nothing about the author of this work. So when I saw Stacy Schiff’s biography of St. Exupréy on sale at my favorite second hand bookstore, I pounced, hoping to learn a little about the man considered one of France’s greatest 20th century authors, and not solely for “The Little Prince.”

           Throughout this volume, Schiff shows herself to be a sophisticated biographer, tying a mind-boggling amount of detail into a coherent whole (skills which worked for her more recently when she received a Pulitzer Prize for her best-selling biography “Cleopatra”). She portrays St. Exupéry as a towering figure, 6 feet 4 inches, yet a “marvelous child” (p.325) with the “sensibility of a little girl” (p.76). He was an accomplished if somewhat eccentric aviator in aviation’s early days, demonstrating a “remarkable aptitude for mechanics” (p.132). As an aviator, Schiff contends that St. Exupéry was as popular among his peers “as John Glenn initially made himself among the early astronauts” (p.214). One friend summed up St. Exupréy the aviator: “When the flight is normal Saint Exupréy is dangerous; given complications, he’s brilliant” (p.330).

           St. Exupéry spent several formative years in the Sahara desert as a pilot for Aéropostale, one of France’s first overseas airmail services. He worked as an author during off hours, constantly scribbling drafts on scraps of paper. During his time in the desert, St. Exupéry pondered the “importance of responsibility, the fellowship it nurtures among men, the priority of an interior life” (p.29). The Sahara formed a backdrop in the 1930s, for several works that helped make him one of France’s leading 20th century literary figures, especially “Night Flight” and “Wind, Sand and Stars.” These works raised questions that St. Exupéry grappled with throughout his life:

how to reconcile an individual’s thirst for profit with some social good; how to allow for maximum liberty in a world prone to tyranny; how to apply the happy lessons of Aéropostale to a social structure; how to nourish and motivate man in a machine age (p.289).

           St. Exupéry was also what the French call a châtelain, with nobility in the blood, little in the bank account, and a certain “helplessness with financial matters” (p.77). On several occasions, he was forced to return to France, more specifically Paris, where he was a generally unhappy member of the Parisian café intelligentsia, mingling uneasily with Sartre, de Beauvoir and others at the Café des Deux-Maggots and Brasserie Lipp. He fell deeply in love with a woman he did not marry and married a woman one can only characterize as a fruitcake. Schiff suggests that the Little Prince’s painful attempt to figure out the elusive rose was an expression of St. Exupréy’s fractious relationship with his wife. During World War II, St. Exupréy joined many other French literary figures in New York.

           “The Little Prince” was written largely during St. Exupréy’s New York years. Schiff describes the work as a “satire for the adult world” at war (p.389), by far St. Exupéry’s “most popular and enduring work” — even if usually found on bookshelves “alongside Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and the Wizard of Oz” (p.449). “The Little Prince” has been translated into more languages – nearly 80, Schiff indicates – than any other original work in French, and still sells over 100,000 copies annually in the United States and in France.

           Although St. Exupréy was not on de Gaulle’s good side, he yearned to fight for his country and left New York to fly missions for the Free French. On the last day of July 1944, St. Exupréy took off on a solo mission and simply disappeared, “into thin air,” the title of Schiff’s chapter on his death. Even today, there is no certainty and few serious theories on how St. Exupréy met his end. But Schiff shows that he was despondent in the weeks and months immediately preceding his last mission. She does not state that he perished in a suicide mission, but the enigma that surrounds his death seems consistent with such an end. St. Exupréy was the “most celebrated French man of letters to die in the war,” Schiff notes wryly, “for the simple reason that most French men of letters did not see active combat after the fall of France in 1940” (p.438).

           In her biography of St. Exupréy and his world, Schiff portrays an author as beguiling, enchanting and mystifying as the Little Prince: “too broad for any category” and “fated to be misconstrued” (p.446). St. Exuprey’s work, she concludes, was “rich in spirit” and “makes us want to overreach ourselves. It makes us dream” (p.447) — a conclusion which I think my 9th grade English teacher would be happy to endorse.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
June 5, 2013

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, French History, Literature, Uncategorized

Chameleon, Vagabond, Pilgrim

Koestler

Michael Scammel, Koestler:

The Literary and Political Odyssey of a

Twentieth-Century Skeptic (5/17/11)

 

          Arthur Koestler is best known today for his second novel, Darkness at Noon, published in 1940, a scathing and psychologically penetrating examination of the Soviet show trials of the 1930s and totalitarianism as practiced in the Stalinist regime.  Michael Scammel contends in his highly detailed and engrossing biography that Darkness at Noon constitutes Koestler’s “principal contribution to political thought, forming one of the most imaginative and coherently argued indictments of totalitarian ideology and practice available to western readers” (p.xix). 

 

          Koestler was perhaps the quintessential 20th century Central European Jewish intellectual.  The odyssey that inspired Scammel’s title was astonishingly far ranging.   Koestler was born in 1905 in Budapest, raised in pre-Anchluss Vienna; reported on unfolding Zionism from Palestine; spent time in a Franco prison during the Spanish Civil War; and as an adult lived in Germany, France, Great Britain and the United States.  He moved from anti-fascism to communism to anti-communism, and then to anti-anti communism.  In the 1960s, Koestler went beyond Western politics to Buddhism, mysticism and what today seem like loopy new age zen movements.  Moreover, Koestler performed what I consider one of the most formidable intellectual feats imaginable, writing seriously in three languages, Hungarian, German, and English, with some credible work in French. 

 

          Throughout his odyssey, Scammel writes, Koestler was:

 

a chameleon, a vagabond, and a pilgrim, constantly changing and reinventing himself, inhaling, as it were, the essence of each place he stayed in, while remaining perpetually alien to his surroundings.  Never fully Hungarian, not quite Austrian or German, a Jew who turned away from Judaism, incapable of being French, definitely not an Englishman, and unwilling to accommodate himself even to the melting pot of multicultural America, he wandered the earth like a modern Quixote in search of a spiritual homeland (p.xviii).

 

          In his wanderings, Koestler mingled with some of the mid-twentieth century’s most influential luminaries.  He befriended Langston Hughes while traveling in Soviet Turkmenistan as a young and ardent Communist sympathizer.  He met George Orwell and W.H. Auden during the Spanish Civil War (Koestler admired Orwell, Scammel contends, far more than Orwell admired him).  In France, Koestler hung out with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and André Malraux.  When he came to the United States, he befriended Edmund Wilson, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Sidney Hook and, in his later years, Timothy Leary.  The glimpses that Scammel provides of these personalities constitute one of the book’s most entertaining features. 

 

          Deep thinker though Koestler undoubtedly was, Scammel shows that he was also a repugnant individual — an “incorrigibly volatile, egocentric, irascible, and promiscuous tyrant” (p.567).  Scammel documents in minute detail how Koestler drank heavily and was a sexual bully just about everywhere he went.  He had an affair with Simone de Beauvoir in Paris (unclear if Jean-Paul approved).  Borrowing from Bertrand Russell’s own playbook, in England Koestler enticed Bertie’s wife into bed.  Suffering from Parkinson’s disease and cancer, Koestler took his own life in 1983.  His wife Cynthia, twenty years younger and in good health, committed suicide with him, and it remains an open question whether Koestler intimidated her into joining him in an early death.  Koestler’s “chronic insecurity and the temper tantrums of a spoiled brat were never far from the surface” (p.309), Scammel ruefully concludes.   

          Even as a writer, Scammel finds Koestler’s work uneven.  Its “sheer bulk and variety” raise questions about its “quality and relevance, for in one sense Koestler simply wrote too much, in too many genres” (p.xix).  Using Isiah Berlin’s famous formulation of the fox and hedgehog, where the fox knows many things and the hedgehog knows a single thing very well, Scammel describes Koestler as a “peculiarly swift and preternaturally clairvoyant sort of fox” (p.570).  Koestler:  

 

knew a great many different things, rather than one big thing. . . [he had]  a phenomenal sense of smell, which led him very early to the centrality of “the Jewish problem” in twentieth-century European history, to the dangers of fascism and the false promises of Soviet Communism, to the crucial importance of political freedom and ethical clarity, to the glories and dangers of hegemonic, materialist science, and to the spiritual void of a twentieth-century culture lacking in faith (p.570).     

 

          At his best, Koestler achieved what Scammel terms a “fusion of autobiography, psychological penetration, and dialectical analysis,” accompanied by a “vivacity and immediacy of expression, wit, and polemical brilliance, and an infatuation with ideas and the ethics of political choice that are as thrilling and compelling today as when they were written” (p.571).  And Darkness at Noon was surely Koestler at his best.  This “literary masterpiece,” which has never gone of out print since its initial appearance in 1940, remains “one the great books of the twentieth century . . . a novel of ideas and psychological tension, partaking of the nightmare vision of modernists as varied as Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Camus, and Thomas Pynchon” (p.xix). 

 

          Scammel himself writes in incisive and instructive prose.  Although too long for my taste by perhaps a third, his well-crafted biography ably captures both Koestler’s protean personality and his contributions to 20th century literature and political thought.    

.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

February 12, 2013

 

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Literature and Liberalism

Adam Kirsch, Why Trilling Matters

I am ridiculously under read in classical literature, but am nonetheless intrigued by commentators who gain fame through analysis of literature.  I’ve read biographies of Alfred Kazin and Dwight McDonald, two relatively obscure critics in the 1930 –1950 time frame.  Further, I read everything I can get my hands on about Edmund Wilson, arguably America’s greatest 20th century literary critic.  Lionel Trilling, often regarded as the Jewish counterpart to the WASPish Wilson, represents a major void in my reading about literary critics.  So I was more than willing to try Adam Kirsch’s “Why Trilling Matters,” another in the Yale University Series, “Why X Matters,” notwithstanding my disappointment with my first encounter with this series, Louis Begley’s “Why Dreyfus Matters” (see February post, “The Matter of Dreyfus”).

Kirsch is a talented writer who produced a concise, incisive exploration of Benjamin Disraeli’s Jewishness, which I read two years ago (entitled, simply, “Benjamin Disraeli”).  In his book on Lionel Trilling, Kirsch shows how Trilling saw the world through the prism of literature.  Trilling demonstrated what it means to “create one’s self through and against the books one reads,” Kirsch writes (p.22).  To Kirsch, Trilling was unique as a critic in that he was always “less concerned with writers than with readers, less interested in the way novels work than in the way we put them to work in our own lives” (p.97).  As our culture becomes increasingly non-literary, a development Trilling foresaw, Kirsch argues that Trilling is all the more important for “showing what it means to define one’s self through reading” (p.167).  Trilling provided proof that what Kirsch terms a “readerly heroism” is “always a possibility for those who believe in it” (p.167).

Trilling’s best-known work, “The Liberal Imagination” — published in December 1949, just as the 20th century neared its half way point — seemed to veer toward political philosophy.  In the United States at that time, Trilling famously declared, liberalism is “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” (p.38), with “no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”  It would be easy to interpret this passage as a triumphal expression of Cold War, anti-Stalin, and anti-Soviet liberalism.  Looking at Trilling as an “ideologist of liberal anti-Communism,” Kirsch writes, is “not wrong” (p.39).  Trilling was involved in the “soul-searching debates among the erstwhile radicals of the Partisan Review circle,” and was convinced that “liberal indulgence of Stalinism was a political and cultural disaster” (p.39).

Kirsch argues that Trilling and The Liberal Imagination are therefore “central to our understanding of the main project of post-war liberal thought: a renewed commitment to pluralism” (p.69-70).  Trilling “reaches the same kind of conclusions that can be found in the work of Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt” (p.70), but through the medium of literature rather than history or political philosophy.  “If the basic principles of liberalism today are a renunciation of utopianism and the sanctity of diversity,” Kirsch contends, “then Trilling deserves to be credited as one of liberalism’s most profound expositors” (p.70).

But for Trilling, “liberal” was a “deliberately elusive” word.  What it names is:

 at once an emotional tendency, a literary value, an intellectual tradition, and a way of being in the world.  Only sometimes, and as it were incidentally, does Trilling speak of liberalism as a position in American politics (p.40).

More than any 20th century intellectual, Kirsch argues, Trilling stood for the principle that “society and politics cannot be fully understood without the literary imagination” (p.4).  Trilling urged liberals to learn from literature the “essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty” (p.38).  Literature offers “moral realism” to liberalism, inducing awareness of the “contradictions, paradoxes and dangers of living the moral life” (p.60).   It permits the writer and the reader to “face down the intolerable contradictions of history” (p.68) and come to some understanding of evil (p.104).

At a time when the possibility of reading in Lionel Trilling’s “existentially engaged way” seems almost quaint, Adam Kirsch demonstrates in his engaging volume why Trilling deserves our attention.  As Kirsch states, no critic could be “more inspiring, or more necessary” (p.22).

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

June 8, 2012

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