Archive for the Literature Category

MACIEJ and IDA

Posted in Art and Culture, Beacon Press, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Literature, Poland, reconciliation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on June 4, 2014 by Louise Steinman

Maciej and Lulu

My dear friend Maciej Ziembinski, a pioneering journalist and editor (and a central figure in my book, The Crooked Mirror), recently passed away in Radomsko, in central Poland. Maciej was fiercely devoted to this little town, where my mother’s family lived for generations. When poet Adam Zagajewski wrote of those Poles imbued with “the ecstasy of the provinces,” he must have had Maciej in mind.

Before World War II, Jews made up approximately 40% of Radomsko’s population. Very few survived the war and most who did survive left the country. Under Communist rule, there was but one sanctioned narrative of the recent past— the patriotic war against the German Fascists. Discussion of the town’s vanished Jews, of local rescuers or those who betrayed—was taboo. Maciej’s father, who’d rescued a Jewish woman to whom he’d been secretly engaged, raised his son to have an open mind. Even as a young man, Maciej was determined that the history of Radomsko’s Jewish population must be told, too. He understood it was an essential part of the town’s story.

He carried on, he told me, “his own private war with town hall.” When Poland transitioned to democratic rule, he established Radomko’s first alternative weekly. Until then, newspapers were the mouthpiece of the state. He named his paper, most appropriately, Komu I czemi (For whom and what for?). As its editor, he wrote and published over sixty articles about Radomsko’s Jewish history. He oversaw the translation of the Radomsko Yizkor, the Jewish memorial book, from Yiddish to Polish and published it in his paper. He was a principled man. A scrapper, a gadfly.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s exquisite recent film “Ida,” set in b&w provincial Poland in the early sixties– gives you some idea what obstacles Maciej faced under Stalinist rule. (In an interview, Pawlikowski calls his film, “a crooked mirror… so whoever looks can take away different things.”) The film’s young protagonist is a wide-eyed novitiate, an orphan, living an austere life at a convent in the countryside. With her downcast eyes, this young woman is the model of obedience and humility. There is no indication she’s made any inquiries about her origins. Soon she’ll take her final vows. Before she does, however, her Mother Superior orders her to visit her aunt, who’s suddenly requested to see her.

It’s the first time this naïve young woman learns she has living relatives. Within moments of her arrival at her aunt’s flat in Lodz, there is more surprising news. Her dead parents were Jews. Her real name is Ida Lebenstejn. “You’re a Jewish nun,” her aunt informs her with a harsh laugh. Ida’s swift response: “I want to see their graves.” Another hard truth: there are no graves. Most likely her family’s bones are in a pit in the forest.

In Poland, there are hundreds, thousands of adults with stories like that of young Ida in Pawlikowski’s film. They were Jewish children whose frantic parents, during the Occupation, entrusted their precious sons and daughters to Catholic neighbors or clergy. Several of those crooked stories are in my book—one of them is about a survivor named Ania Poniemunska, born in Radomsko in 1937.

In 1941, before they fled to Russia, Ania’s parents left their four year-old daughter in the capable hands of her maternal grandmother, a local midwife. The grandmother escaped the ghetto with Ania, and found shelter with a Polish farmer and his wife. The headman of the village betrayed them. The Germans dispatched the Polish farmer to Auschwitz. They surrounded the village, rounded up all the hidden Jews, marched them to the forest, forced them to dig their own graves. Before she was shot, however, the grandmother handed young Ania into the arms of a farmer’s wife who pretended the child was her own. Of the twenty-three Jews hidden in the village, only Ania survived.

In 2009, when Ania came back to Radomsko with her son for the first time since she’d emigrated to Israel after the war, she was in great conflict. Could she bear to visit the site where her beloved grandmother was murdered? Ania quickly found her way to Maciej; after all, he knew more about the Jewish history of the area than anyone else around.

In Pawlikowski’s film, Ida and her aunt elect to go into the forest, to the place where the unspeakable happened. Ida points to the open pit and asks the man unearthing her family’s remains: “Why am I not here? Why did I survive… not the others?” She needs to know. Maciej advised Ania: “Go to the forest. It is important to your son. It is the big story of your life. It made you who you are.” Maciej understood that. Ania, like Ida, was strong enough to bear the truth. She needed to bear witness.
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[drawing of Ania Poniemunska with her grandmother Chava Borys, by Kasia Kabzinka]

Over the years, Maciej and I spent many afternoons in the Radomsko cemetery—in sun and snow—walking unruly rows of tilting stones. Maciej, between puffs of a harsh Polish cigarette, would tell me stories of the more recent burials– about the few Jews who survived the war and stayed. Over there, he’d say, “that’s the grave of my friend Borkowski; he had an affair with the wife of his friend Andomierski; but they all wanted to be buried near each other anyway.” Maciej was like the narrator in Our Town.

Maciej helped me find the grave of my great-grandmother, Golda Zylberman Wajskopf. That afternoon in the melancholy Radomsko cemetery was magical. Blue butterflies fluttered through yellow gorse. Golda was luckier than most of her relatives—she died fourteen years before the Nazis invaded Radomsko and turned life for all its inhabitants into hell on earth.

“Saviors of Atlantis” is how a Polish friend refers to those non-Jewish Poles who gathered up the shards of Jewish life and history in a post-war Poland, then a broken country living under the strangle-hold of Communism.

Maciej was one of those saviors. He was also a gifted storyteller, a great friend, a good—if sometimes troublesome– man to have in your town. I am among many who will miss him.
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Radomsko cemetery, painting by Natan Spigel, courtesy Natan Spigel Foundation

Photo of Maciej and LS in Radomsko cemetery by Tomasz Cebulski

Dreaming in Russian

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Family History, Literature, Los Angeles with tags , , , , on March 12, 2014 by Louise Steinman

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[drawing: Vlada Ralko]

News from Ukraine trickles into my weekend haven in Ojai Valley. I peel an orange fresh from the tree, exulting in the scent. A woman in Maidan grates beets for borscht for weary protesters, her fingers stained blood red. The crisis keeps Russia in the headlines and the nerves on alert.

It’s both the crisis in Ukraine and my anticipation of Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen coming to ALOUD (tonight!) that explains my gravitation over the past month to memoirs about Russia, both Soviet and post-Soviet. Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure, Colin McCann’s Dancer; Anya Von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking; Emmanuel Carrere’s startling My Life as a Russian Novel ; Geoff Dyer’s ZONA, an inventive meditation on Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker.”

It’s Gessen’s brilliant new book on Pussy Riot [Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot] that brings her to L.A. tonight; but I also reread her beautiful memoir, Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace. Gessen stresses the ways people under those regimes, in order to live, were forced to make moral compromises—in ways most of us have not had to face. “Each of my grandmothers was burdened with a conscience, which meant that both of them at crucial points in their lives tried to find a way to make an honest peace with the system. They had vastly different ways of doing it…”

Reading so many books about Russia may explain why, in a recent dream, in a vast warehouse in a small town, every door I opened (and there were many) lead to the Russian River. And after all, though my father forgot his childhood Russian (he was six when he emigrated from Ukraine, during the Russian Civil War) he told me he still sometimes dreamed in Russian.

Today’s NYTimes features a video of Ukrainian troops in the Crimean city of Sevastopol (famous in my childhood from Pete Seeger’s version) facing off with Putin’s soldiers. The Russians have rifles at the ready, and their captain yells, “Come no further!” but the canny Ukrainians are holding aloft both their own blue and yellow flag as well as a red flag bearing (what the voiceover calls) “Russian symbolics “(apparently hammer and sickle is still in vogue)… “because they know the Russians won’t fire on their own banner.”

This stand-off brought back the memory from 1962, sitting in the den of our house in Culver City with my father, worriedly watching the Cuban missile crisis unfold on TV. I stomp off and return to the table with envelope and stamps and begin writing: “Dear Mr. Khruschchev, I don’t want to die.” I’m not sure what the U.S. Post office did with it; but I dropped it in the mailbox with an eleven year old’s sense of personal urgency.
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In the meantime, during the current stand-off, I console myself with a recent delight– the divine DAKHKA BRAKHA, whose voices and songs fill my ears and heart. They call themselves a “Ukrainian ethno-chaos” band. Eastern Europe meets the full force of global sound. A free and fair trade.

On the Road with “The Crooked Mirror”

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Literature, Poland, reconciliation with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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After so many years of sitting alone in a room writing, reflecting… it’s fascinating to be out in the world with The Crooked Mirror. Who are its readers? Who was drawn to hear me talk about the book in Queens,NY, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, Manhattan, Portland and Seattle? Some were old friends, appearing from various chapters of my life. Some were family– cousins with links to the story. Others saw an ad or heard a plug on the radio. Some came because they are intrigued, some because they were skeptical of the very premise: Polish-Jewish reconciliation.

At the Queens Jewish Library last month, there were many Jewish survivors of the camps in the crowded community room. One man rolled up his sleeve to show me the Auschwitz number tattooed on his arm, without comment. During my talk, these elders nodded their heads vigorously when I mentioned how, when Cheryl’s father came home after the war from the Soviet Union to his town of Kolomyja, where his neighbors shot at him. But they also listened attentively to stories of kindness, rescue, and the hard-won path towards reconciliation.

At USC, I gave a talk to students in the Masters in Professional Writing program. Two writing students– both working on memoirs about their African-American families– approached me afterwards, to say they’d taken inspiration from my tale. One of them owned to the dead-ends she’d encountered in the search for the history of her own family, from the time of slavery. “What do I do about all the gaps, the ragged edges?” she asked me sadly. Use them! I advised. Those holes in a family narrative are part of the story that has been obscured by time, emigration, and trauma.

At the NYU bookstore, I met Jack Malinowski, from Philadelphia, retired from 35 years with the American Friends Service Committee. Jack is the grandson of Poles– miners who emigrated from the Suwalki area of Poland in the late 1800’s. He grew up in a largely Polish Catholic community, near Shenandoah, Pa. “My parents were active in Polish American cultural activities,” he told me, “mostly on a Roman Catholic level. The synagogue in our town was near our house, but we mainly co-existed rather than mixed.” His father played a strong role helping DP’s after the war, and joined numerous Polish American voters leaving the Democratic party after Yalta (feeling betrayed by Roosevelt). In The Crooked Mirror, he said, “I found a rare and meaningful encounter.”

Tova Ofman is the daughter of Berek Ofman, a survivor from my family’s town of Radomsko, who is featured in the book. She flew in from Cleveland, bringing her two daughters so that they could hear a story that their grandfather had never told them. “I think he found it easier to tell his story to someone outside the family,” one of the lovely granddaughters thoughtfully observed.

I was delighted that my friend Sheku Mansaray could be in the audience at the New York Public Library. Sheku suffered through the atrocities of the civil war in Sierra Leone, losing both his parents and his arms to rebel soldiers. He sat beside storyteller Laura Simms, who wrote afterwards: “Sheku, like my son Ishmael, was a victim of a long civil war in Sierra Leone. Unlike Ishmael he did not become a soldier, but rather was scarred forever by a child soldier. A boy that he knew as a child from the next village. It was an amazing evening listening to tales of reconciliation after war, seated beside Sheku who is making some reconciliation within himself after the war.”

In many cities, people came up to me afterwards to tell me their family stories, to talk about their own searches to reconnect with history and lineage. In Portland, my friend Aron told me he was now going to search out the story of his grandmother Anne, who was one of the children on the Kindertransport. In San Francisco, I met Elizabeth Rynecki, who maintains a “virtual museum” and is producing a documentary film about her great-grandfather Moshe Rynecki, a renowned Warsaw painter (and a very fine one at that), who died in Majdanek. Moshe Rynecki’s son, George, Elizabeth’s grandfather, recovered over 100 of his father’s paintings, secreted away during the war. Elizabeth wrote this thoughtful response to The Crooked Mirror and posted it on her blog. I share it here.

Thanks to everyone who’s helped launch The Crooked Mirror out into the world. I also promise– in response to feedback– to post more pictures and a map in due time…

painting at top:
“Perla” by Moshe Rynecki, 1929.

After “Aftermath”

Posted in Beacon Press, Crooked Mirror, Human Rights, Literature, Poland, reconciliation with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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Going full out for the distressing double-header, I saw the Polish film “Aftermath” the same weekend as “Twelve Years a Slave.” Both films were an opportunity to view how a filmmaker handled a country’s national shame through the art of storytelling. “Aftermath,” is a fictional film inspired by Jan Gross’ book Neighbors, about the 1941 massacre of a Polish village’s Jewish population by their Catholic neighbors. It’s just been released in the U.S. “Twelve Years,” based on the diary of a free Black who was kidnapped and pressed into bondage in the American South, brings to Technicolor luridness the hideous cruelties of the slave trade.

Both films are deeply disturbing and both films necessitate a revising of a national self-image. For Poles, that involves admitting that Poles were not always the victims in WW II; on some occasions, they were perpetrators. Americans must countenance that our country’s literal foundations were built on the blasphemy of human bondage.

In Poland, when Neighbors was first published in Polish in 2000 , discussion of the Jedwabne case became a national obsession. Crucial to note was that the debate about Jedwabne was carried out in full public view. It involved Catholic prelates, former Solidarity leader Adam Michnik (himself of Jewish descent), Polish writers and academicians, and Jewish Poles.

When the stone commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne massacre was dedicated in the town in July 2001 by Poland’s then-President, Aleksander Kwásniewski, the president’s unflinching apology was carried live on Polish TV:

“We express our pain and shame. We express our determination in seeking to learn the truth, our courage in overcoming an evil past. We have an unbending will for understanding and harmony. Because of this crime we should beg the shades of the dead and their families for forgiveness. Therefore, today, as a citizen and as the President of the Polish Republic, I apologize. I apologize in the name of those Poles whose conscience is moved by that crime.”

I’ve never heard an American president apologize for the abomination of the slave trade. And, lest anyone forget, this past spring, The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, a key provision of the landmark civil rights law.

“Aftermath” has caused outrage in Poland among Polish nationalists who consider the film a slur. It also has passionate defenders, for whom looking squarely at the past is a prerequisite to building a tolerant civil society. As a film, I found Aftermath’s Gothic approach– spooky score, supernatural scares, a cast of Troglodyte villagers with raised pitchforks– a distraction and a disconnect from the sober story the film attempts to tell. “Twelve Years a Slave”— far more artful—so aroused my sense of outrage that I wanted to smash my fist through the screen.

In 2006, before Jan Gross’ next book (Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz) was published in Poland, I expressed my worry to a Polish friend about the possible harm the book might cause to the efforts towards Polish-Jewish reconciliation. This friend, an artist and civic activist who was also Gross’ Polish publisher, replied: “Yes, it will be very painful. But we have to take this relatively peaceful time to look at what is cruel and painful in the past. It is the only way we can build a democracy. We cannot lose this time. We must be honest.”

His response was so obvious; clarifying, and a deep relief. It still is. My friend was neither alarmed nor defensive at the prospect of controversy.

It’s never easy to admit to different points of view about history—look at the broiling controversy over the Smithsonian allowing Japanese responses to Hiroshima in the exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of World War II. (The Smithsonian backed down.) And when will an American filmmaker take on the genocide of the Native Americans? He or she could start with the bounties paid for the scalps and body parts of California Indians, legally sanctioned by our state legislature until 1900. There are plenty of uncomfortable national truths to contemplate; looking at them collectively doesn’t denigrate a nation’s history, nor the acts of bravery of its citizenry. (We must also remember that there are more Poles among the Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem than from any other European country.)

This public confrontation with the truths of an uncomfortable past is a crucial aspect—a responsibility really– of living in a democracy, of taking advantage “of this relatively peaceful time.”

This post also appears on Beacon Broadside, a project of Beacon Press, independent publisher of progressive ideas since 1854.

photo: Teatr NN, Misterium, “One World- Two Temples,” 2000

From an Island, #2

Posted in birdwatching, CAPTIVA, Life and What about It, Literature, Travel with tags , , , , on January 18, 2013 by Louise Steinman

Jon asked for more pictures from Captiva, so I’m thinking, which ones? The strangler vines that remind me of Daphne turning into a tree?
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I wish I could show you the turtle that Lucinda saw in the jungle, the one with the delicate sepia pattern on its cream-colored carapace, but s/he hasn’t revealed her/himself to me yet. Whenever one of us sees some new wildlife, there some anxiety about having not been observant enough to see it when it’s a combination of attention and LUCK that brings it about. Bill was able to show me where the screech owl sings and Lucinda had heard him in that spot already several times.

Yesterday I watched an osprey devour a mullet for lunch. there was only half a mullet there by the time I happened on the scene… usually it’s still wriggling as it’s devoured, now that’s, as Beckett would say, “lepping fresh.”
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“After lifting its catch from the water, an osprey turns the fish’s head forward, thus reducing wind resistance while flying back to the perch.”

In his new memoir, Nick Flynn notes: “Mimesis, it would seem, can only come from close attention to the world, and this attention (as Weil points out) is a type of prayer, another (possible) way to escape the cage of ego.”

Drawing the little blue heron on the dock of the Fish House was today’s prayer, my blue pencil following the rotation of his body as he warily watched me watching him.
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A Translator Remains Faithful

Posted in Art and Culture, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry, translation with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2012 by Louise Steinman

As a tribute to my dear colleague Michael Henry Heim, I post an article I wrote about him for the Los Angeles Times, which appeared 10 years ago to the day of his passing on Sept 30, 2012. Michael was a world-renowned translator, a passionate advocate for literature, an inspired teacher, and a generous friend (he and his wonderful wife Priscilla always brought bags of compost from their garden and gave them to me and Lloyd at our annual Institute for Humanities spring parties.) My deepest condolences to his family. He will be deeply missed. Below, also a link to a video of Michael speaking in 4 languages!

September 30, 2001|LOUISE STEINMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
Imagine a world without the benefit of translation–the Bible is available only in Greek, Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” only in Spanish. You could read Dante’s “Inferno” if you knew Italian, or Kafka’s “The Trial” with a sure command of German.

Today, if you wanted to read a recent novel by an Afghan writer, and you didn’t happen to know either Pashto or Dari, the main languages of Afghanistan, itwould be a world without translation. There aren’t any contemporary Afghan novels in our public libraries or bookstores; none listed on Amazon. None have been translated into English, says S. Wally Ahmadi, editor of Critique and Vision, a journal of Afghan culture and history. Nor will any be translated soon, he says.

“All of a sudden we want to know about Afghanistan, and we know precious little. We haven’t prepared enough translators,” says Michael Henry Heim, one of the nation’s most respected literary translators. “It could take 10 years to train proper translators for Pashto and Dari.” Heim fears the quick fix. “The government will send people to language schools. They’ll start with first-year Arabic. We’ll have instant scholars and instant experts. But this is reaction rather than the constant steady flow of knowledge.”

Chairman of Slavic languages and literature at UCLA, Heim remembers another time when events in the news piqued the country’s interest in knowing more about foreign cultures. “It was Aug. 21, 1968, and the Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia. Suddenly, everyone was interested in Czech literature.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the national curiosity about Slavic languages waned. “As soon as a country goes out of the news, the interest flags,” he says. “Russia is no longer the Evil Empire, just a future Third World country. There are fewer students studying Russian because there are less fellowships available, fewer jobs. The State Department is not as interested in hiring Russian translators.” Heim says with a sigh, “It just seems to me that in a country of 250 million, we’re rich enough to afford to study all these cultures.”

Heim, 58, has been a translator for 30 years. As an undergraduate, he studied at Columbia University with the great translator Gregory Rabassa, acclaimed for his translation of Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

Heim obtained his PhD in Slavic languages from Harvard. Among his many notable translations are Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” from the Czech, Vassily Aksyonov’s “In Search of Melancholy Baby” from the Russian; Danilo Kis’ “Encyclopedia of the Dead,” from the Serb; and Gnter Grass’ Nobel Prize-winning novel, “My Century,” from the German.

Heim is fluent in six languages (Czech, French, German, Italian, Russian and Serbo/Croatian), with a reading knowledge of six more. Asked about his very first job, he lights up with pleasure at the recollection: “I began with Chekhov’s letters. I was the most lucky young translator!”

Though Heim has agreed to an interview, he’s skeptical that many will find the subject of translation to be of much interest. “I’m pessimistic about the general mood,” he admits. “As a friend of mine says, there are 3,000 people in any country who are interested in reading ‘good’ books, by which he means difficult books. No matter what size the country, you have the same 3,000. And since my friend is Dutch, the 3,000 people in his country are proportionally a much larger group than ours, but it’s still 3,000 people.”

Heim may be a skeptical host, but he’s a gracious one. He pours coffee and serves up a plate of dark red Romanian tomatoes to his guest, then settles his lanky frame into a chair. Butterflies dart through the luscious tangle of the flower and vegetable garden behind the comfortable Westwood home he shares with his wife, Priscilla, for many years a teacher of high school Latin and Greek.

Most mornings when he’s not teaching, Heim can be found in front of his laptop in his home office, deep in concentration. Within easy reach on the cluttered shelves above his desk are the tools of the translator’s trade, among them a four-volume Russian dictionary compiled in the 1930s (“many consider it still unsurpassed,” he comments), the Oxford Russian-English Dictionary, the Random House Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms, Webster’s Third, the Oxford Concise, the Longman Dictionary of English Idioms and Rodale’s Synonym Finder.

In all probability, you’ll find translated literary works on the bookshelves of many Americans. The Bible is a ubiquitous example. Yet there is little public awareness or understanding of the demanding art of translation. Translation is an art form that takes place “behind the scenes” of the literary life.

In his 1998 polemic, “The Scandals of Translation,” Lawrence Venuti, professor of English at Temple University, lays it out: “Translation is stigmatized as a form of authorship, discouraged by copyright law, deprecated by the academy, exploited by publishers and corporations, governments and religious organizations.”

It’s not uncommon for a book critic, in reviewing a book, to neglect to mention that the book is a translation, a fact that once prompted novelist Joyce Carol Oates to complain in a letter to the New York Times: “Those who imagine that foreign-language works are transposed into English by a mysterious chemical process, without the efforts of gifted translators, are kin to those who imagine that film actors speak their own lines, without the benefit of screenwriters.”

The traditional view holds that the translator should be “invisible,” merely a conduit for the work. “There’s a new ideological ‘take’ on that nowadays,” Heim comments. “The postmodern stance is that the translator creates a new work. That’s where I disagree. I believe that the translator is a creator, but I’m not so sure that I’d want to create a new work. I would like to create, as much as possible, the same work.”

Is creating the same work even an option? Heim smiles patiently. “‘As much as possible’ is what I said.” As one might expect from a man whose job is to find the right phrase, Heim chooses his words with care. “It’s possible enough so that a good translation will allow a person who has read the work in the original and a person who has read the work in translation to have an intelligent conversation about it. I think that’s the most that we can hope for.

“The reader must believe he or she is reading a work in French or Japanese and yet be reading it in English. That’s the real paradox. It’s a scam, if you like. A feat of legerdemain. But I think it can be done.”

There are those who argue that there are too many differences among cultures for a translation to ever be “true.” Say “bread” ” to one person, and she’ll conjure up a package of plastic-wrapped white bread. Say “bread” to another and she’ll imagine a crusty baguette. The oft-used pun about translation is tradduttore, traditore, literally, “the translator is a traitor.” The translator is unfaithful.

In a 1985 essay titled “Taking Fidelity Philosophically,” Barbara Johnson suggests a more apt metaphor: “The translator ought … to be considered not as a duteous spouse but as a faithful bigamist, with loyalties split between a native language and a foreign tongue.”

What attracts Heim to a particular work is an author’s interesting use of language. “I don’t think I’d translate an incendiary piece that goes against my beliefs, no matter how beautiful the language was. However, I have translated authors with whom I haven’t agreed 100%.” Milan Kundera comes to mind. “Kundera’s language is very pristine, and that’s what attracted me to it. I was also attracted by his ideas, even though I didn’t agree with all of them. And yet Kundera introduced a number of ways of looking at things that were completely new to his audience at the time.”

Heim is diplomatic when discussing Kundera, a writer notorious for stormy relationships with his translators. In an oft-cited essay published in the journal Lingua Franca (October 1999), Caleb Crain chronicles Kundera’s decade-and-a-half crusade against “unfaithful translations.” Some in the literary world have characterized the novelist’s crusade (which has included public condemnation of his translators, including Heim) as an obsession.

In his own defense, Kundera has replied, “An undue obsession? I can’t say. My books lived their lives as translations. As translations they were read, criticized, judged, accepted or rejected. I was unable not to care about translation.”

Gunter Grass provides a quite different example of the kind of relationship an author can have with his translator. For his most recent work, “My Century,” Grass brought together 15 of his translators from all over the world for a seminar in his publisher’s offices in Gottingen, Germany, spending 15 hours a day for three days with them. “Grass told us what he had in mind. He asked us what we had in mind. He asked us our advice, as the novel wasn’t finished when we began work translating it.”

Heim recalls a long debate between the Danish translator and Grass about the East Berlin workers’ uprising in 1953. “In the end,” Heim chuckles, “Grass won the argument.”

For the last five years, Heim has been translating the diaries of Kornei Chukovski from the Russian. “Chukovski was a children’s book writer, a critic and a translator–which puts the fear of God into me. He translated Mark Twain, among others.”

Chukovski knew most of the great writers of his time–Isaac Babel, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak–and his diaries, which run from 1901 to 1969, “are a wonderful testimony to his own attempt to remain honest throughout the period, a period that almost required dishonesty,” says Heim. His long labor nearly done (Yale University Press will publish the diaries in 2002), Heim must soon decide what to take on next. “It’s a real problem. You don’t want to take on the wrong project, because you’re with it for so long.” He pauses a beat. “It makes me anxious.” As if to amplify his sentiment, the phone rings in Heim’s office. It’s the American publisher of an Eastern European novel, eager to know if his book is next on Heim’s agenda. Heim explains that he can’t commit yet and soothes the caller with suggestions of other possible translators.

Heim worries that American readers are afraid of tackling literature in translation. “An editor once told me that he resented the assumption on the part of foreign writers who don’t get translated that Americans are not interested in what goes on outside their borders. He said, ‘Americans are as interested as any other people, but they just don’t trust those damn foreigners to tell them about it.’ So they’re more likely to read James Clavell about Japan, but they won’t read Kenzaburo Oe, who’s a Nobel Prize-winning author.”

Fear of the unfamiliar, and mistrust of the translator, are factors in those choices, Heim says, and he regards teachers and librarians as crucial allies in the struggle to break down barriers. “Teachers because they can show you while you’re still learning–that these barriers don’t need to exist. Librarians–and booksellers–because they can help you at the time when you’re choosing the book.”

Every two years Heim teaches a workshop at UCLA in literary translation. “Out of each workshop has come one or two professional translators,” he says with justifiable pride. He considers it scandalous that American universities (including UCLA) require only one year of a foreign language. “We need people to study languages for our own sophistication as a country, for our own broad-mindedness, for our own awareness of what language per se is. Not for practical purposes–English is the world language. Americans who go abroad will not need to order coffee in Urdu.”

He notes that America is less hungry for works from other cultures than are other countries. English language works are by far the most translated literature into every other foreign language.

By comparison, little foreign literature is translated into English. Increasingly in this country, the publishing of literature in translation falls to academic presses. Among the few major American publishing houses still committed to publishing literature in translation is Farrar Straus & Giroux. When reached for comment in New York, gutsy co-founder Roger Straus said, “You can’t call yourself a proper publisher unless you publish world literature!”

“While it’s true that that Anglo American literature is extremely vibrant,” says Heim, “it doesn’t mean that nothing else of interest is being written. We ignore what else is being written at our own peril. To our detriment. We’re missing a lot.”
http://www.international.ucla.edu/videos/article.asp?parentid=121775

My English Teacher: Lorraine Schulmeister (1918-2012), In Memoriam

Posted in Art and Culture, Life and What about It, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2012 by Louise Steinman

(This piece is part of an ongoing series of writers’ profiles of influential teachers published July 10, 2012 in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

An autumn afternoon on the sunny Great Lawn at Westlake School for Girls. Lorraine Schulmeister, my English teacher, and I read aloud from Emily Dickinson: “I dared not meet the Daffodils, / For fear their Yellow Gown / Would pierce me with a fashion / So foreign to my own.” We read aloud from Blake: “If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the / spread of my own body, or any part of it.” It’s 1967. I’m in the tenth grade, my first year as a scholarship student at this exclusive school tucked into Beverly Glen canyon north of Sunset Blvd. It sounds idyllic — it was.

I picture her pacing in front of the blackboard: high Nordic cheekbones flushed, excited hands mid-gesture. Like the poet Theodore Roethke, her own mentor, she had mastered the art of appearing to see the work for the first time. She introduced us to the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, Ted Berrigan, Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov, to the possibilities of writer-as-activist. It was a stance with immediate resonance as the Vietnam War raged abroad and protests raged at home.

After school, I’d trade pastel shirtwaist uniform for torn blue jeans and sandals and hike down to the Resistance office in Westwood Village to pick up leaflets to hand out at draft boards. My high school boyfriend, almost 18, refused to register. Instead, he chained himself to the altar of a church in Watts. U.S. Marshals obligingly hauled him away to court, from there to federal prison.
Lorraine taught at Marlborough School (our cross-town rival) before teaching at Westlake, but resigned when the administration there questioned her “Americanism.” There’d been complaints from parents: when she taught Whitman, she actually spoke about “sex” in the classroom.

In her eloquent resignation letter, dated February 29, 1964, she wrote: “I have presented American Literature as a great and living force, as a body of work that is loving and critical at one and the same time. Like Frost, most writers have had a ’lover’s quarrel with the world.’ Literature is most of all concerned with life; sex is an important part of life. I presented Walt Whitman as I have always presented him: as poet of the body as of the soul; as the great revolutionary and innovator that he was.”

She was born Lorraine Breckheimer in 1918, in Mankato, Minnesota. It was the year the Great War ended, as she noted in The Making of a Teacher or The Last of the School Ma’ams, her astute self-published chapbook. Mankato was a small town “far from the currents of the world.” No movie theaters. No television. A quiet, peaceful life—walks, berry-picking, window-shopping, band concerts, school plays, church. A trip to the library was an adventure. “No one we knew had had a divorce. Only teachers traveled to far off places.”

In the crash of 1929, her family fell “from the middle class to no class.” Her father’s farm implement business failed, he lost everything. The family moved to a dairy farm in northern Minnesota classified as “suitable only for subsistence living.” Living in this rural isolation, from age 11 to 17, Lorraine turned inward, books were her companions.

She received a full scholarship to Carleton College, but had no money for room and board. Disappointed, she opted for a state teachers college closer to home. An advisor discouraged her from seeking a PhD to teach at the college level. He told her she’d just be asked to teach remedial courses, not literature. “I recognize the truth of Karl Marx’s economic interpretation of history,” she wrote. “Economics has ruled my life.”

Her career included a stint teaching elementary school in a rural two-room school, where she was successful, for the most part, in awakening her students to the importance of reading and the pleasure of literary study. “Only one parent objected to my reading list. The offensive book was Steinbeck’s Cannery Row”. During World War II she served as a WAC at an air base in Ogden, Utah, and, courtesy of the GI Bill, studied American Literature at the University of Washington with Theodore Roethke.

Lorraine and I re-discovered each other in 2001 and remained fast friends until she died this past spring, at age 94. At least twice a year, I’d drive up to San Luis Obispo from L.A. We’d go out for dinner, a glass or two of good wine. She always brought a list of things to discuss; wanting to make good use of our precious time together.

Her home for the last decades was a small studio apartment in an assisted living facility. A painful and economically disastrous divorce (she kept his surname, Schulmeister, which described her chosen profession) in her early fifties severed her from her teaching career. She’d wanted but had no children, though a number of former students stayed in close touch. We were, she said, “the daughters she never had.” She worried about outliving her modest savings, and she almost did.

We stayed in touch by writing letters. Envelopes in Lorraine’s clear cursive arrived at least twice a month, and I wrote back almost as often. We sent each other books. Who else would gift me Henri Troyat’s massive biography of Tolstoy for my birthday? (As good as she said it was, all 800 pages.) She insisted I read President Obama’s memoir; she admired him, worried about him. She loved Hazel Rowley’s bio of Sartre and De Beauvoir and marveled at Yiyun Li’s short stories. Her responses to Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X, Susan Jacoby’s An Age of Unreason, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (she read it twice) fill pages handwritten front and back. She re-read the classics — Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Her unequivocal vote for greatest American novel was Moby Dick (she loved it more after each of her eight readings).

Of all the books I sent, her favorite was Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars. She considered his skillful narrative of those advocating for peace amidst the carnage of World War I to be one of the most significant history books ever written.

I wrote to her about my own writing life, my own struggles and joys. She reminded me of my great good fortune to live in a creative community, to meet great writers, to travel, to observe. She adored my husband.

Among the many books I treasured receiving from Lorraine was Robert D. Richardson’s study of Emerson and the creative process (First We Read, Then We Write). Last year I made a pilgrimage to Concord, Mass to swam in Walden Pond, place pencils on Thoreau’s grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and visit Emerson’s home. I sent Lorraine a postcard– an image of Emerson’s study– featuring the round oak table where the master read and wrote every day. Emerson’s belief that creative reading was essential to creative writing was one that Lorraine instilled in all her students. She concurred with Emerson’s dictum, “While you are reading, you are the book’s book.”

Reading kept her mind young even as her body failed her. Historian Tony Judt’s final book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, thrilled her and she zeroed in on his chapter about American nationalism. “In a global world,” she wrote me, “we are so provincial. Witness our current politics. We are anti-intellectual as a people. More so than others.”

This she found as true in 2012 as when she had resigned from Marlborough nearly fifty years earlier. She ended her resignation letter with a ringing admonition:

“Everyone should read President Kennedy’s speech at Harvard, dedicated to Robert Frost, published in the February issue of The Atlantic Monthly called ‘Power and Poetry.’ He expresses better than I the challenge America faces: Can we have poetry and power? Athens did for a brief moment in history. It seems unfair that I should have been asked to remain at home so that a student could attend class without contamination from an accused teacher; why should the teacher be more expendable than the student? I do not at this point know the real charge against me, but I do recognize the forces that are greater than myself. I represent poetry; they represent power.”

On the day Lorraine died, one of her former students, Judy Munzig, was able to spend several hours sitting at her bedside stroking her hand, telling her how much we all loved her. Lorraine’s eyes were closed, but she could still hear.

Judy wrote afterwards: “Her reading glasses were on her nightstand on top of a paperback of Iris Murdoch’s The Bell with a bookmark from Chaucer’s Bookstore. A young man who works at the hospice said that Lorraine had been reading passages aloud to him and when he told her he didn’t understand it, she would explain it to him. ‘Now I’ll have to read it myself,’ he said.”

END

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