Literary Birthdays – Week of May 23 – 29

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May 23

Walter Reisch photo Walter Reisch (born May 23, 1903) – U.S. / Austrian screenwriter – Ninotchka 1939

Read about Walter Reisch here
and here

“Reisch was a very skillful writer of genre films. He called himself a tailor, meaning that he could take story material of whatever kind and give it a beautifully crafted fit around any ‘body’ – usually stars that the studio had under contract. This was especially true of his work in Berlin, where he wrote original screenplays for Harry Liedke (Faschingszauber), Willi Forst (Ein Herr auf Bestellung, Ein Tango für dich), and Lilian Harvey (Ein blonder Traum, Ich und die Kaiserin) among others.
Similar skills counted in his London and Hollywood work: Miriam Hopkins and Rex Harrison (Men are not Gods), Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier (That Hamilton Woman), Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer (Gaslight), Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas (Ninotchka), Hedy Lamarr and Clark Gable (Comrade X), Marilyn Monroe (Niagara), Barbara Stanwyck (Titanic), Joan Collins (Girl in the Red Velevet Swing).”

(from  “The Ubiquitously Invisible Émigré: Austrian Filmmaker Walter Reisch” by Thomas Elsaesser)



May 24

Joseph Brodsky (born May 24, 1940) – Russian / U.S. poet

Read the Wikipedia article about Joseph Brodsky

Read a tribute to Joseph Brodsky here

Bosnia Tune

As you pour yourself a scotch,
crush a roach, or check your watch,
as your hand adjusts your tie,
people die.

In the towns with funny names,
hit by bullets, caught in flames,
by and large not knowing why,
people die.

In small places you don’t know
of, yet big for having no
chance to scream or say good-bye,
people die.

People die as you elect
new apostles of neglect,
self-restraint, etc. — whereby
people die.

Too far off to practice love
for thy neighbor/brother Slav,
where your cherubs dread to fly,
people die.

While the statues disagree,
Cain’s version, history
for its fuel tends to buy
those who die.

As you watch the athletes score,
check your latest statement, or
sing your child a lullaby,
people die.

Time, whose sharp blood-thirsty quill
parts the killed from those who kill,
will pronounce the latter tribe
as your tribe.


There is a meadow in Sweden
where I lie smitten,
eyes stained with clouds’
white ins and outs.

And about that meadow
roams my widow
plaiting a clover
wreath for her lover.

I took her in marriage
in a granite parish.
The snow lent her whiteness,
a pine was a witness.

She’d swim in the oval
lake whose opal
mirror, framed by bracken,
felt happy, broken.

And at night the stubborn
sun of her auburn
hair shone from my pillow
at post and pillar.

Now in the distance
I hear her descant.
She sings “Blue Swallow,”
but I can’t follow.

The evening shadow
robs the meadow
of width and color.
It’s getting colder.

As I lie dying
here, I’m eyeing
stars. Here’s Venus;
no one between us.



May 25: Happy Towel Day!

Towel 2.png

May 25

Naim Frasheri - Albanian Naim Frashëri (born May 25, 1846) – Albanian poet

Bagëti e bujqësija is a hymn to nature in the traditions of European romanticism and yet one of earthy substance in which … Naim Frashëri sings of the herds and flocks, and of the joys and toil of agriculture and rural life.”

(Opening verse of  “Oh Mountains of Albania”)

Oh mountains of Albania and you, oh trees so lofty,
Broad plains with all your flowers,
day and night I contemplate you,
Your highlands so exquisite,
and your streams and rivers sparkling,
Oh peaks and promontories,
and your slopes, cliffs, verdant forests,
Of the herds and flocks I’ll sing out
which you hold and which you nourish.
Oh you blessed, sacred places,
you inspire and delight me!

“The significance of Naim Frashëri as a Rilindja poet and indeed as a ‘national poet’ rests not so much upon his talents of literary expression nor on the artistic quality of his verse, but rather upon the sociopolitical, philosophical and religious messages it transmitted, which were aimed above all at national awareness and, in the Bektashi tradition, at overcoming religious barriers within the country. His influence upon Albanian writers at the beginning of the twentieth century was enormous. Many of his poems were set to music during his lifetime and were sung as folk songs.”

[from Robert Elsie’s
Albanian Literature in Translation website]

Ralph Waldo Emerson (born May 25, 1803) – U.S. essayist, poet – “Nature” Ralph Waldo Emerson - photo

Read the Wikipedia article for Ralph Waldo Emerson

Excerpt from “The Snow Storm”

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The steed and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed

Read the poem here



May 26

Nobuhiro Watsuki - Manga author
Nobuhiro Watsuki (born May 26, 1970) – Japanese Manga author – Rurouni Kenshin series

Read about Nobuhiro Watsuki here

Read the Wikipedia entry for
Rurouni Kenshin / Samurai X

Read the JDrama Anime blog review of Rurouni Kenshin



May 27

John Cheever photo John Cheever (born May 27, 1912) – U.S. novelist, short story writer – The Stories of John Cheever (1979)

Read the authors calendar biography of John Cheever

“…called the ‘Chekhov of the suburbs’. Cheever’s main theme was the spiritual and emotional emptiness of life. He especially described manners and morals of middle-class, suburban America, with an ironic humour which softened his basically dark vision.”

Watch Dick Cavett interview John Cheever and John Updike (1981)

Read Edward Byrne’s blog post reflecting on
John Cheever and John Updike

I teach works by John Updike and John Cheever in my classes each year. However, if there is a separation between Updike and Cheever today, such a split is possibly most recognizable in the heavy presence of Updike on university course reading lists and a relative lack of such a presence by Cheever.

Indeed, while offering a summary of the content one might find in John Cheever’s finest works, Updike also expresses regret that Cheever’s books are now absent from many college curricula and syllabi:

“No wonder Cheever’s fiction is slighted in academia while Fitzgerald’s collegiate romanticism is assigned. Cheever’s characters are adult, full of adult darkness, corruption, and confusion. They are desirous, conflicted, alone, adrift. They do not achieve the crystalline stoicism, the defiant willed courage, of Hemingway’s. ”



May 28

Patrick White (born May 28, 1912) – Australian novelist, poet, 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature – Voss (1957)  Patrick White

Read Patrick White’s Autobiography
(written for the Nobel Prize committee)

Read the Wikipedia article for Patrick White

Read a review of White’s books Voss and The Vivisector

“Voss” is a historical novel, set in the 19th century, and its eponymous hero is based on a doomed German explorer who vanished into Australia’s dead heart, the brutal and ancient desert that occupies much of the continent, then roamed only by aboriginal tribesmen. Voss’ fatal flaw, and, oddly, his immense appeal as a character, is his pigheaded megalomania. Asked if he has studied the map of where he intends to go, Voss replies: “The map? I will first make it.”

The impressionistic, painterly quality of White’s prose is to the fore in “The Vivisector,” a rambling narrative with eye-peeling power, and perhaps the most convincing of all fictional attempts to capture the magic-lantern sensibility of a great visual artist. The book’s hero, Hurtle Duffield, is a fictional composite of several painters White knew, including Francis Bacon and Sydney Nolan.

The book begins: “It was Sunday, and Mumma had gone next door with Lena and the little ones. Under the pepper tree in the yard Pa was sorting, counting, the empty bottles he would sell back: the bottles going clink clink as Pa stuck them in the sack. The fowls were fluffing in the dust and sun: that crook-neck white pullet Mumma said she would hit on the head if only she had the courage to; but she hadn’t.”,0,1247685.story

Read a review of The Vivisector

He sets out to describe the creative process – and all that must be sacrificed, ignored or consumed to contribute towards it – in exhaustive and exhausting detail. Expect no delicate irony here. When he writes that Duffield “smote them with his brush”, he means it. When he writes, “he didn’t worry, two lovers could add up to an infinity of cats” or “light follows dark not usually bound by the iron feather which stroked” he means … something … important – and you’d better put the work in, because White won’t do it for you.

Given that context, it probably won’t come as a surprise that Duffield is the kind of artist who paints in blood. And s**t. Poo, in fact, is a very important element in this book. Great swathes of the novel are set out in the “dunny” – and it’s here Duffield gains his greatest enlightenment. Even when there’s no toilet around, there’s always a good chance Duffield will let loose a good “fart” or at least a “belch”.

Watch Patrick White speak about his Nobel Prize and other things in this 1973 Australian TV interview

White: I hope my books are the crowning achievement of my career, not awards.

Interviewer: Which book? Can I ask which one’s the favorite?

White: I think The Tree of Man or The Aunt’s Story.



May 29

Lea Goldberg - Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg (לאה גולדברג; ) (born May 29, 1911) – Israeli poet

Read a biography of Leah Goldberg here

Toward Myself

The years have made up my face
with memories of love,
adorned my head
with silver threads
and made me beautiful.

Landscapes are reflected
in my eyes,
the paths I trod
have taught me to walk upright
with beautiful, though tired steps.

If you should see me now,
you would not recognize
the yesterdays you knew.
I go toward myself with a face
you looked for in vain
when I went toward you.

[translated by Robert Friend, excerpt from Found in Translation: A Hundred Years of Modern Hebrew Poetry (1999)]



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