Sunday, March 30, 2008

Oakland University/Absinthe Festival of New European Film and Writing

After a few delays Absinthe 9 is off to the printer tomorrow. I'll have more information about the issue later.

For now I want to mention the festival we're co-hosting with Oakland University in Rochester, MI, on May 9-10th. The festival features the poets Eamonn Wall, Valzyhna Mort, and Piotr Sommers, along with three award-winning films from Europe. All events are free and open to the public and you can find the full festival schedule here.

Hope you can join us.

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Shout from Copenhagen: The Other Chekhov. Check it out!

The Other Chekhov: Check it out!

At least half a dozen people I know are reading a new, annotated collection of Anton Chekhov’s stories, edited by Okla Elliott and Kyle Minor – two awesome young literati – published in 2008 by an awesome young house known as New American Press ( The collection is entitled The Other Chekhov and consists of ten stories by Chekhov, all but three or four of which I have not read before.

Many of the stories are by the young Chekhov, whose pseudonym was Antosha Chekhonte, from the period prior to 1888, but there are also three from the 1890s. For those who may not know, Chekhov’s life was short – born in 1960, dead in 1904 – but his production long, hundreds of stories, plays, and other writings. And he is one of the masters, perhaps the father of the modern short story.

The ten stories in this collection are varied examples of the richness of Chekhov’s craft and his genius, which are by turns subversive, humanistic, sociological, terrifying, and scathingly humorous. I was pleased to see that none of the very early “twist” stories were included which, although Chekhov always amazes with his prose, conclude with a gimmick. (And why not? He was just earning a few extra roubles as a young medical student, by publishing his first pieces at the age of twenty.)

One of the two earliest pieces here, “In a Strange Land” (1882-5), in fact, could be used as a caricature of the contemporary western racist opening a door to foreigners and feeding them well while insulting them at the table – a little portrait of hell. Some of the shortest pieces – e.g., “The Huntsman” – remind one of Chekhov’s wonderful definition of very short fiction as reading which “feels rather like swallowing a glass of vodka.”

Others of the stories haunt by virtue of their unsentimental depiction of human suffering (“Misery,” 1886), the portrayal of the power of human passion suppressed (“The Witch,” 1886), dramatizations of solipsistic foolishness (“From the Diary of a Violent-Tempered Man” and “The Kiss,” both 1887).

While each story in this assembly is powerful and memorable, the two I found most haunting Dr Chekhov wrote later in his too short life – “Gusev” (1890) and “The Murder” (1895). “The Murder,” in a mere 40 pages (of large, eye-friendly type) achieves what most novelists would require two or three hundred pages even to begin to approach, the creation of a world both strange and familiar, at once real and surreal, and cause of great wonder. “Gusev,” for its part, does something I don’t believe I have ever seen done in language, at least not like that – a haunting, hallucinatory piece which portrays the grittiest of realism, but then...

Another distinguished feature of this collection is that each of its ten stories is introduced by a distinguished practitioner of the art of fiction and/or translation: Pinckney Benedict, Fred Chappell, Christopher Coake, Paul Crenshaw, Dorothy Gambrell, Steve Gillis, Michelle Herman, Jeff Parker, Benjamin Percy and David R. Slavitt. These introductions are by turns playful, esoteric, suggestive, illuminating – one even takes the form of a cartoon complement to the story it introduces. And they can be read before or after the story, as the reader wishes – a couple of the introducers request the readers to come back to the introduction after they have read the stories. Add to these ten introductory pleasures, the excellent, brief, knowledgeable introduction to the book itself by its two editors – Okla Elliott and Kyle Minor – and you have the makings of a literary feast.

A word about the translations: they are by Constance Garnett. Garnett-bashing seems to have become an international sport in recent years. But Constance Garnett was like a mighty human bridge, facilitating the passage of millions upon millions of readers into a world containing some of the greatest wonders of literary achievement – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov… She was good enough for D. H. Lawrence, for James Joyce, for Katherine Mansfield, and she is certainly good enough for me.

Is there anything at all that I missed in this book? No – however, I would have loved it if Messrs. Elliott and Minor had included Dr Chekhov’s “The Black Monk.” But that’s a quibble. This book is a literary treasure. And for a real, literary review of it, read Walter Cummin’s piece which will appear in the Summer 2008 edition of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s international journal, The Literary Review.

Let me conclude by proclaiming that New American Press is a class act – this book has a beautifully designed cover, high quality paper well bound, reader-friendly typeface, no typos that I caught and, of course, the incomparable content – for the modest price of not quite sixteen bucks. You can’t hardly buy a bottle of decent vodka for that. Each of these stories is a generous dram of the real stuff, triple distilled, ten generous glasses of it. Messieurs et madames: Enivrez-vous! Inebriate yourselves on the words of the master!

Greetings from this ancient capital!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Michael Haneke's Funny Games

At The New Republic Jacob Rubin and Christopher Orr debate the merits of Funny Games, the new film--actually a remake of his own 1997 film--by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (director of The Piano Teacher and Cache).

Rubin calls it "a brutal, manipulative film" but suggests "there is much value in Funny Games," while Orr states that it "is hardly the first violent, sadistic film to present itself as a critique of violence and sadism in film ... yet Haneke's film is ... perhaps the most repellent."

Having seen most of Haneke's recent films I'm interested in seeing this but I generally avoid violent films. Perhaps I'll borrow the original from my library first.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Fiction and Poetry in Translation in 2008

Chad Post at Open Letter is compiling a very helpful list of books published (and to be published) in English translation in 2008. The list is available as an Excel spreadsheet and there are also reviews of a number of the titles at the Open Letter site.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


This starts with me, but it is not about me. It is about pain. The pain of hurting and the not knowing why you hurt. Or knowing why and the reason making it worse.

I have lived a life in which I never thought much about my health. I eat and drink as I please, exercise a bit, mostly don’t smoke anymore but for an occasional cigar, have had no real health problems and, aside from the occasional tooth ache and a bout of indignity with a urologist a while back, very little pain.

This past Sunday I woke at 5:28 a.m. It was my 64th birthday, and I’d invited Lady Alice and my kids and son-in-law out for a birthday lunch. But the clock was set for 6:30 and it was only 5:28. Something else had awakened me.

Pain. In my side. Bad pain. Very bad. Appendicitis? I limped out to my computer, googled “appendicitis.” Right side. This was the left. And escalating. I limped around the apartment, groaning like an old man, instructing myself not to act like a baby, thinking, God has decided to cut me down on my 64th birthday! Which somehow seemed ironic and vaguely funny, though the pain would not allow me to laugh. There was a basic background of excruciating pain which every so often would notch up and remain at the new level.

Pain this great, I thought, cannot continue for long. It continued. Half an hour. Forty-five minutes. An hour. I leaned on a chair back, bowed forward across the surface of the dining table, knelt on the floor with my butt in the air and my chest on a cushion, lay on my right side, left side. Nothing helped.

I tried to think. What to do? Emergency room? Call the emergency doctor? What’s the number? But my brain was taken up by the pain, no room for thought, trying to fathom it. Without success. Abstract from it. Can’t. Now it was an hour and fifteen minutes, and the pain still constant and very bad. On a scale of 1 to 10? This has its own scale which outweighs all normal measures. Here there’s only max.

You baby! Pull yourself together! Can’t. Why do I hurt so bad?

As the pain moved toward an hour and a half’s duration, I went back in to the bedroom and woke Alice. I said, “Honey, I need your help.”

Within a minute, she was on the phone calling the emergency doctor. There was a queue on the line, and we were told by a recorded voice that we were number fourteen. Which meant a good hour before we got through and then no doubt three or four or five hours before the doctor came. Alice called the hospital emergency room to ask for an ambulance, was told we should take a taxi out, so she called for a cab and was promised one in ten minutes.

At which point I ran for the bathroom and heaved. Twice. Red. Blood? I thought of my father who at 58 one day threw up blood, lived on in terrible pain for three days, then died. My heart went out to him for those three days of pain. Here I was not quite at two hours and almost willing to die to be free of it.

Meanwhile Alice cancelled the taxi and called back to demand an ambulance. They were there in less than ten minutes. Two young men. The one said to me, “Boy, some birthday present, huh?”

They drove me to the trauma center at Rigshospitalet – the hospital made famous by Lars Van Trier in his TV series Riget, later optioned by Stephen King as The Kingdom, although King could never touch Van Trier in terms of intelligent eerie dark humor.

The details of what happened at the trauma center are not interesting – other than to say that everyone was enormously kind and that finally, to put an anticlimax on it, I learned that the pain was probably due to the passing of a kidney stone. So, nothing fatal. Curfew would not ring for me that day. But what did interest me about the whole experience – aside from the confirmation that, despite complaints to the contrary, the Danish health care system seems to me to function extremely well and the confirmation of the great good fortune of modern medicine as well as of having someone who loves you and will stand by you in need (to be more specific my great fortune at having Lady Alice by my side!) – was what it taught me about pain.

I had never known pain like that before and for the four unbroken hours (four hours and 20 minutes to be exact) that it continued, it occupied me constantly. The only relief I found came via my mind and my emotions – the relief of thinking about and empathizing with everyone I know who had experienced pain – my father in his three days of dying, my friend Susan and my former student Cindy who had battled cancer for their lives and won, my oldest brother who’d endured holes being drilled into his skull, my son who was in pain after an operation and denied the additional morphine he requested, my friend David who’d had his breast bone sawed and pried open to have a new valve installed in his heart, my mother who just before she went into her final paroxysm said, “I’ve never had such a headache before,” which I suddenly understood to have been pain of extremely great magnitude.

And I thought of the torture victims whose stories I know via Inge Genefke and the torture rehabilitation center organizations here and whose pain was not only as bad as what I was experiencing but far far worse and further amplified and complicated by the fact that it was being caused intentionally by other human beings in order to promote their suffering and to try to eradicate their personalities with pain. With my intellect I could see how much worse that was, and although it did not alleviate my own pain, it gave some degree of comfort for me to be able to feel a rending compassion for those suffering souls in their lonely torment.

When one of the hospital orderlies told me that the pain I was experiencing was said to be similar to the pain of a woman in childbirth, this did not have the same effect on me. Because, although I have respect and compassion for women in the pain of childbirth – indeed am awed by their ordeal, I can not help but feel that it must alleviate the pain to know that it is leading to the delivery of a new life into the world. Torture victims must have an almost exactly opposite impression of their pain, their degradation; that it serves no good, on the contrary. I think about the fact that today, the day after, I ache in all the muscles of my chest, in my pleura, the muscles of my back – because I was literally writhing with pain for four hours. What after-affects – sequelae – do torture victims experience, both physical and psychological? It does not bear contemplating. The vast majority of us will never know anything of that kind of hell of pain.

And my own pain yesterday was in a sense, in the words of the ambulance attendant, a birthday gift of sorts. Because it opened a part of my mind and taught me something.

It taught me that pain is another dimension. It gave me a glimpse of what it is like for anyone stuck in that dimension and made me understand, graphically, the need for empathy. And it made something else quite clear to me: I do not wish to visit that dimension again anytime soon.

Still, the end awaits us, and we do not know what path will take us to it. And as Sophocles put it, in one of the greatest scraps of dark humor of all time, “Count no man happy until he is laid in his grave.”

But something else, too: We are all in this together.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Friday, March 7, 2008

Like a Child

Picasso is quoted as saying, "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." The return to a child's way of viewing the world (one that is childlike as opposed to childish) is a theme that other artists and theorists have explored as well. Viktor Shklovsky's notion of defamiliarization has to do with the way art can refresh our automatized ways of perceiving language and the world, something that's necessary when we stop being children and fall into routines. There's nothing sentimental about it: children apprehend the world in unfamiliar and interesting ways, and their observations and ways of thinking can be fascinating.

My five- and six-year-old children were recently asked to come up with a list of questions they were interested in trying to answer for our school district's science fair. Below are some of their responses:

    How do clocks know what time it is?
    How did people know what food is good to eat?
    How do our bodies move?
    How do people make paper?
    How do snakes slither?
    How do factories make jelly beans?
    Where does blood come from?
    How does the world spin?
    How do factories make paint?
    How do people make sticky things?
    Where does hardness come from?
    How did the sun get so much fire?
    How are factories made?
    How does the sun give you freckles?
    How do pencils write?
    How was the universe made?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


We learned last week that Ruth, who owned the Fiver (Femmeren) here in Copenhagen, had gone on to her reward and that the Fiver had locked its doors, unlikely to open them again.

This is a great loss – even in this ancient city of 1,525 pubs. Serving houses they call them – værtshuse – which sounds a bit more elegant. Small humble establishments. The Fiver was among the very best of them, a small brown place located at Classensgade 5 on Copenhagen's east side. It had a fabulous collection of jazz CDs and the atmosphere of a clubhouse – a noir club for men and women, with jazz and cigarette smoke, beer and whisky and vodka, and always somebody to talk to if you wanted that or a quiet corner to sit and read or brood in if that's what you were after.

It was at The Fiver that I first heard the wonderful CD Somethin' Else. It was Lady Alice who brought me in to hear it there in 1999 when I was 55 years old. Ironic because the record was cut on my 14th birthday in Hackensack, New Jersey, a stone's throw from my Queens home across two rivers. But I had to fly over the whole wide ocean to the east, thousands of miles and wait forty-one years to hear that album in that wonderful dark little place in Copenhagen.

Anyone who has never heard that record need only hear the list of its personnel and, if you love jazz, you will hurry out to find it: Juli9an "Cannonball" Adderley on alto sax, Miles Davis on trumpet, Hank Jones on piano, Sam Jones on bass, and Art Blakey on drums. On this album you will hear arguably the very best version of "Autumn Leaves" ever recorded – with Miles on trumpet those leaves will break your heart and patch it up again with the wisdom of pain.

At any time if you wanted to hear Somethin' Else in the Fiver, you needed only to ask who was on duty at the bar – Morten, perhaps – to put on "Elsa," which is how they pronounced it in there, giving the record a woman's name, a woman who was really somethin'!
So taken was I by The Fiver that it became chapter 25 in my book Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story – a novel disguised as a guide to the serving houses of Copenhagen. But more important than that, it became the place that Lady Alice and I would invite our most cherished of guests visiting from abroad – Walt and Alison Cummins, Bob and Lisa Stewart, Dave Poe and Candy Stevens, Thomas and Lisa McCarthy, David Applefield, and my wonderful publisher, Roger Derham, who was the man who put Kerrigan's Copenhagen and the following three books of my Copenhagen Quartet in print ( If I have forgotten to mention others who joined them there it is no doubt because I'd swallowed too many Stolis that night!

The regulars of The Fiver always made my guests feel right to home. One of my favorite evenings was one that went on to the wee hours with Bob Stewart and Lisa. It was Bob's 60th birthday. That was the night, if I remember correctly, that Bob told the story of his fist-fight, at the age of eighteen, with Chuck Berry – a great story which ultimately became a fine poem, scheduled to see print in The Literary Review.

As we sat there, a prominent musician who will here remain nameless came in – let's call him Niels – and I said, "Niels, I'd like you to meet Bob and Lisa. They're from Kansas City." Niels was delighted because Kansas City was the birthplace of so much great jazz. He sat down and started slinging names of great Kansas City jazz musicians at Bob, but Bob, who knows a lot of jazz musicians, didn't know any of those Niels mentioned.

After a while, Niels stopped slinging names, ordered another double Jack, whipped out some hash and a chillum and lit up. After a few moments of meditative puffing, he looked at Bob and said, "You don't know shit, do you?" A moment Bob and I always recall with relish.

I am pleased to recall that before the great Fiver closed its doors, Lady Alice and I managed to invite our good Copenhagen American friend Dave to join us there one evening. Dave had the foresight to take some pictures, and if I knew how to upload them onto this blog, I would do so.

As mentioned there are 1,525 serving houses in Copenhagen. And I will tell about some of them in future blogs. But now there are only 1,524, and the one that is missing is one that was really somethin' else.

Five seconds of silence, please, and five fingers of Stoli, for the late, great Fiver.

Greetings from this ancient capital!
Thomas E. Kennedy