Wednesday, January 28, 2009



Last night I learned that John Updike had died of lung cancer at the age of seventy-six – too soon to lose such a fine writer. It occurred to me that this most likely explained why I had never received a response to the last note I had sent him a few months ago. We had exchanged occasional notes over the past decade and met a couple of times, though we had never progressed beyond the Mr. Updike/Mr. Kennedy phase.

Teaching at a writers conference in New Jersey in 2000, I was delighted to learn that John Updike was the headliner. Not only that, but the organizer promised to invite me home for drinks and cigars along with Updike after the reading that evening. I had a mission; I was in the process of completing preparations for an anthology issue of The Literary Review entitled “Poems & Sources” for which I had selected a couple of dozen poems and invited the poets to provide an essay on how that poem had come to be written. I had some outstanding poets, including two or three Pulitzer Prize winners, but to include something from Updike would be a coup. I also had the miserable job of telling him that I had no budget to offer anything but copies in payment. Previously I had used a long excerpt from a review he had published in a book I wrote about Andre Dubus and got a bill from his agency which equaled about eighty percent of my advance on the whole book; I appealed to Mr. Updike and was granted permission for a double sawbuck. Now I would have to ask to use something for free and considered digging into my own pocket.

Prior to Updike’s reading at the New Jersey conference, there was a reception in his honor at the home of the president of the host college. When I arrived the guest of honor was understandably already surrounded by a double ring of academic admirers. I had met him once before, at a conference in the Netherlands, but doubted that he would remember me. I sidled up, cradling my glass of red wine close to my chest to avoid mishaps, in the hope of getting close enough to make my face visible to this great writer whose work had been a model of style for me since I was a teenager. As I penetrated the second tier of the ring of people around him, I became dazzled by the man’s aura – his stature, his bearing, his powerful smile, his great mane of silver hair.

I heard him say, in response to some comment, with a nonchalance that belied the profundity of his words, “Of course the easiest thing in the world is not to read a book.”
Instantly I recognized the truth of the statement; further I recognized that I knew this to be true but would not have had the awareness to have known that I knew it without Updike’s having said it. In the grip of this complex of truth and submerged awareness and his dazzling aura, the hand that clutched my glass of red wine spasmed, and I jostled the wine all over my tie and jacket lapels.

Clearly, the college president had hired only the most alert and alacritous servers for I was instantly taken by the elbow and spirited toward the kitchen by a woman who performed magic with a dishcloth and club soda, eradicating all trace of red wine from my best silk tie and pale grey jacket. When she was done, she gazed kindly into my horror-frozen face and asked, “Would you like another glass of wine? You’re welcome to drink it with me here in the kitchen. Perhaps you’d like to sit down?”

An hour later, Updike was on a stage reading to a theater full of some 500 persons. He read a story titled “The After Life” which I had read on the plane from Copenhagen to Newark, and its beautiful language combined with the mix of clarity and subtly and frank and honest revelation which characterizes the best of Updike fiction took my breath away.

The apres-reading autograph line wound up and down the aisles of the theater, at least 200 people, each holding several books. I waited in back with the organizers, Jean and Bob Hollander, who had recently published the first volume of their new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (a segment of which was to be included in my sources anthology), to drive back to the Hollanders’ for a nightcap and conversation and cigars. This would be my big chance. By the time he had signed the last of the books, however, Mr. Updike was understandably tired and asked to be driven back to his motel, where I watched him disappear inside.

The spirit had gone out of the party, and although Jean and Bob invited me back anyway, I thought it would be an imposition and begged off. From his breast pocket Bob produced a Cohiba Robusto. “Well here’s your cigar anyway,” he said. And I stood in the motel parking lot, smoking my Cohiba beneath the moon, feeling like Ferlinghetti seeing the moment of his greatness flicker while hearing the eternal footman snicker.

In the morning I entered the motel dining room for early breakfast and was startled to see Updike eating breakfast all by himself, reading a newspaper. I considered asking if I might join him, but decided to sin boldly: I swept across the room and plopped into the vacant chair opposite him, saying, “Good morning, Mr. Updike, wonderful reading last night, how did you sleep,” preparing to work into my anthology request.

He looked up from his paper and said, “Oh, you’re the guy who lives in Denmark. Why in the world would you want to live there? What’s it like?” and proceeded to ask me a hundred questions about Denmark before he took his leave without my having got my anthology request in edgewise.

His questions were not idle. I learned later that he was working on his novel about Gertrude and Claudius at the time. In fact, when I got back to Copenhagen there was a note from him, asking what sort of birds one might encounter in the Danish countryside in autumn. Which finally gave me an opportunity to request a poem for my anthology and a short essay about how it had been written, and regretting that I could only pay in copies.

He replied graciously with an original handwritten sonnet he had jotted down on an airplane, along with several further hand-corrected drafts as well as the letter from Alice Quinn commenting on it as she accepted it for The New Yorker and finally a cut-out of the poem as it had appeared in that magazine. There was no comment about the lack of fee. Incredibly, he had sent me the original hand-written copy of the sonnet! At the end of the week I spent trying to decide what type of wood to frame it in, I received another note from him, mentioning that when I was done with the handwritten copy, he would appreciate having it back.

My last letter to him was only a few months ago. I had got it into my head how wonderful it would be if Mr. Updike would read one of my books – specifically the book that I thought was the best of the twenty-five I’ve done. I had nothing specific in mind. I would not presume to request a blurb. I just thought that it would be wonderful if what I considered my best work would occupy the thoughts of John Updike for at least as long as it took him to read it. I recall years before talking to Diane Benedict about the fact that Updike, who was guest-editing Best American Short Stories that year, had selected one of her stories for the volume. I congratulated her, and she said, “What excites me most about it is that my words occupied his mind while he was reading it and that he was not displeased.” That was what I hoped for, too – to have one of our greatest living writers read something of mine before, well before it was too late.

I argued with myself whether or not it would be outrageous to do so, but finally sent him a note requesting permission to send him the book, recalling that I had once heard him say the easiest thing in the world was not to read a book, but nonetheless enquiring whether he would consider reading one of mine. He had always responded to my notes within a couple of weeks so when two or three months had passed without a reply, I cursed myself for having asked, began to feel as though I had violated the discreet perimeters of our peripheral association.

Then last night I learned that he had died, and abruptly it was clear to me how irrelevant it was whether or not John Updike had ever read anything of mine. What was relevant was that I had been privileged to read the breathtaking prose of John Updike, that I had been privy to the originality and often startling honesty and insights of his fiction, that I have been privy to sentences and stories that have taken residence in my sensibility, touchstones that remind me what fine writing can be. After all, reading an author’s book is the closest one can ever come to that human being.

Not infrequently I find myself quoting Updike, referring to specific works, stories like “Guilt Gems” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth” and “Your Lover Just Called” and “Pigeon Feathers” and Rabbit, Run and Couples and so many others. The story about the couple who are divorcing and have to tell each of their children, and finally the husband gets to the oldest son who incredulously demands, “Why?!” And the father cannot remember why. Or the story about the man in New York City who has to urinate and cannot find a men’s room, the description of the radiant urinal when, in agony, he finally finds one, more beautiful than even Marcel Duchamp could ever have presented it.

And I remember that cocktail reception – one of my own cherished guilt gems – and hearing him say, “The easiest thing in the world is not to read a book,” as I spilt red wine down my tie.
Perhaps that is the easiest thing in the world. And how grateful I am that I bothered to read so many of his!

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy (

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Translation and Virtue

I am interested in the idea of translation and virtue and whether there is any relationship between the two. Do you have to lead a good life in order to be a good translator or is it immaterial what kind of life you lead? To understand this question better, I decided to enlist the help of some colleagues in the field of literary translation, and this was their response (thanks to them all):

Peter Robertson, UK:
I have never believed that translators can lay claim to virtue more than the practitioner of any other craft. The definition of what constitutes virtue is necessarily moot, but I am thinking that the writer – and I believe that any accomplished translator is a writer by definition – could be limited by going down too virtuous a path. After all, it is part of any gifted writer’s stock-in-trade to have a deep understanding of the sum total of the human condition, and that includes the tendency to depravity.

John Deane, Ireland:
Yeats suggested a choice, between the work and the life. But I think there is only one choice: the work. The life will look after itself… or not. Translation is an art as well as a skill and is work! But you can find a rapscallion do the work and live a weird life outside the work. Better, of course, to have work and life one and virtuous, but the impossible can be difficult to achieve. Simone Weil believed that a great work cannot come out of a wicked life, but I know some…

Nicholas Caistor, UK:
I’m not sure that a translator has to live a “good life”, but the virtues of a good translator are patience (you have to put in the hours at the computer), humility (you always have to remind yourself it is not you who is writing the thing) and determination (you have to derive pleasure from wanting to make something as good as you can).

Dimitris Allos, Greece:
We can draw some conclusions on this only if we consider the premises on which the translator bases his work: an excellent knowledge of the languages he uses together with an advanced philological culture, a feeling for the text (namely the ability to enter the different roles the text proposes), respect for the author (in other words the modesty not to overshadow the author’s presence with his own ego) and, last but not least, the patience and responsibility to dedicate to the translation all the time it needs. All these things are equally necessary to achieve a good result. Theories that underestimate the value of any of these are simply a cover for irresponsibility.

Jean Boase-Beier, UK:
If you believe there are universals of right and wrong that transcend conventional systems, then you probably have to aspire to the right in order to be good at anything. I have just been reading John Gray’s Straw Dogs, which ridicules the idea that the right and the good can ever be the same; for him, that is a myth that depends on the idea of a God. Notwithstanding this, translators assume some things are universal, so why not ethics? And translators have to be ethical. So if virtuous means being ethical (and there are indeed ethics which go beyond the local and specific), then, yes, you’d have to be virtuous in the sense of behaving ethically. Otherwise you’d be a bad translator.

Kiril Kadiiski, Bulgaria:
Translation and virtue are two linked categories that often don’t depend on each other. Good morals (to which category human virtue belongs) are not enough to give rise to great works (to which literary translation belongs). Example: countless well-mannered graphomaniacs. On the other side of the coin: Villon, Verlaine, Yesenin, the Beat poets. However, faithfulness to the ideas of the author being translated, the lack of any manipulation of the text with a view to your own understanding of things or, even worse, the pursuit of political aims, can be described as virtue and put on a level with translation.

It seems to me that translation (by which I mean all human activity) is a spiritual act in which the Spirit works through us. As the Bulgarian critic Vladimir Trendafilov said to me, we have to be open in translation, to be passive. The question is: will the Spirit reward those living a good life? On the one hand, I think not: our salvation depends not on our righteousness, but on God’s righteousness (and God’s perception of our virtue may be very different from our own or someone else’s). On the other hand, there is no denying that once we turn to Christ (the Word), our eyes are opened to things we didn’t see before (about ourselves, about the world around us, about language) in an experience that for me was akin to passing through the sound barrier. Language fell apart in my hands and was reconstructed. To go back to my old ways would be to sully that gift; forgiveness of sins is not a reason for sinning. As my wife, the Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova, pointed out, some of the best translators in the past were monks striving to lead a virtuous life (and write is surely close to virtue).

Sunday, January 18, 2009



The first couple of weeks of 2009 I had the good fortune to spend with 30 or 40 other writers in an ancient English abbey in a tiny village called Wroxton. The abbey was once owned by Lord North, who was prime minister under King George III at the time of the American Revolutionary War. Lord North’s abbey is now owned by the American university Fairleigh Dickinson, a development Lord North could scarcely have anticipated, although it is long since he has been in any condition to anticipate anything at all.

Wroxton is a two-pub village, three if you count the bar and restaurant at the local hotel – which I definitely do. Closest to the abbey is the North Arms, small and cozy with a fireplace and a great fat cat, run by a congenial young couple. Up the hill past the duck pond is the White Horse, under new management once a year or two, a bit larger than the North Arms with facilities for darts, billiards and good company.

Needless to say, 30 or 40 writers holed up in an abbey for creative reasons would make good use of such establishments. We were also fed at the abbey, though institutional food tends to grow predictable. Thus, before too very many days had passed, five of us jumped the abbey wall in gloam of midday to mount the hill and cross the winding road to the Wroxton Hotel inn – a warm and welcoming place in freezing January whose lobby bar is furnished with cozily battered overstuffed armchairs and sofas and a crackling fire.

No doubt resembling a group of chilled and disheveled escaped monks, with one monkess, our gang of five – two Davids, one Andrew, a Sheridan, and myself – were received by a young waiter who looked a bit like David Hemmings in Blow Up, though composed of that perfect balance of dignity and deference at which the very best of British servers so excel. His name, I was informed by a button on his black vest, was Tom.

“Tom,” I said, my great coat smoking in the welcome heat of the room, “My name is Tom as well.”

“Excellent, sir,” Tom replied. “An excellent choice of name.”

“Tom, we are seeking meat and drink. Have you a table for five?”

“Certainly, sir. Wonderful.”

Soon seated at an excellent table, we began to order and be served – a three-course lunch preceded by aperitifs of various liquid measure, accompanied by various-colored wines, followed by ruby port with the fru-it and a cognac digestif with espresso. The food and drink soon warmed and relaxed us, indeed induced in the entire company an excellent humor, and I realized that as much as the food, which was very good, our humor was being discreetly created for us by Tom the waiter – not more, I’d guess, than two and twenty years but a man with a gift for instilling a sense of security and good cheer, and the way he did that was ingeniously minimalistic.

As he took our orders, he made each of us feel, with an encouraging word, that the choice we had made – be it drink, appetizer, main course, cheese, desert, wine, liqueur – was, as he put it, simply “Excellent, sir.” Or, “Marvelous, madam.” Or even, “Wonderful.” He managed to do this without being in the least intrusive, but neither was he self-abnegating. His was a presence that almost imperceptibly affirmed good spirit. And he seemed to have a perfect sense of when he might be needed, and when not.

Soon our spirits were so nourished by the sustenance of food and drink and comfort that we five broke out into an impromptu chorus of Händel’s Messiah:

Wonderful, Counselor! The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace!

In this warmth and well-being, our conversation grew animated. We began to discuss various matters with passionate feeling, including – though I don’t know how – at one point the lyrics of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy. In a paroxysm of opinion, I pronounced loudly, “Those lyrics suck!” Whereupon my four table companions fell still. They were all looking over my shoulder. I turned in my chair to see Tom standing behind me, waiting patiently to take our orders for coffee and liqueur. I looked into his eyes, and he said quietly, devoid of any judgment, “Very blunt, sir.”

And at that moment, I understood what I needed to shore up my sense of self and well-being for this new year that was facing me, my sixty-fifth, 2009. I needed a few days, perhaps a week, a fortnight of being shadowed by Tom. Of his observing and pronouncing upon my every act, choice and decision:

“Excellent, sir.”

“Marvelous choice.”

“Very well done, sir.”

“Wonderful decision.”

“Now that statement, sir, was a bit blunt. Did you wish to reconsider it?”

Ah, Tom: I hope that Wroxton knows how blessed it is by your presence. I hope you know how great your value is: Wonderful, counselor! Excellent, Tom. Marvelous.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Jacket Magazine's New Russian Poetry Anthology

Around April 2008 I began the ardous work of putting together an anthology of contemporary Russian poetry. This is a queer task for many reasons. One of them being the fact that there are over half a dozen contemporary Russian poetry anthologies. Just this year Dalkey Archive put out a large bilingual volume. So one might ask: How many of these bloody things do we need? This is an important question, which I will not answer here for two reasons: 1) I am obviously biased, and 2) I would have to go on a lengthy tangent describing different kinds of anthologies, and which one's I feel have the most merit. 

In this post, I simply invite you to check out the new Jacket Magazine anthology. Today it is the most extensive introduction to new Russian poetry. 

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Who Am I

I think a lot about the line as the rain falls outside my window. We are specialists in the line and we draw them all the time. Lines around personal space, lines around property, lines around countries. You are generally punished if you try to cross them against another’s will. I write about the line because it seems to me the translator is constantly trying to cross the line. In fact, I often think of the translator as a terrified prisoner standing in no man’s land with his arms raised, striving in vain to talk sense to both sides, who are intent on continuing to fire at each other, God knows why.

The line. English is the only language I know where the ego or self is also a line: I. And of course the line is also the number 1. When God created the world, we lived in the era of A, the first letter of the alphabet. God (AM) created individual creatures (the indefinite article, an), in fact he created a man: Adam. He brought all the creatures to Adam to name, so that they would mean something. But egged on by the woman, who in turn was provoked by the snake (an erotic wriggly line), instead of saying amen to that, Adam said mine; instead of bowing to AM, Adam said I’m.

We went from the era of what to why (the line), from A to I. What do we do with the line now that we’ve got it? Funnily enough, my little son’s toy drum suggested the answer to me. In the lid of the drum are three holes in the shape of a circle, a triangle and a square. He has to fit these three shapes into the holes and the drum plays a tune when he’s successful. We can turn the line into a circle, as the rain in the sky (a straight drip) becomes a round drop when it hits the ground. This is equivalent to counting down, from 1 to 0. Alas, at school we only teach our children to count up from 1 and it takes them the rest of their lives to find out that the answer was just behind them.

We can also make reference to a third point, the source, and draw a triangle. This triangle is represented by the letter A.

Or, as I have already mentioned, we can draw a line through the I and make a cross sign (the Cross represents the I deleted), which also happens to be a plus (as Christ said, Those who lose their life will find it). The cross sign corresponds to the square.

So you end up with a circle, a triangle and a square: three shapes drawn with one, three and four lines (not two). What is extraordinary is that these three basic shapes spell a name we are staring at every time we sit down to do some mathematics (or to play with our son). I have already said the triangle is A, the cross is a plus sign and the circle is O. So the three ways of getting away from the line (or ego) spell another name of God, A + O: Alpha and Omega (present in the middle word, AND or A ’N’ O).

This progression from A to I to the O of recognition – which is the progression of the Greek alphabet (compare the Roman alphabet, which counts up from I to Z) – tells us the real question word is in fact not what or why, but who.

Who is truth? Pilate should have asked Jesus in John 18. Then he might have got an answer: I am (A I O again, the O is the Greek omega or w turned upside down). WHO is Christ’s name in Greek – O WN (written O WH in Slavonic countries), which means “the Being”, “the One Who is”. It is pronounced the same as hu, a Sanskrit word meaning “invoke the gods” and the root-word for God. WHO combines with EL, another name of God in the Old Testament, to spell WHOLE.

By denying the I, we come full circle.

See also Jonathan’s article HU