Monday, December 21, 2009

New Fiction: John Strausbaugh & Jennifer Howard

Terrific news for me and for Balkans via Bohemia readers: Two of my best pals (who happen to be terrific fiction writers) have new stories on the Interwebs.

First up is John Strausbaugh. The former New York Press editor wrote some really terrific fiction in the 1980s and early 1990s before he got sucked up into the journalism/nonfiction game, and the fact that he's posted four new stories up on his author website is the best news I've heard in a long time.

Not going to ruin the stories for you. They're terrific and you should read them.

Those who already know Strausbaugh's fiction from works including Flying Fish and Going Out and Poems/Prose are going to be delighted. And if you only know and like Strausbaugh's nonfiction work (see a recent interview with him about those books here), you'll find that the stories have all the energy and smarts in those books with even thornier barbs and a couple buckets of madcap wit.

Oh, hell. A bit from "The Fiery Sward," just as a teaser. God's quizzing angels Gabriel and Belbab about certain elements of Creation:

"Yes yes," God muttered. "Look here, what do you know about this thing called a Brussels sprout?"

Gabriel raised an eyebrow. He glanced at the top of Belbab's head.

"Brussels," Belbab recited. "One of a number of compact groups of habitats in which the humans will dwell after the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Sprout, the unmaturated — "

"What about it, Lord?" Gabriel cut him off.

"Did I create it?" God asked him.

Gabriel raised his hands over his head and lowered his eyes. "O most great and all powerful God," he orated in a spectacular, ringing voice, "is there a single thing living or inert which thou in thy boundless wisdom didst not fashion? Is there a single blade of grass, a solitary atom in the vast deeps of deepest space which thou didst not — "

"Don't patronize me," God snapped.

Gabriel lowered his hands. "I'll have to check the plans," he said. "Is there a problem with the Brussels sprout?"

"Adam doesn't like it," God said.

"Oh," Gabriel replied, and his face took on an inscrutability they all got lately when they were trying to hide their thoughts from God. "Adam doesn't like it. I see. Yeah well then we'll get right on it. A course."

"And while you're at it look into this mosquito creature."

"Lord?"

"Mo-skee-to," God said.

Added bonus? Strausbaugh's convinced some of the best illustrators from his tenure at New York Press -- former art director Michael Gentile (whose illo for "Teenagers from Earth!"adorns this post) and Takeshi Tadatsu -- to contribute drawings.

* * * * *

Also stepping up to the fiction plate in late December is my friend and former Chronicle of Higher Education colleague Jennifer Howard, who has three short pieces up in the new issue of The Collagist. (The magazine's blog also features an interview with Jennifer.)

Jennifer's sense of economy and fun in these pieces makes "flash fiction" seem like something a lot more long-lasting and satisfying. Check them out!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Milorad Pavić 1929-2009

It goes to show just how out of it that I have been with work and other seasonal madness (including two feet of snow in Washington D.C.) that I somehow missed the death of one of Serbia's most innovative and provocative writers: Milorad Pavić.

Pavić's greatest work was Dictionary of the Khazars -- a novel written in the form of dictionary entries that purported to retell a mythical Khazar polemic in which Christian, Jewish and Muslim divines debated before the Emperor of the Khazars, who would then decide to which religion he and his people would convert.

The book is clearly an allegory about the divided religion and culture of Yugoslavia, but its playfulness and panache make it a terrific reading experience even if you know little or nothing about Yugoslavia. In particular, Pavić's pastiches of the writings of various medieval and Renaissance holy books is devilishly delightful.

Pavić's other works took equally novel forms: crossword puzzles, tarot cards. Much of his work has been translated into English. He's definitely worth exploring if you are a fan of fictive innovation.

I had the privilege of meeting Pavić on two occasions, when he cheerily signed books for my friends and seemed absolutely delighted to hear that he had a substantial readership in English.

Read the excellent obituary in today's New York Times here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Poem by C.P. Cavafy

Find what relevance to our contemporary situation you can.
(Translation by Stratis Haviarias):

In the Great Hellenist Colony, 200 BCE

That things in the colony aren't going so well,
there's no doubt about it, anyone can tell,
and while it's true that we are making some progress,
perhaps now is the right time, as many people believe,
for us to invite in a political reformer.

But then there's a problem with that, a complication:
these Reformers are disposed to making everything
into such a big deal (it would indeed be a blessing
if we never had need of them). They're compelled to
challenge and scrutinize every last little thing,
and then instantly cook up some radical reform,
which they insist must be implemented post-haste.

Then there's their natural affection for sacrifices:
Relinquish that possession of yours;
owning it is a risky proposition;
it's just such things that harm the colonies.
Abandon that certain source of income,
and the income that follows from it,
and the third one, too, as a logical consequence;
of course it's true that they're significant, but --
sorry to say -- they pose a source of peril for you.

And as they dig deeper, in the course of their inspections,
they find more and more things to eliminate as useless;
though these are things, it must be said, that are hard to get rid of.

And when, finally, they've concluded their work,
and have pored over the smallest detail and slashed away at it,
they take their leave (taking with them the fees they're owed)
and we're left to make sense of just what remains,
in the wake of such surgical efficiency.

Perhaps the time isn't quite right for that,
We mustn't jump to conclusions: haste can be it's own problem.
Premature measures can lead to remorse.
Sadly, it goes without saying that the colony has its problems.
But by the same token, is there anything human that doesn't?
In the end, what really matters is that we're moving forward.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Anti-Semitism

Over at Ibishblog, my good friend Hussein Ibish has a fascinating post about The Merchant of Venice, The Jew of Malta and whether either or both plays are anti-Semitic.

I'd encourage you to read his argument in full, especially since I have had the privilege of discussing this a few times with Ibish as he's wrestled with his interest in this question.

The literature on The Merchant of Venice is voluminous, of course, so I would like to add a few thoughts on The Jew of Malta.

For me, the prologues (published in their entirety in the Penguin Classics editor of The Complete Plays) are the key to bolstering Ibish's argument that:

Marlowe's play is simply cynical, misanthropic and deeply antireligious. He holds all cultures, civilizations and religious traditions in equal contempt and in that sense, I think it is perfectly impossible to describe the Jew of Malta as anti-Semitic. It's anti-everything.

It can't be put much more simply or clearly than in "The Prologue Spoken At Court":

We pursue
The story of a rich and famous Jew
Who lived in Malta. You shall find him still,
In all his projects, a sound Machevill;
And that's his character.

Machevil, of course, gets his own speech in the actual Prologue to the play proper, and the framing device for the play is laid out quite clearly:

Albeit the world think Machevil is dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps;
And, now the Guise is dead, is come from France,
To view this land, and frolic with his friends.
To some perhaps my name is odious;
But such as love me, guard me from their tongues,
And let them know that I am Machiavel,
And weigh not men, and therefore not men's words.
Admir'd I am of those that hate me most:
Though some speak openly against my books,
Yet will they read me, and thereby attain
To Peter's chair; and, when they cast me off,
Are poison'd by my climbing followers.
I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
Birds of the air will tell of murders past!
I am asham'd to hear such fooleries.
Many will talk of title to a crown:
What right had Caesar to the empery?
Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure
When, like the Draco's, they were writ in blood.
Hence comes it that a strong-built citadel
Commands much more than letters can import:
Which maxim had Phalaris observ'd,
H'ad never bellow'd, in a brazen bull,
Of great ones' envy: o' the poor petty wights
Let me be envied and not pitied.
But whither am I bound? I come not, I,
To read a lecture here in Britain,
But to present the tragedy of a Jew,
Who smiles to see how full his bags are cramm'd;
Which money was not got without my means.
I crave but this,--grace him as he deserves,
And let him not be entertain'd the worse
Because he favours me.


This is a moral universe turned upside down -- a seething pot of lies, conspiracy and power politics in which nothing is as it seems, where the moral rule of the universe is Machevil's amorality. Those who rule this world speak not of him and keep their knowledge. Those who seem the most religious are, in reality, his greatest adherents. I think these Prologues bolster Ibish's case: The Jew of Malta is not anti-Semitic, but a screed against the common hollowness and hypocrisy of all the Abrahamic faiths.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Denis Lipman at Politics & Prose 11/30

A year or so ago, I had the pleasure of meeting and having dinner with D.C.-based author and playwright Denis Lipman at an intimate soiree organized by publishing guru Carole Sargent. (BTW: Sargent's indispensible blog has recently changed locations... Snazzy new look for snazzy publishing coverage!)

Lipman was full of enthusiasm for his latest project -- a travelogue/memoir called A Yank Back to England -- which was starting to attract attention from agents and publishers.

The book's premise was simple: Lipman and his wife Frances and his family went back to England after decades away. Lipman was originally from Dagenham, but the England that he and his wife really poked into was the village and town life -- pubs and cottages and local customs and all the quirks and eccentricities.

Well, Lipman's book is finally out and -- for those of you in DC --you get a chance to hear the author read from it at D.C.'s most prestigious indie book venue, Politics and Prose, on Monday November 30 at 7 p.m.

Can't make that? You can buy the book here. You can also check out Lipman's blog -- which is terrific fun. (And full of recipes!)

Bonus: The book also has a blurb from Michael York, star of The Three Musketeers, Smashing Time and Logan's Run: “A perceptive, engaging and informative take on contemporary England as seen through the eyes of a fellow expatriate who writes with humor and affection. The cast of characters has an almost Dickensian vivacity.”

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Frank Wedekind in DC

One of the most welcome trends in American theater is a recent spurt of revivals of works by fin de siecle German playwright Frank Wedekind.

The most notable of these revivals of course is the adaptation of Wedekind's astonishing 1891 play Spring Awakening as a rock'n'roll driven musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. (The play swept two arms' full of Tony Awards in 2007.)

But Wedekind's masterpiece of sex and violence, Lulu, has also received a number of productions lately, and Washington Shakespeare Company is the latest to have a go at it. Their version opens Tuesday, November 17 at Clark Street Playhouse.

There isn't much information on their site about the production as of yet, but then link to buy tickets is here. I'll definitely be going and will have a field report soon after I do.

One can only hope that this is the start of a Wedekind season in Washington. Anyone game to do his other masterpiece, The Marquis of Keith?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Big Weekend for Balkans Football/ New Soccer Rankings

Let's just say it's a pivotal Saturday for Balkan football. Bosnia-Hercegovina plays the first leg of a two-match "winner-take-a-World Cup-slot" against Portugal in Lisbon. (Return leg in Zenica on Wednesday.) And Slovenia takes on Russia in Moscow on the same day, with the final match taking place in Maribor on Wednesday.

Jonathan Wilson has a terrific preview of the latter pairing here -- including YouTube links to some of Slovenia's astounding international giant-killing antics. (Milenko Acimovic's stunner against Ukraine in 2000 is still a wonder goal for the ages.)

As far as the other match, Wilson also notes that Bosnia's coach Ciro Blazevic "has promised an aggressive approach, which given Bosnia both scored more and conceded more than any other team in the play-offs, makes sense." Especially against a Ronaldo-less Portugal.

My prediction is that Slovenia will likely need a Maribor miracle, because I don't see them winning or even drawing in Moscow. Bosnia? Well, if they leave Lisbon with a tie (and even better, a tie with an away goal), they have an excellent chance to go through with other Balkans via Bohemia nations Serbia and Slovakia.

Zenica will be a cauldron on Wednesday night if Bosnia has a World Cup slot within its grasp.

Football fans of any stripe will also be interested in checking out a new soccer ranking system -- the Soccer Power Index -- devised by statitstical guru Nate Silver for ESPN.

Silver has won renown for his excellent statistical work on baseball and politics. (His website FiveThirtyEight is a daily pit stop for Balkans via Bohemia, both for Silver's work and the political analysis of my UMBC colleague Tom Schaller.) Silver's new SPI is sure to spark heat and light. He's got a general explanation here, and a more detailed breakdown of his methodology here. Extrapolating from Silver's data, here is a cobbled-together Balkans via Bohemia power ranking -- by region and by actual SPI ranking and whether they qualified for South Africa 2010:

1. Serbia (15) Qualified
2. Croatia (19) DNQ
3. Czech Republic (25) DNQ
4. Bosnia-Hercegovina (29) Playoff
5. Slovenia (40) Playoff
6. Bulgaria (47) DNQ
7. Romania (48) DNQ
8. Slovakia (50) Qualified
9. Poland (52) DNQ
10. Hungary (55) DNQ
11. Austria (66) DNQ
12. Macedonia (70) DNQ
13. Montenegro (74) DNQ
14. Albania (92) DNQ

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Up Against the Wall: Woolly Mammoth's Full Circle

Tomorrow is Europe's most celebrated 9/11: 9/11/1989. The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. (It's date then month on European calendars, so November 9 is 9/11.)

Theatergoers in Washington, DC have a special treat to celebrate -- a new production of Charles Mee's 1998 play, Full Circle. (First produce by Steppenwolf as "The Berlin Circle.")

Mee's play takes its starting point from the Chinese Yuan Dynasty-era play The Chalk Circle, which was the primary source (via the German poet Klabund) for Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. But he manages to capture the chaos and uncertainties of post-Wende East Germany -- its shifting politics, the mad grasping toward capitalism as a solution, and the dark truths of collaboration and retribution in totalitarian societies.

Woolly's production of Full Circle is very strong and I unreservedly recommend it. The acting is bold, joyous and full of vigor. The decision by director Michael Rohd to break the play out of a traditional setting and use various corners and levels of Woolly's wonderfully modern space in downtown DC (including its lobbies and rehearsal space) is executed wonderfully. It was a smart and fun evening.

But what had me thinking the most after seeing the show on Friday was how skilfully Mee as a writer -- and, in his direction of this production, Rohd -- manages to echo and exploit the energy of German and American experiments in theater in the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the main characters in Full Circle is German writer and director Heiner Muller -- one of Brecht's intellectual heirs at the Berliner Ensemble and the author of influential plays including Die Hamletmaschine, Der Bau and Mauser. (Woolly Mammoth's artistic director Howard Shalwitz does a terrific Muller.)

Muller was a key figure in the tumult of German theatre in that era, with all the complexities and contradictions that fueled the ferment. It wasn't only the era of Muller, but the era of Peter Weiss (Marat/Sade and The Investigation), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Katzelmacher, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Bremen Freedom) and Peter Handke (Offending the Audience, Kaspar). It was time of energy and experiment, where big plays grappled with big history. With the exception of Mee and a few others (Tony Kushner comes to mind), it's a sort of theater that's out of favor in America today.

Tackling big issues in a big way invites the inevitable quibbles. I don't think Mee is totally fair to Muller in his portrayal of him as a symbol of GDR-collaboration. I also left the production feeling that if a playwright steps onto the land mine-ridden turf of Brecht, the twist and the payoff need to be as strong and vibrant as Brecht's subversions.

But Woolly's production of Full Circle is invaluable not only in how it reminds the audience of the vitality of this "epic theatre," but also the strengths of that form in breaking down complex historical and social issues and humanizing them. The exchange below between a husband and wife from Dresden in 1989, which Mee sets at a wedding banquet, is as wonderfully constructed a debate about the fallout from the Wall's sudden crumbling as one might wish for:

URSULA: Yes. Yes. On a serious note
I say, let us pray that we find a third way
neither communism nor capitalism
but a third way

[another guest passes out]

some middle ground
to get rich, like in the West
and to share like in the East
Because the choice that we are being given
this should not be our only choice.

[another guest passes out]

HELMUT: Bullshit
This is bullshit bullshit
in life you have to choose
one thing or another
do you think you can become partly pregnant?
Life is not like this.

URSULA: What do you know what life is like
you've never been out of the village you were born in
"we must choose"
"we must choose"
the truth is:
the world will choose for you

[another guest passes out]

HELMUT: Okay. You want a different world?
Go to Mars! Go to Mars!

URSULA: You mean you think it's OK
to go through all this
living like this for forty years
and settle for no better place than this?


Tickets for Full Circle here. The play runs through November 29th.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Remember Remember: Gunpowder Plot as Early Modern Terrorism?

Today is November 5th, and many of us know what that means. Guy Fawkes Day. Gunpowder Plot. 1605 and all that.

But were the plotters (right, in a contemporary engraving) terrorists -- especially in the sense that we know that term?

The Folger Institute held a terrific seminar on that topic four years ago -- one that I was lucky enough to attend as a reporter.

I wrote this article about it for The Chronicle of Higher Education. It used to be free -- and live on my links column to the right of this post. But CHE changed up its website and put everything that once was free back behind the paywall.

No worries, however. At least for a few days. That temporary link lets you read it. Happy bonfires and fireworks, everyone.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dusan Makavejev: The Last Yugoslav

So the article about Yugoslav filmmaker Dusan Makavejev that I have been promising since July has finally been published in the print and web versions of this week's edition of The Nation.

Though I had to scrunch and smoosh to get it all in, I'm pretty happy with the piece. In particular, I was happy to get a chance to talk about a few things:

(1) The brilliance of Makavejev's first three feature films -- Man Is Not a Bird, Love Affair -- Or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, and Innocence Unprotected -- which have been recently been rereleased for the first time on DVD as a set by Criterion.

Because they had not been released previously on DVD when I had to write the piece, I had to buy all three movies online as used VHS tapes. That alone should tell you how valuable this new collection is in tracing the arc of Makavejev's art.

(2) A chance to make the argument that WR: Mysteries of the Organism is a more audacious and satisfying film than Sweet Movie, which is a much more notorious though less intellectually adventurous film. I was also delighted to remind readers of Makavejev's trenchant critique of the absurd priapism of the American combination of violence and capitalism -- something that critics who have been transfixed by Makavejev's stinging critique of communism in that film usually omit or elide.

(3) An opportunity to reevaluate Makavejev's last full-length feature, Gorilla Bathes at Noon -- and argue for its excellence as a film and as a portrait of the exhaustion at the end of the Cold War that so animates WR and Sweet Movie. Particularly viewed on the cusp of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorilla Bathes at Noon is -- as I mention in the article -- a "portrait of Berlin as a filthy, cold and abandoned siege line of the Cold War." It is criminal that this film has not been released on DVD. I can only hope that my piece might urge that possibility on someone who can do it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Danilo Kiš: Mittel Man

Twenty years ago today, on October 15, 1989, Yugoslav writer Danilo Kiš succumbed to lung cancer in Paris, France. He was only 54 when he died.

Among the works Kiš left behind included a form-bending prose triptych -- Garden, Ashes (1965), Early Sorrows (1970) and Hourglass (1972) -- two masterworks of short fiction -- A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1976) and Encyclopedia of the Dead (1983) -- and a string of dazzling polemical essays and interviews about his own work (some of which were translated into English and published in 1995 as Homo Poeticus.

The early death of one of Europe’s humane and powerful literary voices was a tragedy for literature. But history suggests that the timing of the Kiš’ passing was – at least in one aspect – merciful. Kiš did not witness the engulfment of Yugoslavia in the blood-soaked tide of competing nationalisms that he so thoroughly despised and belittled.

After all, witness was at the center of Kiš’ literary works, which grappled with the worst of Europe’s mid-20th Century horrors: Nazism and Stalinism. The author experienced the first of those horrors in his childhood. Kiš was the son of a Hungarian Jewish father and a Montenegrin mother, and his father and other relatives died in Auschwitz. It was a trauma that fueled the keenly-felt and minutely-observed explorations of memory mingled with looming tragedy in his first three books.

In a 1988 interview included in Homo Poeticus, Kiš observed that his later exploration of Stalinism in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich arose in part from a prick of conscience:

Yes, there’s a break in my work between the family cycle (the first three books) and what followed. I went on with my investigations, but substituting the experience of the century for my own personal experience. I felt it was wrong to take on fascism while ignoring Stalinism, especially as they have traits in common: the predominance if Jews in both the Nazi and Soviet camps (pace Solzhenitsyn, who tends to bring in Jews only if they are camp guards.)

The brutality of Stalinism in Kiš’ work is sharpened not only by Stalinism's perversion and betrayal of revolutionary idealism (the classic trope), but also in the author’s painfully comic vision of human beings careening through a universe of injustice and accident. In Boris Davidovich, the grand forces of history are whittled to the sharp and savage portraits of victims and victimizers. Modern pogroms and purges are shrouded in illusion and infiltrated by chance and caprice.

One of the great ironies of Kiš’ career is that Boris Davidovich set off a lengthy war within Yugoslavia’s -- and mainly Serbia’s -- literary establishment that turned not upon interpretations of Stalinism (the vexed question that forced both author Mihajlo Mihajlov and director Dušan Makavejev into dissidence and exile) but on questions of nationalism and literary cabalism.

An initial and unfounded attack upon Kiš’ use of source materials as “plagiarism” a few months after the book was published burst into a conflagration that raged through magazines and newspapers. By the end of the polemics around the book, Kiš and his colleague Predrag Matvejević – a professor at Zagreb University who joined in the defense of Boris Davidovich – had laid bare the provincial prejudices and machinations of Belgrade’s literary establishment arrayed against Kiš and his book. (You can find an excellent summary here.)

The key text in the controversy was The Anatomy Lesson (1978), Kiš’ book-length defense of Boris Davidovich. (Portions of the book are included in Homo Poeticus.) Though much of The Anatomy Lesson is a dissection of his own working methods, and a refutation of any whiff of "plagiarism," the most famous passages of the book grapple with the larger stakes of the battle: literary cosmopolitanism versus narrow nationalism.

The battle over Boris Davidovich presaged the violent breakup of Yugoslavia set in motion a decade later, and Kiš clearly articulated the vicious mentality that would later sweep through the nation as rooted in paranoia, banality, kitsch and ignorance:

The nationalist is by definition an ignoramus. Thus, nationalism is the path of least resistance, the easy way out. The nationalist has no problems; he knows – or thinks he knows – his own basic values, his own and therefore his people’s, the ethical and political values of the nation to which he belongs. He is interested in no others. Nothing “other” holds any interest for him. Hell is others (other nations, other tribes), people not worth knowing or studying. All the nationalist sees is his own image: the image of a nationalist. A comfortable position, as we have said. Fear and envy. A choice, a commitment requiring no effort. The nationalist feels not only that hell is other nations but also that everything not his (Serb, Croat, French…) is alien to him.

Though Kiš won the battle over Boris Davidovich, the nationalists in Serbia and elsewhere in former Yugoslavia eventually won the larger culture war. The conflicts that tore Yugoslavia apart were rooted in the paranoia and ignorance belittled by Kiš, and the cultural artifacts of that era trafficked in the banality and kitsch that he so savagely ridiculed.

* * * * *

Perhaps it was a mercy that Kiš did not live to see the bloody triumph (however temporary) of naked political nationalism in former Yugoslavia. (The jury is still out on its more subtle political manifestations. Culturally, nationalism still holds considerable sway.)

But the collapse of communism and Yugoslavia’s wars indisputably demolished a greater literary project in which Kiš’ was implicated: the notion of the “Central European” writer.

I choose the word "implicated" expressly because of Kiš' tantalizing ambivalence about the concept. His longest extended meditation on the topic is a 1986 essay, "Variations on Central European Themes" (included in Homo Poeticus), which flits in fits and starts between defining and debunking a "Central European" category in politics and (most importantly) in literature.

Early in the essay, Kiš dubs the concept as "risky business" and tartly observes that:

Even taking a historical perspective, we have trouble speaking of "Central European culture" as a coherent supranational entity, the differences in national cultures being greater than the similarities, the antagonisms more alive than the agreements.

Yet in the period in which Kiš reached his artistic zenith, the concept was alive and well in Western Europe and the United States, largely as a method in which a quorum nations of so-called "Eastern Europe" under Soviet domination (Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania) or perched uneasily between East and West (Yugoslavia) could be reconnected somehow with a political and cultural reality that predated Anschluss, devastation and Communist rule.

The notion of a literary “MittelEuropa,” created in the great cultural mixing bowl of the Hapsburg monarchy, and stretching roughly from Karl Kraus and Karel Capek through Joseph Roth and through to Milan Kundera and Kiš himself had a cachet that the author of Boris Davidovich eyed warily:

The sudden interest in "Central Europe" is the result less of concern over a culture remaining in the shadows than of the West's growing awareness that the Manichean East-West split has caused an entire geographical region to vanish into the mists.

and, later:

At present the notion of a Central European sphere of culture may well be felt more strongly in the West than in the countries that ought logically to constitute it.

In 1978, it had been a full decade since the last political eruption in MittelEuropa (the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia). Before that, of course, was the spectre of 1956 in Hungary. The declaration of martial law to quell the rise of Solidarity in Poland was two years in the future. Indeed, a spirit of cultural ferment in the region -- be it Article VII of the 1975 Helsinki Accords and the founding of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia in 1977 -- was thick in the air.

But as his "variations" gather intensity, propelled forward in short bits of prose, Kiš warms to the idea of Central Europe. When he reads Polish writer Andrzej Kusniewicz or Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy, he writes, "I find something in the way they put things that draws them close to me, a Central European poetics if you will? "What is the tone, the vibration that situates a work within that magnetic field? Above all, the inherent presence of culture..."

More commonalities follow and aggregate. "Since even the awareness of belonging to a culture known as Central European is ultimately an act of dissidence," Kiš writes, "writers whom others call Central European or who define themselves as such generally live in exile (Milosz, Kundera, Skvorecky) or are marginalized and appear in samizdat (Konrad) or are in prison (Havel)."

The tone of the essay also gets more personal as it winds to its conclusion. In my view, the figure of Austrian playwright Odon von Horvath looms large in Kiš' thinking and writing in this era.

Horvath was a classic MittelEuropean mongrel: born in former Yugoslavia (Rijeka) as the son of a Hungarian diplomat, educated in Belgrade, Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna. Horvath's own self-portrait rendered his background as "a typical old Austrian-Hungarian mixture: Magyar, Croatian, German, Czech -- my name is Magyar, my mother tongue is German."

In a short 1983 essay called "Birth Certificate," Kiš consciously echoes Horvath's biography, emphasizing his Hungarian Jewish and Montenegrin background, noting that "The ethnographic rarity I represent will die out with me."

One of Kiš' final stories was an almost-literal retelling of Horvath's biography -- and in particular, Horvath's untimely end. Translated and published in the anthology Balkan Blues: Writing Out of Yugoslavia, it is a haunted tale. Like Kiš, Horvath died in exile in Paris, hounded out of the magical sphere of Central Europe by the political and cultural controversies of the time.

The story establishes the Central European pedigree of a writer that Kiš renames "Egon von Nemeth" before literally erasing it in a cold fury against the obsession with race and class that destroyed a generation of Europeans. The final line of Kiš' story suggests that the task of seeing and recording that is essential to the writer requires a self-immolation of sorts, an rubbing out of all the cultural threads that one would wind together to form a Central European strand:

The witness needs impartiality; the remorse of some is as alien to him as the prejudice of others.


George Scialabba in DC: My Thoughts

I was asked by George Scialabba to make some introductory remarks at his Washington D.C. appearance at Busboys & Poets. He was in town to celebrate the release of his collection, What Are Intellectuals Good For?

Here is what I wrote....

* * * * * * *

I am delighted to be here tonight to introduce George Scialabba.

His latest book, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, has excited intense critical attention – and if you haven’t read it, or read the splendid seminar on it at Crooked Timber’s web site – I urge you to do so.

George would likely agree that he is not the first, nor will he be the last, to pose significant questions about intellectuals – and, in particular, so-called public intellectuals – and their role in American life. But he is among a select few who have thought most deeply about these questions and responded to them – not merely with the force of his words but with the courage of his example.

Indeed, the critical attention that George’s work has received in recent months makes it a daunting task to say something new about it by way of introduction.

But allow me to take a license granted, in part, by the fact that George’s book is published by “Pressed Wafer Press" -- with all the communion and agony attached to that name -- to draw on something that George and I share: our American Catholic heritage.

George has written wonderfully and movingly about his own deep encounter with that faith in his youth, and the struggles, gains and losses of his abandonment of it. He is being introduced tonight by someone who convinced a nun to lend him a Baltimore Catechism in the fifth grade. (This was 1976, by the way, when that once sturdy redoubt of American Catholic faith had been breached by the guitar mass.) I devoured it cover to cover before being pulled away from that particular state of grace by the writings of Hume, Nietzsche, James (William. Not Henry.) and Lowell (Robert. Not Amy or James Russell.) only a scant few years later.

As I say, George’s observations about his own religious life are deeply-felt and wonderfully-wrought. (I point you in the direction of his essay “An Honest Believer” in his first collection, Divided Mind.) But as any honest lapsed Catholic will acknowledge, deep structures of thought (foundations, even) stay with us despite the loss of faith and certainty. They are rooted too deeply to be entirely demolished. We build new annexes. Rearrange the furniture, perhaps. Plant some trees and shrubbery to hide it. But traces of the architecture remain upon deeper excavation.

If you read George carefully, for instance, you know that he has his own firmament of cultural saints – many of them thorny and unpopular figures who deserve resurrection – even apotheosis or beatification. (In his response to George on Crooked Timber, Rich Yeselson channels Jean-Paul Sartre to dub them “unsalvageable” – a most unCatholic notion, that.) Yet it is a tribute to George that he is most scrupulous in his critical canonizations, playing both advocatus diaboli and advocatus dei with equal zest. Resting nothing upon mere faith but insisting upon good works. And like anyone of our background, George finds power in tradition – even if that strength is a springboard to a dive into wider worlds.

But the Catholic value that I find most persistent and compelling in George’s work is a value that the Church itself seems to have downgraded to the point of demurral in recent decades: the hunger and thirst for justice. Social justice, yes. But George also hungers and thirsts for the just weighing of ideas that is the hallmark of the best literary and cultural criticism.

In his response to the Crooked Timber seminar, George approvingly quotes from a key moment of Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven. He also uses this quote in his recent book, but in his response to the online seminar, George liberates Lasch’s definition of justice from its previous veil of ellipses:

Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it. It rests on confidence not so much in the future as in the past. It derives from early memories – no doubt distorted, overlaid with later memories, and thus not wholly reliable as a guide to any factual reconstruction of past events – in which the experience of order and contentment was so intense that subsequent disillusionments cannot dislodge it. Such experience leaves as its residue the unshakable conviction, not that the past was better than the present, but that trust is never completely misplaced, even though it is never completely justified either and therefore destined inevitably to disappointments.

George writes: “I’m not sure I understand this, but I find it more illuminating than many things I do understand.”

Be prepared to be illuminated now, and join me in welcoming George Scialabba.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Embarrassing...

My performance as a blogger, that is.

It's been almost a month since my last post. I can't say that I haven't been busy. I've been crazy busy with work, family, life, etcetera. But having a blog is a cosmic pact. According to my web stats, people are still showing up, driven here by the wonderful machinery of Google. I must do better.

There will be an onslaught of posts in the next few weeks as some long-awaited projects come to fruition. The piece on Dusan Makavejev from The Nation will finally be appearing in a few weeks. And I'll have a post about Yugoslav author Danilo Kis on Thursday to mark the 20th anniversary of his death.

Til then, here are a few links to tide you over....

* I will be introducing author George Scialabba at this event on Wednesday night in Washington DC. Please make it if you can!

* My interview with John Strausbaugh in the new UMBC Magazine is here. Strausbaugh's essay on his memories of Baltimore is here.

* My very short essay on the Prague Playwriting contest can be found in the latest contest newsletter.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beckett/Havel

Terrific article by Jo Glanville in the Guardian today about Samuel Beckett and Vaclav Havel trading plays during Havel's incarceration in the early 1980s. Beckett's play, Catastrophe, was answered by Havel's Mistake.

The article is short enough that it needs no summary here. This bit, however, I found hilarious and grim -- as any playwright would:

Catastrophe is a short work consisting of one scene, in which a director and his assistant discuss a mute figure they are preparing for a performance: he is a dehumanised character, like a tailor's dummy, at the mercy of their direction; his only gesture of independence is to raise his head at the end of the play – an act of resistance in the face of oppression.

Knowlson recalls Beckett's furious response when a critic described the ending as ambiguous. "I can still remember sitting with him outside a cafe in Paris," he says. The playwright pounded the table and told him: "It's not ambiguous – he's saying, 'You bastards, you haven't finished me yet!'"

Monday, September 14, 2009

Jim Carroll: The Meta Post

So Scott McLemee blogs about Jim Carroll's untimely death here, swiping (with attribution, permission and wild encouragement) a small moment I had with Carroll that I mentioned on Facebook. We've passed some kind of border here -- at least for Balkans via Bohemia.

The junket where I met Carroll was one of the strangest weekends of my life. It was a joint junket for The Basketball Diaries and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. The movie company put us up in a swanky Upper East Side hotel. (Omar Sharif was hanging around in the lobby, trolling for ladies or a bridge game.) The PR people ruthlessly herded us to the screenings, and then through the in-person interviews with cast members and other people associated with the films.

As a novice at these things, I was frankly appalled at the slippery and toxic combination of cynicism and sycophancy in my alleged journalistic colleagues. They would knife these actors and directors with words behind their backs, while unctuously sucking up to their faces. (Guessing that the same dynamic was at play for the movie folks.)

Anyway, I insulted Hugh Grant by asking him why he made so many costume dramas. ("You mean 'frock flicks?'" he hissed back at me.) I really liked Leo DiCaprio. (The angst about Leo's turn to "gay" roles --both in this film and in Total Eclipse, his next film about the affair between Rimbaud and Verlaine -- was a source of much agita among these critics.) And I bonded with Jim Carroll, who pretty much acted like I was the only person worth talking to at the table.

My tablemates didn't know who Jim Carroll was, really, and thus didn't care. They were busily preparing for Lorraine Bracco's appearance at our table. I never went on another film junket again.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hussein Ibish's New Book: "What's Wrong With the One State Agenda?"

My friend and colleague Hussein Ibish has a new book out: What's Wrong With the One-State Agenda? It's a terrific addition to the intensifying debate on the Middle East peace process, and -- if you read on -- there is also a useful Balkan connection to be made in regards to recent events.

But first to the book, which is Ibish's attempt to nip in the bud what he views as a fallacious and dangerous twist in articulating Palestinian aspirations in the region.

Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. Put simply, he sees the "one-state agenda" as an attempt to elide the considerable difficulties of (a) negotiating an end both to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza and (b) creating two parallel states -- Palestine and Israel -- by simply stating that a single state could encompass all citizens of the disputed region.

He argues that the fantastical nature of the proposal is rooted in its development as "a quintessentially diasporic discourse, largely reflective of the perspectives, imperatives and ambitions of those living outside of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories." The idea has little support among Palestinians in the region, and virtually none in Israel, Ibish observes.

Yet Ibish takes the one-state idea seriously enough to articulate its claims in an intellectual honest manner before demolishing it. In particular, he poses a series of pointed questions to one-state advocates. The first two questions Ibish poses are particularly stinging in their unmasking of the fantastical nature of the single-state agenda:

* "If Israel will not agree to end the occupation, what makes anyone think that it will possibly agree to dissolve itself?"

* "What, as a practical matter, does this vision of a single, democratic state in Israel/Palestine offer to Jewish Israelis?"

The book -- which is a short monograph of 137 pages -- is available for download here. It is well worth the time to read it. The book had its debut at an event hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars last week, and video of the panel discussion on the book that included Ibish, Robert Malley (Middle East and North Africa Program Director of the International Crisis Group) and Aaron David Miller (Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar) will be available here in the next few days.

The discussion was terrific. But it quickly pivoted from the "one-state agenda" -- which all three participants rejected as fantasy -- to the prospects for the only other available option: the two-state solution.

At the panel, Ibish strongly asserted that a recent plan proposed by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad -- Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State -- provides the blueprint for moving forward. Fayyad calls upon Palestinians to establish "de facto" institutions of governance, thus creating the necessary facts on the ground that will inevitably lead to recognition as a state. To quote directly from the document, Fayyad says:

... the Palestinian government is struggling determinedly against a hostile occupation regime, employing all of its energies and available resources, most especially the capacities of our people, to complete the process of building institutions of the independent State of Palestine in order to establish a de facto state apparatus within the next two years.

And here is where the Balkan connection comes in. In Kosovo, for nearly a decade after the revocation of the province's autonomy by rump Yugoslavia, Kosovar Albanians created such parallel institutions in nonviolent fashion under the leadership of the late Ibrahim Rugova. The problem with these efforts by the Democratic League of Kosovo was that the effort met with little international support or recognition, especially in the period when the international community was actively soliciting Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's support in ending the conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia.

Eventually, frustrations boiled over and an armed Kosovar Albanian force -- the Kosovo Liberation Army -- was created to press the issue of Kosovo's independence.

But the lesson for Palestinians in this is clear: create these parallel institutions proposed by Fayyad and actively press for simultaneous international recognition of these efforts.

(Ibish himself posts his thoughts on the questions raised by the Wilson Center panel about Fayyad's proposal and his answers here.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

1989 and all that.... and Colin Woodard

As the 20th anniversary of the momentous events in Europe of 1989 start to come fast and furious, here is something Balkans via Bohemia regulars will be interested in checking out: My friend and colleague Colin Woodard -- author of three terrific book, Ocean's End, The Lobster Coast, and The Republic of Pirates -- is starting to post his reminiscences of his own travels in the region during the collapse of communism on his blog, World Wide Woodard.

The first post in the series follows Colin as he crosses from Austria into Hungary just at the moment when East Germans were permitted by the Hungarian government to transit through the country and get to West German and other parts of Europe.

Colin also has a story in the Christian Science Monitor today about that momentous event. Lets just say that World Wide Woodard is well worth bookmarking... I've done so in my own preferred links.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Burn Your Bookes: The Sneak Preview Recap

After last night's sneak preview of Burn Your Bookes, the proprietor of Balkans via Bohemia knows how lucky he is.

First... let's take care of business. The link to Taffety Punk Theatre Company's sneak preview -- courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and its Millennium Stage program -- can be found here as a streaming web video. (Running time slightly over 21 minutes.)

And my friend Hussein Ibish posted his immediate reactions to the performance at his own blog. Hussein does a terrific job of weaving together the action of the bit of the play we performed last night with larger historical currents. I am immensely grateful to him.

And while we're on the subject of gratitude, let me send shout outs to my cast -- Daniel Flint (Edward Kelley), Joel David Santner (Muller) and Paul E. Hope (Syrrus) -- and our costume designer Scott L. Hammar and all the Kennedy Center Family Theater staff who coped with a full house.

I am most indebted, however, to Taffety Punk artistic director Marcus Kyd. I gave Marcus the play last spring. He said Taffety Punk was interested in doing it just around this time last year. And at the same time that he gave me that happy news, I signed up to help the Punks with their press relations.

I can say that this has been one of the best decisions that I've made in recent times. Not only because Taffety Punk is doing great work, but because Taffety Punk walks it like it talks it. They say that they want to attract younger and more diverse audiences to theatre -- and Shakespeare at that -- and they do it by keeping ticket prices lower than the movies ($10 or free) and bringing a brash and ebullient approach to everything they do.

Including this sneak preview of my play, of course. We hope to mount the full production in March or April. Stay tuned here.

And while I am on the subject of thanks, I also want scroll back in time and thank the cast and the organizers of the one-act Burn Your Bookes, which won the first Prague Post Playwriting Festival in 2007-- a contest that is now reinventing itself as a production of Prague Playhouse and continuing as strong as ever.

Akiva Zasman, Mark Bowen and Brendan Payne were the first Kelley, Muller and Syrrus. And my director in Prague, Julek Neumann, really put an amazing amount of thought and passion into the play and its first production. I remain very grateful for that experience as well.

Friday, August 28, 2009

New Issue of Logos Tackles Iran & Revolution

Regular readers of this blog will remember that I stretched things out a bit earlier in the summer to do some Iran blogging, including two posts contrasting Iran's 2009 tumult with Serbia's in 2000 (here and here), as well as a more general post about what might happen.

But a few days ago, I was alerted by my good friend Danny Postel -- one of America's sharpest thinkers on the philosophy of power -- that the links to the new issue of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture were live.

What a bounty of smart Iran-related material! Among the highlights:

* Danny's lengthy interview with Hossein Bashiriyeh, author of State and Revolution in Iran and one of Iran's foremost sociologists. Bashiriyeh was purged from the University of Tehran's faculty in 2007 and is now at Syracuse University.

The entire interview is worth reading as a primer on the political realities of the moment in Iran, but two things stand out:

(1) Bashiriyeh is definitely in agreement with those arguing against engagement. He tells Postel:

I too think that engagement would in a sense grant legitimacy to a regime confronting a very deep crisis of legitimacy, on the one hand, and would alienate a democratically-inclined and growing opposition movement, which expects moral support from all democratic nations, on the other.gement with Iran at the current moment as useful.

(2) Bashiriyeh sees dissident clerical politics as a key to unlocking the situation for the reform movement. At the end of a long analysis of the current political situation vis a vis the leaders of the opposition, he observes:

Finally, under the current circumstances I think that the rise of a dissident cleric, such as Montazeri, at the head of the movement, could make a great deal of difference in terms of political mobilization and the realignment of political forces and actors.

Read the whole interview here.

* In a co-authored essay, "Behind the 2009 Upheaval in Iran," Kamran Afary and Kevin Anderson (co-author of the classic Foucault and the Iranian Revolution) offer a succinct analysis of the forces of gender, new media, youth politics and repression that have coalesced into a powerful movement. They are hopeful despite the violent supression of the protests and the Stalinist show trials currently underway in Iran, observing that:

All of these struggles of women, youth, and workers have a long history in Iran. Both the protestors and the regime are very aware of this. In this sense, the 2009 protests were a long time coming and will be very hard if not impossible to extinguish.

The new issue of Logos also features four "Reflections on Revolution" in essays by Dick Howard, Marc Luccarelli, Mike Lynn and David S. Mason -- which were part of a March 2009 conference ("The Past and Future of Revolutions") held at Norteastern Illinois University.

Head to Logos now and check it out!

(Photo of July 17 demonstration in Iran by .faramaz, used under a Creative Commons license.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Edward Kelley's Alchemy: Fact or Fraud?

Playwriting has some alchemical aspects to it. And like any good alchemist, I don't want to to give away too many of my secrets about writing Burn Your Bookes.

But in writing a play about Edward Kelley, there is no secret about the biggest problem confronting the playwright: Was Kelley a fraud and charlatan -- either as a scryer or an alchemist or both? Was he really talking to spirits and angels? Was he really making gold?

In the spirit of keeping secrets, I will take a pass for the moment on my views on the spiritual actions described in such detail in Meric Causabon's 1659 collection of John Dee's transcripts of the angelic conversations, A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between John Dee... and Some Spirits. It's a complicated question with more than 500 pages of evidence to sift through. I did sift through it. I came to my conclusions. The play makes those conclusions clear.

The question that I wrestled with mightily was the question of Kelley's alchemy. It seems impossible to write about Kelley without taking a position on the question of whether he made gold or not.

Writing Kelley as a fake is difficult in the 21st Century. That's the picture that creative works -- Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, for instance --have given us for centuries now. And the historians have been even worse. The fantastical legends that grew up around Kelley decades after his death in 1597 painted him as a grave robber and swindler whose ears had been cropped in the stocks in Lancaster before he even walked through John Dee's door. His alchemical dealings have also been tarred as fraudulent and criminal well into the 20th Century. A bit of Ralph M. Sargent's 1935 biography of courtier, diplomat and poet Edward Dyer (At the Court of Elizabeth, Oxford University Press) gives a flavor of opinion on Kelley into recent times.

Sargent's biography gets lots of facts wrong as it winds through the complicated tale of Dyer's missions to Bohemia to deal with Dee and Kelley -- and then later, with Kelley alone -- on the instructions of the highest levels of the English government. Indeed, the author's animus against Kelley blinds him to some of the most interesting bits of the story of Kelley's flight from Prague and first arrest in 1591 and Dyer's imprisonment in Bohemia in connection with the affair:

That Edward Kelley was no honest alchemist his dealings with Dyer and [William Cecil, Lord] Burghley attest. Had he been able to perform what he claimed for himself, he would have had need of none of the promises and guarantees he asked for. On the contrary, of course, he was playing the ancient game of all charlatans.... Kelley's career differs from that of an ordinary mountebank by the audacity of his claims and the magnitude of his success.

"The magnitude of his success." Interesting words. Indeed, Sargent even admits that "[h]is tricks, whatever they may have been, were never during his life, or later, satisfactorily exposed."

Dee believed that Kelley could transmute, mentioning the fact on multiple occasions in his private diaries. Dyer's belief was so powerful -- and has the added power of his time working with Kelley in his lab -- that Francis Bacon mentioned it in his Apophthegma, which was published in 1626 -- almost four decades after Dyer first encountered Kelley and 19 years after Dyer's death:

Sir Edward Dyer, a grave and wise gentleman, did much believe in Kelley the alchymist ; that he did indeed the work, and made gold : inso much as he went himself into Germany, where Kelley then was, to inform himself fully thereof. After his return, he dined with my Lord of Canterbury, where at that time was at the table Dr. Browne, the physician. They fell in talk of Kelley. Sir Edward Dyer, turning to the Archbishop, said ; I do assure your Grace, that that I shall tell you is truth. I am an eye-witness thereof, and if I had not seen it, I should not have believed it. I saw Master Kelley put of the base metal into the crucible, and after it was set a little upon the fire, and a very small quantity of the medicine put in, and stirred with a stick of wood, it came forth in great proportion perfect gold, to the touch, to the hammer, to the test. Said the Bishop ; l You had need take heed what you say, Sir Edward Dyer, for here is an infidel at the board. Sir Edward Dyer said again pleasantly ; I would have looked for an infidel sooner in any place than at your Grace's table. What say you, Dr. Browne? saith the Bishop. Dr. Browne answered, after his blunt and huddling manner, The gentleman hath spoken enough for me. Why (saith the Bishop) what hath he said? Marry, (saith Dr. Browne) he said he would not have believed it except he had seen it ; and no more will I.

The other piece of evidence is Kelley's own self-assurance, bordering on arrogance. His famous tract, "The Stone of the Philosophers," apparently written during one of Kelley's stints in prison, is dedicated to Emperor Rudolf II and starts off with one of the most breathtakingly audacious introductions I have ever read:

Though I have already twice suffered chains and imprisonment in Bohemia, and indignity which has been offered to me in no other part of the world, yet my mind, remaining unbound, has all this time exercised itself in the study of that philosophy which is despised only by the wicked and foolish, but is praised an admired by the wise.... Nevertheless, it always was, and always will be, the way of mankind to release Barabbas and to crucify Christ.

And then, of course, there is also the first stanza of Kelley's poem that gives my play its title:

All you that faine philosophers would be,
And night and day in Geber's kitchen broyle,
Wasting the chips of ancient Hermes' Tree,
Weening to turn them to a precious oyle,
The more you work the more you loose and spoile;
To you, I say, how learned soever you be,
Go burne your Bookes and come and learn of me.

The notion that Kelley might be no fake at all was a powerful lure for me to write. But I didn't want to turn the play into a piece of magical unrealism. So I went looking for explanations that might have Kelley making gold but not through magic.

Enter Ivan Sviták -- Czech philosopher and one of the intellectual giants of the Prague Spring in 1968. Faced with a jail sentence after the Soviet invasion, Sviták emigrated to the United States and ended up teaching at California State University at Chico. (His book of essays written during the Prague Spring -- The Czechoslovak experiment, 1968-1969 -- remains one of the wisest. most humane and most ebullient political books ever written.)

Sviták had a passionate interest in the story of Dee and Kelley (and, also, Kelley's stepdaughter Elizabeth Jane Weston). He wrote a trio of books about these three personages which are available in their entirety only in Czech editions published in 1994.

Fortunately, Sviták also published a short article in English about Dee and Kelley in the journal Kosmas in 1986. It contained a bombshell: An argument that Kelley's chicanery was never uncovered because it he was not a fraud at all. Sviták recites the eyewitness evidence of Kelley's "transmutations" and then writes:

We could dismiss these reports as simply common fraud and alchemical tricks... My explanation coincides with the historical evidence available about Rosenberg mining and about his constant effort to improve the conditions in the old gold mines in Jilove (Eule) near Prague.

The short version of Sviták's theory is that Kelley was using mercury to extract trace amounts of gold and other precious metals from seemingly spent soils in old mines. "The metallurgist must have appeared to his contemporaries as a magician," Sviták writes. "Indeed he was producing gold from earth, and everybody could see that..." (Sviták also posits that Kelley's training as an apothecary gave him useful knowledge of all sorts of drugs -- a leg up in making things like aurum potabile, or liquid gold.)

But the important thing for me, as a playwright, is that Sviták's theory -- which I think holds up quite nicely -- also carved out space for me to imagine myself back into Kelley's shoes. He's a bad guy, yes. Machiavellian to Max-iavellian. But he's smart. Super smart. And that fabled arrogance is, in some important ways, justified.

In short, it let me imagine a Kelley that is comprehensible to a modern sensibility without resort to magic or an outright con job. It's all of a sudden a very complicated and very believable story. Which is just the sort of thing to write a play about....

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Burn Your Bookes: Tracking Edward Kelley

Over the next couple days, I'm going to post some background about my play, Burn Your Bookes, which gets a sneak preview two weeks from today at the Kennedy Center as part of the 8th annual Page-to-Stage Festival. Full play to follow, courtesy of Taffety Punk Theatre Company, in early spring. Details on the September 6 performance here.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Edward Kelley is the central character in Burn Your Bookes. For many, this English alchemist is a personage of mystery, malfeasance and menace. But I find him fascinating and very misunderstood despite his obvious flaws. My grappling with Kelley is what animates the play. Who was he? What was he doing?

Back in 2007, when I was in Prague for five weeks for rehearsals and the four performances of the one-act version of Burn Your Bookes, I found a place to stay in Mala Strana, near one of the houses where Kelley lived when he was a "golden knight" of Emperor Rudolf II's court in the late 16th Century.

There are a few places associated with Kelley still extant in central Prague, including the famous but wildly misnomered "Faust House" on Karlovo náměstí. Kelley owned that house for a time, but there is no connection between the legendary scholar who sold his soul to the Devil and Prague. (Though that didn't, of course, stop filmmaker Jan Švankmajer from setting the beginning of his version of Faust in Prague!)

The other place associated with Kelley is a house on Jánský Vršek in Mala Strana called "At The Donkey in the Cradle." It is linked with Kelley as a place he lived after his first arrest, and its nook on a narrow street in the shadow of Prague Castle seems the perfect location to try and mount a comeback at Rudolf's court. It also has a tower that peeks out over Mala Strana -- and a courtyard with a wine bar and restaurant. (See photo above of thoroughly-chilled playwright at base of tower.)

I rented a place at the bottom of the same street, a few doors away, to stay during my theatrical sojourn in Prague. I also wrote much of the play's third act during that same trip, and the knowledge that Kelley's stepdaughter -- Neo-Latin poet Elizabeth Jane Weston -- likely stayed in that house as well also provided some good vibrations. (Kelley and Weston are the main figures in the third act.)

Prague is the sort of place where one can imagine oneself back into a Renaissance past, especially on a narrow street like Jánský Vršek. But imagining oneself back into Kelley's shoes is a difficult task, for a number of reasons. And as I unfold them below, you will see why I felt trying to get nearer somehow to the places Kelley haunted felt like the right thing to do.

First, there are the layers of mystery and inscrutability that surround all alchemy in this period. Alchemists intentionally made themselves difficult to understand. Charles Nicholl, in the preface to a new edition of his wonderful 1980 book, The Chemical Theatre, puts it best:

I suspect that a measure of bewilderment and exhaustion attends anyone who attempts to unravel the complexities of alchemy. Like all occult systems, alchemy employs a language of symbolism and subterfuge. You enter a linguistic labyrinth full of cross-references and false trails. Its strange and wonderful images -- its green lions and red kings, its nigredos and albedos, its lactating virgins and cannabalistic couplings -- have a multiplicity of interpretations and counter-interpretations. One avoids with difficulty the old scholarly pitfall of ignotum per ignotius, explaining the obscure by the more obscure.

Nicholl is right. The hardest thing about writing Burn Your Bookes was deciding that I needed to find my way out of the labyrinth of researching alchemy and start to actually write the play. And in that writing, I struggled with ways to clarify and simplify without stripping the science alchemical of its complexity and linguistic beauty.

The second hurdle in representing Kelley is navigating the obscurity of much of his early life, untangling the messy strand of the seven years (1582-1589) in which we have a bounty of detail (too much?) about his life, and then plunging back to shape the fragments that have come down to us about his final years.

When Kelley walks into the house of John Dee, one of the most impressive English intellectual figures of the Renaissance era, in early 1582, he literally walks into history. We know almost nothing about him before that moment. He comes under an assumed name (Talbot), offering his services as a scryer (or crystal gazer). We only know his birthdate (August 1, 1555) because Dee casts his horoscope. Dee is suspicious and with good reason. But he also finds Kelley strangely compelling and useful.

From that moment on, thanks to Dee, we have almost 500 pages recording the "spiritual actions" conducted by the two men, first published in 1659 by Meric Causabon as A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between John Dee... and Some Spirits. We also have almost 70 pages of Dee's personal diaries, scribbled down in the margins of Johannes Stadius' Ephimerides Novae -- a year by year published chart of planetary positions that also served Dee as a datebook of sorts. (More on this material to come in future posts.)

Act I of Burn Your Bookes examines the end of the Dee and Kelley partnership. When the two men part, the trail of information about Kelley thins out once again. (Nicholl does an incredible job of piecing together what we do know about him in a London Review of Books piece from April 2001. Subscription only, alas.)

Even the date of Kelley's death is uncertain, though Nicholl argues that he died in the castle in the Czech city of Most in late 1597. We do have a letter from Elizabeth Jane Weston to her brother John Francis, written from that city in July 1597, and published in her second book of poetry (Parthenica) referring to their "magnificent Parent" (Kelley) in a way that implies he is still alive. (In a letter from October 1598, however, he is referred to as "our magnificent Parent of blessed memory.") The rest can only be pieced together from legal documents, letters about him and legends.

The legends about Kelley, alas, took the firmest root of all for almost 500 years. The blanks of his early life were filled with lurid tales of necromancy, coining and forgery, and a cropping of his ears at Lancaster -- none of which has been conclusively proven in the documentary record. One must also take into account that both the spiritual and personal diaries of Dee record the relationship from Dee's perspective -- though we do not have much cause to doubt their veracity.

A third difficulty in getting a true read on Kelley is modern scholarship on John Dee, which steadfastly denigrates Kelley to reestablish Dee's reputation as one of the great -- and most interesting intellects -- of the Renaissance.

The project of restoring Dee is a worthy and useful one that was long overdue -- and it has produced some rich and wonderful scholarship. (Nicholas Clulee's John Dee's Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion and William Sherman's John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance are among the best.) But all too often the scholars who've embarked upon it have cut through the knotty complexities of the relationship between the two men in favor of deriding Kelley, eliding Kelley, or just plain ignoring him.

Unless one actually does believe that spirits were talking to John Dee through Edward Kelley, it is hard to dismiss the centrality of Kelley to the joint enterprise. But the more vexing question for those who denigrate Kelley as a charlatan or a fraud is that while Dee was eventually sent packing back to England, his former scryer was knighted and moved for a time in the highest circles of Rudolfine Prague.

And what complicates the question further? Contemporary scholarship has largely established that Kelley's first arrest may well have been -- at least in part -- a sort of "protective custody" to prevent him fleeing back to England with courtier and poet Edward Dyer, who was placed under arrest in Kelley's house at the same time that the alchemist was being pursued in South Bohemia and finally arrested in Soběslav. Nicholl posits that Kelley's second and final arrest and imprisonment was because of a duel or debts.

In neither case, however, does it appear that Kelley arrested for alchemical fraud. So the
question is: What was Edward Kelley doing? In the next post, I'll talk a bit about the best theory that has emerged, and what it might mean to our understanding of Kelley.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Red Star Vs. Slavia

In my last post, I cited Cecil Parrott's memoirs as the ultimate Balkans via Bohemia books. Well, today, in Prague, we had the Balkans via Bohemia Europa League clash of the season... and in more ways than one. It was a Czech team with a red star as its symbol (Slavia Prague) against a Belgrade team with the Red Star in its name. (Red Star Belgrade.)

My two favorite cities. Bragging rights on the line. And a literal clash of heads between hooligans and cops.

Via ESPN, I read a Reuters report this afternoon about battles between Red Star Belgrade fans and Czech police in Old Town Square:

"Police detained 150 fans. Of that number, 38 ended up at the police station for further investigation. Twelve will be charged with criminal offences," Prague police spokeswoman Andrea Zoulova said."

And the actual game? Slavia crushed Red Star 3-0.

A couple other Balkan and Bohemian teams played as well. Partizan Belgrade could only manage a 1-1 tie at home to Slovakian side MSK Zilina. Sarajevo also suffered the indignity of a 1-1 home draw against Romanian side CFR Cluj. Czech side Teplice lost to Hapoel Tel-Aviv at home by a 2-1 score.

And there were some crushing results. Everton smashed Sigma Olomouc 4-0. Dinamo Zagreb depantsed Edinborough's Hearts by the same scoreline. And Liberec smoked Dinamo Bucharest 2-0.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I'm Back (Burn Your Bookes News!!!)

It has been a month between posts here at Balkans via Bohemia. I can only offer my humblest apologies. The web traffic on this site -- strangely enough -- has not dipped, aided in part by search threads such as "zagreb occupation," "bohemia beograd" and "slaughter on the autobahn." It's been busy in my absence.

I cannot blame the lack of posts on my own Hildegard Kneffian "weary dreary holiday time." To the contrary. At Richard Byrne Inc., like much of the rest of America, individual hours and productivity have been up, even if wages have remained stagnant.

Anyway, things are about to get real busy on this blog again. The reasons?

* A slew of new Taffety Punk Theatre Company projects, including a sneak preview of my own play, Burn Your Bookes, at the Kennedy Center on Sunday, September 6th as part of the 8th annual Page-to-Stage Festival. There's a full press release here. Let's just say I'm excited that Edward Kelley (above in an engraving from from A True & Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Yeers between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits -- the classic 1659 text of Kelley's spiritual "consultations" with Dr. John Dee) gets to walk again. The Punks are also doing an all-female production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure starting in mid-September, of which you will hear much more anon.

* I will have a huge article in The Nation about Dušan Makavejev appearing sometime in the next few weeks. But as long as that article is, I wasn't quite able to get everything in. So look for some of the bonus extended disco remix material here.

* I finally managed to get my hands on both volumes of Sir Cecil Parrott's memoirs: The Tightrope and The Serpent and the Nightingale. Parrott is best known now as the first English translator of Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk -- which is the Bible of this website. But let's just say that Parrott's memoirs are perhaps the ultimate Balkans vis Bohemia books, covering Parrott's time as tutor to young Yugoslav crown prince Peter (who was suddenly thrust into the kingship when his father, Alexander I, was assassinated in Marseille in 1934) and extended stints as a diplomat in Prague, Moscow and elsewhere. They were never published in the United States, so I'm looking forward to giving readers a taste of these books.

First order will be a couple posts about Burn Your Bookes to set up the sneak preview. Who was Edward Kelley? What do we know about Renaissance alchemy? So stay tuned -- and if you live in DC and are here over the Labor Day weekend, consider yourself invited! (It's a free performance...)