A triumph for Sándor Márai’s little-known classic Embers

If you felt a slight tremor in the earth on Wednesday, October 18, the epicenter was at Stanford’s Encina Hall. The Another Look book club took on Sándor Márai‘s Embers – and the whole room rocked!

The event was close to a record-breaker, with about two hundred participants – not bad for an off-the-beaten track Hungarian novel (and only equaled by Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God).

Sándor Márai’s taut and mesmerizing novel, published in 1942, opens in a secluded Hungarian castle, where an old general awaits a reunion with a friend. It is 1940, and he has not appeared in public for decades. The long-estranged companions talk all night – or rather, the general talks, as the evasive visitor listens to the general discuss love, intimacy, honor, betrayal, and a beautiful, long-dead wife.

The novel is set against the backdrop of the disintegrated Austro-Hungarian empire, and shares the melancholy wisdom of its narrator: “We not only act, talk, think, dream, we also hold our silence about something. All our lives we are silent about who we are, which only we know, and about which we can speak to no one. Yet we know that who we are and what we cannot speak about constitutes the ‘truth.’ We are that about which we hold our silence.”

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He was joined by renowned author and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English at Stanford, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s Dean for Religious Life at Stanford.

Toby Wolff, Another Look’s founding director, opened by praising the courage of author Márai to sit down and create a remarkable novel about an all-night conversation – two men meet, but only one of them talks, and they persevere till dawn. The end. A daunting creative challenge that Márai pulls off magnificently.

We were happy to see a lively Hungarian contingent in the audience, too – including the Hungarian Consul General for the Bay Area. And boy, did the Hungarians have a different take on the book – they praised Carol Brown Janeway‘s translation, but said that the richness of their native tongue is AWOL. And while Márai is little known west of the Danube, they assured us his books are everywhere in Budapest.

The podcast is here. And all photos, as always, are by by loyal Another Look aficionado David Schwartz.

Bright day, dark subject: Stanford discusses Dostoevsky’s The Double

An overlooked classic? Robert Harrison, Monika Greenleaf, and Lena Herzog debate.

On a bright spring day in May, a surprising number of people skipped the pleasant weather to discuss Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s dark and comic novella, The Double. It was all part of Stanford’s Another Look book club. An eloquent panel made the case that the 1846 novella is one of the renowned Russian author’s forgotten classics.

The Double portrays the disintegration of a neurotic government clerk into two distinct entities – one toadying and nervous; the other self-assured, exploitative, and aggressive. Vladimir Nabokov, not usually a fan of Dostoevsky, called The Double “the best thing he ever wrote” and “a perfect work of art.”

Russian photographer  ena Herzog joined us from Los Angeles. (Her husband Werner Herzog was an interlocutor for the Another Look event on J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine. I interviewed her at that time for Music & Literature here.)

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the discussion. The Stanford professor writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He and Lena were joined by Monika Greenleaf, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures. Monika was a panelist from our event on Joseph Conrad’Shadow-Line, and some of you met Lena at our mega-event on The Peregrine.

Another Look aficionado David Schwartz was our photographer for the occasion. A surprise for the evening was the eminent author and psychiatrist Herant Katchadourian, author of Guilt: The Bite of Conscience (he’s Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry and Human Biology at Stanford University), spoke for a few minutes to give a psychiatric evaluation of the novella’s protagonist, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin.

The preeminent Dostoevsky scholar of our times, Stanford’s Joseph Frank, said of the novella: “the internal split between self-image and truth, between what a person wishes to believe about himself and what he really is – constitutes Dostoevsky’s first grasp of a character type that became his hallmark as a writer.” The Double marks a turning point in the life of the author. While the book owes a debt to Nikolai Gogol, the younger author moves beyond social critique to the psychological drama that would become his trademark in the great novels that followed.

It’s sad that Joe Frank, who died in 2013, couldn’t join us for the discussion. Fortunately, his widow, the mathematician Marguerite Frank, did.

You can listen to the podcast that includes all the voices here, including some very lively questions from our audience. All photos by David Schwartz (the top one is the good Dr. Katchadourian). We are always grateful for David’s presence at our events, and his camera!


Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Long a Solitude: an intimate discussion on a chill and rainy night

The night was chill and rainy, but the crowd was intimate and eager to discuss Bohumil Hrabal‘s Too Long a Solitude on Monday, Feb. 6.

The dystopian novella, first published in samizdat in 1976, is a Czech classic. Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions, joined by Stanford Prof. Hans Ulrich “Sepp” Gumbrecht, a European public intellectual and a prolific author, and German Prof. Karen Feldman of the University of California, Berkeley, whose research explores the nexus between literature and philosophy.

Another Look fan David Russel from Stanford’s Radiology Department shared his 1951 Czechoslovakian car, a Tatraplan, also known as the T600, outside Encina Hall. According to David, “The car has always been a very positive attention-getter and it is fun introducing people to the third oldest car manufacturer (Mercedes and Peugeot are older) which happens to still be in business. Very few ‘Car People,’ even the serious ones, are aware of Tatra’s longevity.”

Our loyal Another Look aficionado and photographer David Schwartz recorded the discussion between in the pictures below (and don’t forget to check out the podcast on the toolbar above). 

An exuberant evening with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God!

Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God made for an exuberant and provocative discussion on the evening of Monday, October 24 – and a record-breaking amount of audience participation.

Our loyal Another Look fan and photographer David Schwartz recorded the discussion between Robert Harrison, Aleta Hayes, and Tobias Wolff in the pictures below (and don’t forget to check out the podcast on the toolbar above).

Another Look spotlights Joseph Conrad’s novella The Shadow-Line


On May 10, the Another Look book club will weigh in on Conrad’s The Shadow-Line, written by one of the darkest and most prophetic voices in English fiction.

Joseph Conrad (foreground) on the secret service ship Ready in 1916. He wrote The Shadow-Line when he returned from this voyage. (Photo: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

The author Joseph Conrad insisted his work The Shadow-Line: A Confession was not a book about the supernatural. But sometimes the real can be spookier than the imagined, and what we observe outpaces our worst nightmares. So it is with Conrad’s late novella.

“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness,” Conrad said a few years before World War I. Certainly the rest of the century bore out his conclusions.

The Another Look book club will discuss Conrad’s 1917 novella and the Polish author at 7:30  p.m. Tuesday, May 10, in the Bechtel Conference Room of Encina Hall. The Shadow-Line is available at Stanford Bookstore, Kepler’s in Menlo Park and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.

The panel will be moderated by Another Look director Robert Pogue Harrison, an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature. Harrison is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the host for the popular radio talk showEntitled Opinions. He will be joined by drama Professor Rush Rehm, artistic director of the Stanford Repertory Theater, and Monika Greenleaf, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature.

The event is free and open to the public.

“I chose this short novel because of its exquisite prose and quintessentially Conradian drama,” Harrison said. “It probes the enigma of fate by putting circumstance, landscape and depth psychology into play all at the same time.”

He spoke English with a Polish accent.

He added, “Conrad is a master when it comes to putting his characters through trials. The Shadow-Line is one of the most intense of Conradian trials of character. It is not one of his best known novels and is certainly deserving of another look.”

Conrad’s short masterpiece describes the “green sickness” of late youth, when a young man desires to “flee from the menace of emptiness.” The unnamed narrator’s flight ends when he is captain of a merchant ship in Southeast Asia; the terrors of sickness and the sea bring him to grief, maturity and wisdom.

In a two-page author’s note, Conrad denies the supernatural has anything to do with his story. We are meant, then, not to draw a line between the mate’s superstitious and feverish fear of his former captain, buried at sea, and the destruction of the ship to weather, wind and contagious fever. The mate says the ship will not have luck until it passes the spot where the reckless and demented captain was put overboard.

The Shadow-Line can also be read as a psychological study of the disintegration of an entire ship’s crew. That would be in keeping with Conrad’s worldview; he once called life a “mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of inextinguishable regrets.”

The year The Shadow-Line was published, The Argus praised the novel: “It holds the reader under a spell so strong that the book must be finished at one sitting, and even when it is laid aside it keeps its grip on the memory, and the impression left remains with a curious persistence.”

The Sunday Times wrote, in 1917, “Mr. Conrad is an expert in the business of suggesting mystery and the action of malevolent agencies and the endurance of a man under the buffets of fate. Not even Coleridge has held passers-by more spellbound under a tale of horrors on the ocean than does Mr. Conrad in this work.”

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski – Joseph Conrad – was born in 1857 in a largely Jewish village in territory that is now Ukraine; it had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Respublica before partition, and at the time of his birth was part of the Russian Empire. His father was a Polish patriot and man of letters, and the family had a migratory existence. Conrad began a seafaring career as a teenager, and eventually joined the British merchant marine and became an English citizen.

He was one of the very few writers to establish his literary reputation in a foreign tongue. (Vladimir Nabokov comes to mind as well, but the author of Pale Fire and Lolita was reared in an aristocratic Russian family; however, he later claimed English was the first language he learned in his trilingual household.)

World War I was much on Conrad’s mind as he wrote Shadow-Land, and the book is dedicated to his son Borys, a soldier. By the time it was published, Borys had returned from the front, shell-shocked and gassed in the new technology of warfare. The war’s end would change forever the face of the Europe Conrad remembered.

Shortly after the war, a visitor to the Conrad household observed: “Conrad spoke fluently, but his accent, his manner of expression were such as I observed among the inhabitants of the south-eastern Polish borderlands. One felt clearly that when he thought of Poland, it was of a Poland of half-a-century ago. When I listened to him, I could not evade the impression that I am being carried back in time and talk to one of the people of long ago.”

Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected are short masterpieces you may not have read before.

The Shadow-Line: how much of it is really true?

Samuel Walters painting of “Gulf of Siam,” about the time of Conrad’s voyages.

“Some insignificant boy, from the borderlands, from an out-of-the-way province, from some place called Poland, became a captain in the British Merchant Marine without any backing.” So Joseph Conrad described his own history to a Polish newspaper in 1914. And from that simple sentence flows the plot of The Shadow-Line, his late 1917 novel.

The Shadow-Line‘s subtitle – “A Confession” – is not an offhand flourish. The story closely parallels Conrad’s own beginnings – in fact, he said, it was “not a story really but exact autobiography.” That comment, however, should be taken with a grain of salt.

Conrad onboard in undated photo. (Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library)

Three of Conrad’s works – “Falk,” “The End of the Tether,” and The Shadow-Line – have elements of the same plot: a ship in the Bangkok harbor, waiting for a new captain. In “The End of the Tether,” however, the command is offered to Hamilton, a hanger-on at the Sailors’ Home, who refuses it; in The Shadow-Line, the Sailors’ Home manager wants to get rid of the indebted Hamilton, and so manipulates to secure the command for Hamilton rather than the narrator. Conrad scholar Norman Sherry suggests that the first version is essentially correct, but that Conrad was initially refused because of his heavy accent.

Here’s what happened: On January 9, 1888, Conrad was staying at the Officers’ Home in Singapore. The harbor master told him that the captain had died onboard the Otago, and the British Consul in Bangkok was looking for a replacement. Conrad took a steamer to Bangkok that night and reached the city four days later. A little over a year after he had passed his master’s exam, he was now the “master” of a 345-ton iron sailing barque. On January 24, he assumed his first command.

One contemporary described the role of the ship’s master this way: “His word is law, which nobody must dispute, and which permits of no argument. … He stands no watch, comes and goes when he pleases, and is accountable to no one except to his owners. He has entire control of the discipline of the ship; so much so that none of the officers under him have any authority to punish a seaman, or to use any force without the master’s order, except only in cases of urgent necessity that admit of no delay.” The task is a lonely one, and even intimate friendships are of men who were not equals. Nevertheless, Conrad found the role intoxicating: “Command is strong magic,” he writes in The Shadow-Line.

Rough draft for Conrad’s “End of the Tether” (Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library)

Like the incident onboard the ship Melita in The Shadow-Line, in real-life the former captain of the Otago had sold the ship’s supply of quinine and substituted a worthless powder. The captain, too, had spent most of his time during his last voyage locked in his cabin, playing the violin. And in real-life, the German chief mate had taken the ship to Bangkok rather than Singapore (where there were many qualified masters), expecting to be put in temporary command. Conrad’s arrival aroused his resentment.

Once onboard, Conrad faced a crew that was suffering from tropical fever, dysentery, and cholera. The steward was an opium addict, a gambler, and a thief.

Because of the calms on the Gulf of Siam, the ship took three weeks to travel the 800 nautical miles to Singapore, and he felt the full weight of the loneliness of command.

Conrad compounded the situation with his own questionable calls. After several voyages between Sydney and Melbourne, he was inspired to take a faster but longer and more dangerous route, between New Guinea and the northern tip of Australia. Perhaps he wanted to test his courage in his new command. In his own words, he “insisted on leaving Sydney during a heavy southeast gale. Both the pilot and the tug-master were scandalised by my obstinacy, and they hastened to leave me to my own devices while still inside Sydney Heads. The fierce southeaster caught me up on its wings, and no later than the ninth day I was outside the entrances of Torres Strait.” He saw two vessels that had been wrecked on the reefs, but brought his own ship through the straits safely.

Not quite straight autobiography, as he had claimed – but close enough that it’s the story he had to tell, and retell, and retell again, remembering the harrowing trip, his own failures, and the headiness of first command.