A call to revisit and reclaim one of the 20th century’s most important thinkers
Cynthia L. Haven, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (2018)
Cynthia L. Haven, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (2018)

Cynthia L. Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is the first full-length biography of the acclaimed French thinker. Girard’s “mimetic theory” saw imitation at the heart of individual desire and motivation, accounting for the competition and violence that galvanize cultures and societies. “Girard claimed that mimetic desire is not only the way we love, it’s the reason we fight. Two hands that reach towards the same object will ultimately clench into fists.”

Often a controversial figure, Girard trespassed into many different fields — he was, by turns, a literary critic, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a psychologist, a theologian and much else besides. Haven’s biography is the first book to contextualize Girard’s work within its proper historical, cultural and philosophical context. The book presumes no prior knowledge, and includes several useful primers of the texts that established his reputation: Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), Violence and the Sacred (1972), Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), and his study of Shakespeare, A Theater of Envy (1991). But it is the author’s closeness to the man once described as “the new Darwin of the human sciences” that brings this fascinating biography to life.

Haven was a friend of Girard’s until his death in 2015, and met with family members, friends and colleagues closest to him to prepare for the book. She recalls a calm and patient man who was generous with his time. “I came to his work through his kindness, generosity, and his personal friendship, not the other way around.”

He lived with his wife, Martha, on the Stanford University campus, and followed a strict working routine: “Certainly his schedule would have made him at home in one of the more austere orders of monks. His working hours were systematic and adamantly maintained.” He began his day at his desk at roughly 3:30 in the morning, broke for a walk and relaxation sometime around noon, and spent his afternoons either continuing what he had begun that day or meeting his responsibilities to students.

One of the abiding questions that drives the book is how a man who appeared to lead such a quiet and ordered life was animated by some of the most troubling themes in human history.

Adopting the lively and accessible style of an investigative reporter, Haven looks to Girard’s formative experiences for an answer. The reader is along for the ride as she drives a rented Citroën through southern France, or pores over archival images and family photographs. Her research is rich in important and surprising details, and there are entertaining tidbits of juicy academic gossip along the way.

This extract is from my review of Cynthia L. Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 1 July 2018.

Samuel Beckett with Alberto Giacometti
Samuel Beckett with Alberto Giacometti

Judith Wilkinson has written an interesting account of Samuel Beckett‘s friendship with the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. In a recent piece published on the Tate website, she describes how they came to know one another:

“At the time of Giacometti and Beckett’s first meeting, Beckett was living at a modest artists’ hotel in Paris called Hôtel Libéria. Located down a narrow alleyway, Giacometti’s studio (and home) was a mere twenty-minute walk from Beckett’s accommodation. The two would meet late at night, when they had finished work, in one of the Parisian cafés, such as Café Flore, Le Dôme or La Coupole, to drink and socialise. The cafés were the central hub of French cultural and intellectual life during the period, and other notable artists and thinkers, such as philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet, as well as painters Jean-Paul Riopelle, Joan Mitchell and Bram van Velde also visited these establishments.

The pair would often leave the cafés in the early hours of the morning to embark on long walks around the city together. During their nocturnal rambles they frequently discussed each other’s work, although Giacometti is believed to have dominated these conversations with his anxieties concerning his artworks. Beckett and Giacometti’s nights routinely concluded with a visit to a brothel – the favourite being the legendary Sphinx located behind Montparnasse train station.”

Wilkinson will be giving a Tate Modern Tour that explores the links between Beckett and Giacometti on 24 July and 31 July 2017, respectively. For more information, take a look at the event page on the Tate website.

Alice Kaplan shares how Albert Camus wrote one of the twentieth century’s most iconic novels
Alice Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (University of Chicago Press, 2016). National Book Award Finalist.
Alice Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (University of Chicago Press, 2016). National Book Award Finalist.

What inspired you to write Looking for The Stranger?

The Stranger is the first novel I ever read in French, and the first novel I ever taught. I’ve always been struck by the fact that during all the years I spent studying it, word by word and scene by scene, I learned almost nothing at all about its Algerian setting. My trips to Algeria, my visits to the places Camus lived when he worked on the book were deeply inspiring. Twenty years ago, there was no way to travel to Algeria and I feel very lucky to have been able to explore Camus’s life there.

Your title draws attention to the elusiveness of Camus’ novel. What kinds of challenges did you face during your research?

That’s a question every researcher loves to answer! Whatever papers Camus used to write the novel are lost. One theory has it that he left all his stuff in the Madison Hotel on the Boulevard Saint Germain when he evacuated to Clermont-Ferrand during the German invasion. The Germans eventually requisitioned the hotel, and by the time he went to collect his belongings there was nothing left. So I had to imagine what inspired him, through hints in his letters, his diaries, and in the novel itself: James M. Cain’s novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice; the Fernandel comedy, Le Schpountz; trials he covered for the newspaper Alger-Républicain. Then there are the manuscripts. If you set out to write the life story of a novel, the various manuscript versions are bound to tell a compelling story about how the writing evolved. In the case of The Stranger, there is only one available manuscript, which seems to be cobbled together from several versions. Part of it is hand written and part typed. The most interesting thing about that manuscript is that “Meursault” is spelled without an e, “Mersault.” When did he add that “u”, which put death (meur) right in his narrator’s name? (more…)

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Walter Kaufmann
“Kaufmann saw Nietzsche as something of an early existentialist, which brings us to these vintage lectures recorded in 1960 (right around the time that Kaufmann, a German-born convert to Judaism, also became a naturalized American citizen). The three lectures offer a short primer on existentialism and the modern crises philosophers grappled with.”

Listen at Open Culture.

Robert Zaretsky writes about the existentialist philosopher and writer’s one and only trip to the United States
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Albert Camus
Seventy years ago this month, Albert Camus arrived in New York City. It was the first, and last, visit the author of The Stranger made to the United States. Camus spent most of his time in New York — a city, he confessed, that defeated his understanding. His experience was, in a word, absurd. To mark the visit’s anniversary, the literary estate of Albert Camus has organized a series of readings, performances, and discussions across the city. The actor Viggo Mortensen, singer and songwriter Patti Smith, folk singer Eric Andersen, and scholars Morris Dickstein and Alice Kaplan are among the artists and writers who will participate. One of the events will be at the Midtown branch of the New York City Library, where at 6:30 p.m., April 14, LARB’s history editor, Robert Zaretsky, will join New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik for a public conversation on the place of Camus’s life and work in the 21st century.

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From Ted Gioia’s article on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel, Nausea
jean-paul-sartre-nausea-penguin-modern-classics
Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

In general, Sartre is more committed to philosophy than to fiction, even here in the pages of his greatest novel. But when the story lags, the intensity of the intellectual debate flares up to compensate—so much so, that Nausea is essential reading not just for students of literature, but also for anyone interested in the evolution of Sartre’s views on a range of philosophical issues.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is Sartre’s decision to supply a happy ending. His horror story ends with a way out of the nausea. I am less than convinced by this turnabout in our suffering Mr. Roquentin, but as a longtime jazz lover, I am secretly pleased at the cure for the existential nausea. A jazz record featuring a singer and saxophonist does the trick—to be specific an old recording of “Some of These Days.” I only wish Sartre had been more specific about the names of the musicians on the date (he doesn’t identify any of them). I would love to hear the jazz record that trumps Freud, cures the ill, and solves existential angst. (more…)

John Reed reviews Michael Peppiatt’s new memoir about the twentieth-century painter

When Michael Peppiatt, at 21, met Francis Bacon, the 53-year-old artist was already all artifice, well spoken when well rehearsed, his bistro doctrines applauded by clinking glasses. Peppiatt, having taken over a student arts journal at Cambridge, had shown up in London’s Soho. It was 1963, and Peppiatt laid claim to but a tenuous introduction to the renowned painter he sought. At the bar of the French House, the youth was handled by the photographer John Deakin, who loudly advised: “My dear, you should consider that the maestro you mention has as of late become so famous that she no longer talks to the flotsam and jetsam. . . . I fear she wouldn’t even consider meeting a mere student like you!” (more…)

Harvard acquires manuscripts, typescripts, notebooks and proofs by the post-war French writer and philosopher
Maurice Blanchot
Maurice Blanchot
Houghton Library has acquired the archive of French writer, literary theorist, and philosopher Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003) from his daughter, Cidalia Blanchot. Christie McDonald, Smith Professor of French Language and Literature at Harvard University, said, “I am thrilled by Houghton’s acquisition of this important archive.  Scholars will have unprecedented access to material that will give us a deeper understanding of his work.”

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Alberto Comparini (LARB) reviews a new study of the novel-essay and its place in modernity
“Hybrid genres,” and the questionable orthodoxy of traditional genres, are subjects that continue to vex literary theory. Consider Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, or Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities: What do these novels share? What kind of novels are they? Are these books truly novels, or are they another form altogether?

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Rendering Russia’s literary masterpieces into English

Orlando Figes

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have begun a quiet revolution in the translation of Russian literature. Since the publication of their acclaimed version of The Brothers Karamazov in 1990, they have translated fifteen volumes of classic Russian works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, restoring all the characteristic idioms, the bumpy syntax, the angularities, and the repetitions that had largely been removed in the interests of “good writing” by Garnett and her followers, and paying more attention (in a way that their predecessors never really did) to the interplay or dialogue between the different voices (including the narrator’s) in these works—to the verbal “polyphony” which has been identified by the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin as the organizing principle of the novel since Gogol.

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Through exclusive interviews and previously unseen photographs, a new documentary offers an intimate portrait of the relationship between translator Barbara Bray and Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett

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Excerpt from a recent biography published by Yale University Press that explores the life and work of the twentieth-century artist
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko

Following his breakthrough into the art world, Marcus Rothkowitz seemed to build momentum, steadily lining up serious and interesting projects; however, as a New York artist, he still needed to establish a foothold. Despite his late start, by age thirty he could already boast about having his first solo exhibition, held at the Portland Museum of Art, followed within the next two years by shows in New York and Paris. In spite of these achievements, his public recognition remained elusive. All the same, these were years of critical importance to the artist’s emerging identity. Having gleaned the rudiments of the craft from various teachers in different institutions for four years, he joined the circle of Milton Avery, finding his place in this informal community that was reminiscent of the artists’ colonies of Pont-Aven and Giverny. For the next eight years, between vacations in Lake George, New York, and Gloucester, Massachusetts, complemented in New York by poetry reading nights and weekly figure painting workshops organized by Avery, Marcus R. would work alongside this group of fellow artists, benefiting from the master’s advice and the viewpoints of his peers. (more…)

27 – 30 April 2016, University of Antwerp

About the Conference

Beckett and Modernism
The Second Annual Conference of the Samuel Beckett Society

Samuel Beckett. Photograph: John Haynes
Samuel Beckett. Photograph: John Haynes

The year 2016 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Journal of Beckett Studies (JOBS), founded in 1976 by James Knowlson and John Pilling. To celebrate this occasion, we are proud to announce both of them as keynote speakers at the second conference of the Samuel Beckett Society, dedicated to Beckett and Modernism. Sometimes referred to as ‘The Last Modernist’, Beckett has also been situated within the postmodern canon. After a long critical debate, the term ‘modernism’ has recently been reframed by a vibrant field of what is sometimes called the ‘new modernist studies’, and the term ‘Late Modernism’ seems to be gaining currency in Beckett studies. (more…)