LitBirthdays December 11 – 17, 2011

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December 11

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (Алекса́ндр Иса́евич Солжени́цын ) (born December 11, 1918) – Russian novelist, 1970 Nobel Prize winner

Read about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn here and here

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in edited form in 1962, with the explicit approval of Nikita Khrushchev, who defended it at the presidium of the Politburo hearing on whether to allow its publishing, and added: “There’s a Stalinist in each of you; there’s even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil.” The book became an instant hit and sold-out everywhere. During Khrushchev’s tenure, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was studied in schools in the Soviet Union as were three more short works of Solzhenitsyn’s, including his acclaimed short story Matryona’s Home, were published in 1963. These would be the last of his works published in the Soviet Union until 1990.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich brought the Soviet system of prison labor to the attention of the West. It caused as much of a sensation in the Soviet Union as it did in the West—not only by its striking realism and candour, but also because it was the first major piece of Soviet literature since the twenties on a politically charged theme, written by a non-party member, indeed a man who had been to Siberia for “libelous speech” about the leaders, and yet its publication had been officially permitted.  [from Wikipedia]

I was brought up by my mother, who worked as a shorthand-typist, in the town of Rostov on the Don, where I spent the whole of my childhood and youth, leaving the grammar school there in 1936. Even as a child, without any prompting from others, I wanted to be a writer and, indeed, I turned out a good deal of the usual juvenilia. In the 1930s, I tried to get my writings published but I could not find anyone willing to accept my manuscripts.

I was arrested on the grounds of what the censorship had found during the years 1944-45 in my correspondence with a school friend, mainly because of certain disrespectful remarks about Stalin, although we referred to him in disguised terms. … I served the first part of my sentence in several correctional work camps of mixed types (this kind of camp is described in the play, The Tenderfoot and the Tramp). In 1946, as a mathematician, I was transferred to the group of scientific research institutes of the MVD-MOB (Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of State Security). I spent the middle period of my sentence in such “SPECIAL PRISONS” (The First Circle). In 1950 I was sent to the newly established “Special Camps” which were intended only for political prisoners. In such a camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), I worked as a miner, a bricklayer, and a foundryman. [from Solzhenitsyn’s autobiography at]

Watch Remembering Solzhenitzyn (RT 2008 news feature)


Born December 11

Subramanya Bharathi (born December 11, 1882) – Indian poet

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams (born December 11, 1892) – U.S. children’s mystery series contributor (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys) – The Ringmaster’s Secret (Nancy Drew series)

December 12

Christian Metz (born December 12, 1931) – French film theorist, semioticist – Film Language – A Semiotics of Cinema (1974)  Christian Metz

Read about Christian Metz here

Read Constance Penley’s critique of Film Language here

In Film Language Metz’ cinesemiotics leans heavily on linguistic models. The enterprise of semiotics arose out of the methods of structural linguistics, formulated by Ferdinand de Saussure in the early part of the century.

Metz sees the image as being too close an analog of the thing in the real world; it is not an indication of the thing but the actual “pseudo-presence of the thing.” The mechanical nature of the basic filmic operation (photographic and phonographic duplication) has the consequence of integrating into the final product “chunks of signification whose internal structure remains afilmic, and which are governed mainly by cultural paradigms.”

This mimetic notion of the image is the opposite of that held by Umberto Eco, the Italian semiologist whom Metz cites as responsible for many of his later changes. Eco posited the rather startling idea that the iconic (photographic) image is, like the verbal sign, “completely arbitrary, conventional and unmotivated.” He points out that there are so many transformations involved from the object to the representation of the object that the image has none of the properties of the object represented…

[from Jump Cut, no. 5, 1975, pp. 18-19]

Read Rikke Bjerg Jensen’s paper about semiotics in film here

Metz believes in the linguistic approach to cinema, but in order to justify the study of cinema as a language, the perception of language had to be redefined. Any form of communication is a language, but Danish, English and Spanish is a ‘language system’, Metz states (Monaco 1981; 157). Therefore cinema may be a language of some kind but it is not a language system. Metz suggests that denotation is to be studied before connotation. According to him, the denotation is the basic form of cinematic material, because it presents, it doesn’t interpret. Denotation is the images that make up a story. Connotation has to come second, he says, because what the images connote is not directly presented by the basic material of the film and connotation is only partly indicated by the denotation (Braudy 1998; 91).

Metz argues that there’s no unit in film that equals the word in language. The image, which he believes is the smallest unit in cinema, is already at the same level of a sentence or a paragraph. This fact leads him on to compare the shot and the word, which illustrates his strong relations to the linguistic semiotics (See appendix 1). Metz’s point is that in literature you can imagine, you can create your own visual images, whereas in cinema you can’t, because the images have already been chosen for you. For instance, not many readers of the trilogy The Lord of the Rings would have created the same visual image of Frodo, as the director of the film invented him on screen. In this context, film doesn’t suggest: it states. It puts the visual images in front of us.

Even as Metz concluded that cinema isn’t a ‘language system’, because he believes that it lacks minimal units and double articulation, it still suggests a systematicity that resembles that of language. In the same way as literary language expresses itself through written material, cinema expresses itself through five tracks: moving photographic image, recorded phonetic sound, recorded musical sound and writing.

[from “Do we learn to ‘read’ television and film and do televisual and filmic codes constitute a ‘language’?” by Rikke Bjerg Jensen]

Bibliography of Christian Metz’s work is here

Read excerpts from Metz’s book Film Language

Born December 12

Robert Lepage (born December 12, 1957) – Canadian playwright, actor, producer/director

Gustave Flaubert (born December 12, 1821) – French novelist – Madame Bovary


December 13

James Wright (born December 13, 1927) – U.S. poet James Wright

Read about James Wright here and here

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.

We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.

At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

As I Step Over A Puddle At The End Of Winter, I Think Of An Ancient Chinese Governor

And how can I, born in evil days
And fresh from failure, ask a kindness of Fate?
— Written A.D. 819

Po Chu-i, balding old politician,
What’s the use?
I think of you,
Uneasily entering the gorges of the Yang-Tze,
When you were being towed up the rapids
Toward some political job or other
In the city of Chungshou.
You made it, I guess,
By dark.

But it is 1960, it is almost spring again,
And the tall rocks of Minneapolis
Build me my own black twilight
Of bamboo ropes and waters.
Where is Yuan Chen, the friend you loved?
Where is the sea, that once solved the whole loneliness
Of the Midwest? Where is Minneapolis? I can see nothing
But the great terrible oak tree darkening with winter.
Did you find the city of isolated men beyond mountains?
Or have you been holding the end of a frayed rope
For a thousand years?

Listen to James Wright read the above poem here

Born December 13

Amy Lee (born December 13, 1981) – U.S. songwriter, musician, lead singer of Evanescence

Heinrich Heine (born December 13, 1797) – German romantic poet – “Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam”


December 14

Tove Ditlevsen (born December 14, 1917) – Danish poet, essayist, novelist

Read about Tove Ditlevsen here and here

One of Denmark’s most popular and beloved writers in recent times. Having grown up in poor circumstances in a Copenhagen working-class district, she published her first collection of poems in 1939. Two years later her first novel was published. She also wrote short stories, memoirs, and children’s books, and for a number of years she was the editor of a column in one of Denmark’s most read weeklies. In spite of her fame and popularity she did not feel that she was sufficiently appreciated in literary circles. She was married four times, and made no secret of her psychological problems nor of the fact that she had at times been a drug addict and an alcoholic. Finally her basic insecurity and loneliness made her take her own life.

[from the bio by Erik Skytte]

Her most famous quote is, “There is a young girl in me who refuses to die.” I have loved this quote for many years, and apparently it means a lot to many other people, too, as I have seen this line quoted any number of times both on the Internet and in books.

[From Life Is Beautiful blog, September 3, 2010]

Another central theme is the effects of childhood experiences on adulthood; her friends at that time were mostly interested in sex and stealing. In the poem ‘Rain’ she wrote: “Drunk men / are not dangerous / said my / girlfriend / child molesters / are always sober.”

Ditlevsen first attracted attention in 1941, when she wrote a novel about child molestation, MAN GJORDE ET BARN FORTRÆD.

Among her autobiographical works are BARNDOM, UNGDOM, GIFT (1967-76), and OM MIG SELV (1975). All of her novels drew material from her difficult childhood, three failed marriages, and her experiences as a female writer. The title of Gift refers to her drug addiction. From her husband, who was a doctor, Ditlevsen received Pethidine injections. She used this addictive, narcotic drug, for years. ANSIGTERNE (1968, The Faces) was a psychological masterpiece, exploring the psychosis of a woman, who is torn between her roles as mother, wife, and writer. “We’ve found out what kind of person you are. When you’re going to write a book, you go around looking at all kinds of other books written by people who know their stuff. You steal a sentence from every book and put them together like a puzzle, and then you make people think that you’ve written every sentence yourself.” (from The Faces, transl. by Tiina Nunnally)

[from the Authors Calendar]

Lise, the main character in the book “Faces”, was a woman like many in our country and the world. Her husband and children, her success in the field of writing children’s books, and her life – seemed to be arranged, stable – the ideal, for some. But what we would call “normality” for Lise was only a mask. She hid under it like a small, frightened animal. She saw and heard things that the average person learns only from horror movies or when having nightmares. The neighbors she encountered, nay, even her own relatives she saw as the conspirators, saboteurs, who wanted to ridicule and destroy it. And worst of all, nobody was able to realize that it was solely the product of a sick person’s subconscious…

Lise is not an explicit form, but we believe that her antics are only a manifestation of the disease. It is just a part of self that is hidden deep in the body of a mature woman. Like a part of a larger puzzle, daily clashes with the internal enemy, and as she can not uncover this, she sees her adversary in anyone else. Oh, if the world was simple enough that we could point a finger: This and that is to blame for our wrongs, and pain disappears. Somewhere there is a heavy, steel cloud on the horizon, … Each of us struggles with his own demons. We, only temporarily – so much more fortunate than the literary character created by Tove …

It is not easy reading, but as it is thin, it will not take you much time and it can be of great benefit, even if only cognitive. Thanks to these books we learn to see the truth hidden under the guise of human behavior, and we also understand ourselves.

[Google translation of a Polish language blog post
“Faces – Tove Ditlevsen” by Barbara Silver]

See photos of Tove Ditlevsen here and here

Born December 14

Nostradamus (Michel de Nostredame) (born December 14, 1503) – French clairvoyant / prophet – Les Propheties

Lucrecia Martel (born December 14, 1966) – Argentinian film director, screenwriter – La Ciénaga / The Swamp (2001)


December 15

Donald Goines (pseudonym Al C Clark) (born December 15, 1937 or 1936) – U.S. novelist (black experience novels) – Kenyatta’s Last Hit 1974  Donald Goines

Read about Donald Goines here and here

The novels of Donald Goines, described by Entertainment Weekly reviewer Suzanne Ruta as “nasty, brutish, and short,” are slices of life in the inner-city underworld. They describe, in graphic detail, the short careers of black crime kingpins, hit men, drug pushers and other criminals. Set mostly in Detroit, his hometown, Goines’s novels teem with scenes of violence and mayhem and the language of the characters is laced with obscenities. The plots of most of Goines’s novels center around the workings of a criminal enterprise and proceed to a grim and tragic conclusion. [from quoting Contemporary Black Biography / Gale ]

Donald Goines was born in Detroit to a relatively comfortable family – his parents, Joseph and Myrtle Goines, owned a local dry cleaner, and he did not have problems with the law or drugs. The children occasionally helped at the shop. Goines attended Catholic elementary school and was expected to go into his family’s laundry business. Instead Goines enlisted in the US Air Force, and to get in he had to lie his age. From 1952 to 1955 he served in the army. During this period he got hooked on heroin. When he returned to Detroit from Japan, he was a heroin addict.

The next 15 years from 1955 Goines spent pimping, robbing, stealing, bootlegging, and running numbers, or doing time. His seven prison sentences totaled 6,5 years. [from Authors Calendar]

Goines would soon develop a writing routine, he would shoot up heroin and nod off, wakeup, and write non-stop.

Goines would author over 14 books, which are still popular, especially in the prison system. His books would go on to sell millions of copies and he became known as the ‘Godfather Of Urban Fiction.’

Goines would eventually marry a woman named Shirley. She already had one daughter and she would give birth to another daughter, fathered by Goines. One evening, they were relaxing at home and Shirley was popping popcorn in the kitchen when the doorbell rang.

She answered the door, two white men stormed in, pulled out guns and killed Donald and Shirley while the kids played nearby, they were left unharmed. Rumors on the street indicated that a contract was taken out on Goines over a drug debt and the black underworld was not happy with his book. They considered the books too revealing and thinly based on real life characters, who didn’t want their illegal activities publicized. The killers were never apprehended.

To this day, his books have never been out of print, making him one of the most successful African-American authors in history. [from]

Born December 15

Betty Smith (Elisabeth Wehner) (born December 15, 1896) – U.S. Novelist / playwright – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Ludwik Łazarz Zamenhof (born December 15, 1859) – Polish philologist (A Yiddish Grammar)


December 16

Benny Andersson


Benny Andersson (born December 16, 1946) – Swedish songwriter, composer, musician – ABBA (rock group); Chess (musical) Mamma Mia! (musical)

Read about Benny Andersson here and here

Watch an interview with Benny Andersson (Swedish with English subtitles)


Born December 16

Noel Coward (born December 16, 1899) British playwright and composer

Barbara Smith (born December 16, 1946) – U.S. politician, feminist writer


December 17

Es’kia Mphahlele (born December 17, 1919) – South African fiction writer, human rights activist – Man Must Live (1947)

Read about Es’kia Mphahlele here and here

Born December 17

William Safire (born December 17, 1929) – U.S. columnist, etymologist, speechwriter – “On Language” (New York Times column)


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