Andrew Ervin

Burning Down George Orwell’s House // French translation rights

March 23, 2014

My agent has sold the French rights to my debut novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House and I couldn’t be more excited. Here’s the announcement from Publisher’s Lunch:

March 27, 2014
International rights: Fiction

French rights to the author of EXTRAORDINARY RENDITIONS author Andrew Ervin’s BURNING DOWN GEORGE ORWELL’S HOUSE, to Joelle Losfeld at Gallimard, in a nice deal, by Anne Maizeret at La Nouvelle Agence on behalf of Markus Hoffmann at Regal Literary.

Philadelphia Inquirer // The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov

March 4, 2014

My review of The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 14, 2014.

Any attempt to review or explain a life’s work in 1,000 words is bound to traffic in sweeping generalities, which is something Denise Levertov never did. Her magisterial Collected Poems brings together her 19 published collections, from The Double Image (1946) to This Great Unknowing (1999) and includes 20 “Early and Uncollected” poems dating from the ’40s to the ’60s.

She wrote her massive body of work (including a number of prose books) over the span of the Cold War, and those external tensions certainly present themselves here, but she appears to have been more concerned with more immediate and local atmospheric disturbances: our relationships with our natural and unnatural surroundings and the ways the changing weather, literally and figuratively, can mediate those interactions.

All of the traditional themes are present in her Collected Poems, but Levertov’s greatest contribution is a forthright, take-it-or-leave-it audacity. Her genius was a feisty one. My favorite poems of hers are not about locations themselves as much as the demands that every departure and arrival – and every new atmosphere in which we find ourselves – make upon us.

Here’s the first section of “Notes of a Scale,” from With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1960):

A noon with twilight overtones
from open windows looking down.
Hell! it goes by. The trees
practice green in faithful measure.
It could be what I’m waiting for is
not here at all. Yet
the trees have it, don’t they?
Absorbed in their own magic,
abundant, hermetic, wide open.

That last line could well describe Levertov’s aesthetic.

Eavan Boland’s introduction provides some useful biographical insight. Before she was Denise Levertov she was Priscilla Denise Levertoff, born in England in October 1923.

“Her inheritance,” Boland writes, was a rich re-working of Russian and Jewish and Welsh. Her father, Paul Levertoff, was descended from Shneour Zalman, a Russian founding father of the Habad branch of Hasidism. He converted to the Church of England and became an Anglican priest. Her Welsh mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones, encouraged her in both literature and spirituality.

She would eventually move to the United States, marry an American, and become one of the defining voices of American poetry.

Choosing an exemplary Levertov poem is like choosing a favorite snowflake in an avalanche, but the individual volumes I keep going back to are O Taste and See (1964) and The Sorrow Dance (1967); these are the two in which Levertov shows off a real confidence in her own abilities and takes a few more risks. Think of them as her versions of Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966). They’re eminently enjoyable and full of unforgettable hooks (“What is green in me/darkens, muscadine” and “Making it, making it,/in their chosen field/the roses fall/victim to a weakness of the heart”), but they only hint at the tremendous experimentation yet to come.

In 1971, Levertov would publish the collection To Stay Alive, a book that joins The Things We Carried and Tree of Smoke in the pantheon of great American writing about the Vietnam War. Her bald-faced political engagement is something still in short supply among our poets and fiction writers today – and something still absolutely necessary. These lines come from a poem titled “Staying Alive”:

And yet, yes, there’s the death
that’s not the obscene sellout, the coprophiliac spasm
that smears the White House walls with its desensitized thumbs.

For all of the joys these poems provide, for all the burning questions they raise, for all the hours of quiet contemplation they insist on, taken altogether they offer an unsentimental glimpse of a particular environmental and historical epoch. Of course, the relationship we maintain with our natural environment has been a primary topic of poetry for, well, as long as there’s been poetry. Every generation imagines that relationship to be more strained than ever before – and every generation is correct.

While I don’t think of Levertov as a traditionally naturalistic or pastoral poet, no one else has provided a more nuanced or clear-eyed body of Anthropocene poetics.

Tin House // Culture and Imperialism in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

February 18, 2014

My essay about Star Wars, Disney, and M.M. Baktin ran today on Tin House‘s blog. An excerpt:

In purchasing Lucasfilm, the Disney Co. has acquired one of the defining creative enterprises of our time. On the New York Stock Exchange, the Walt Disney Co. trades under the abbreviation DIS. Shares are currently going for around seventy-five dollars. Dis, it should be noted, is also the name of the city—guarded by furies and fallen angels—at the burning heart of the inferno in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The coincidence is ponderous. Yes, the Walt Disney Co. has earned its share of criticism over the years, rightly so, but it remains capable of some truly visionary projects and I look forward to seeing what it does with Stars Wars. I contend that the $4.05 billion price tag will prove to be a bargain and, furthermore, that the real rewards will end up being not only financial, but also artistic.

Tin House // A Correction of the Untruths I Was Told as a Child about How the World Works: An Interview with Kyle Minor

February 5, 2014

My interview with Kyle Minor ran in Tin House’s web site on 2/5/14.

The fiction writer, if the fiction writer is worth anything, believes that the story is always in the process of complicating things for the teller, because the telling of the story is constantly forcing the teller to confront the dissonances between the things the teller thought were true, and the harder mysteries the telling of the story will make evident. As a writer I know used to say, a good story is almost always about the business of revealing the distance between the story the teller is telling himself or herself about the story, and the more complicated version of the story that the telling is revealing, the same way it happens in life if we’re walking around with an openness to what we’re receiving, rather than a preordained, fixed idea about how everything is, even though everything is always telling us how everything is not exactly fit to any particular preordained, fixed idea.”

New York Times Book Review // The Exiles Return by Elisabeth van de Waal

January 12, 2014

My review of Elisabeth van de Waal’s wonderful posthumous novel ran in the New York Times Book Review on 1/12/14.

Elisabeth de Waal’s posthumously published novel takes place in the aftermath of some of the 20th century’s greatest calamities, as it follows Austrian exiles returning to their homeland to encounter a dramatically altered physical and psychological landscape. By 1954, when the action of the novel begins, Vienna has witnessed not only the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but the Anschluss and Hitler’s reign of terror against the Jewish population, as well as repeated bombings during World War II and simultaneous occupation by four victorious foreign powers. Written during the late 1950s, “The Exiles Return” has an immediacy that makes de Waal’s readers feel the experiences of its characters in a visceral way.

Eighteen-year-old Marie-Theres (Resi) Larsen is the American daughter of Austrian émigrés. Exceptionally moody and even downright hostile, she frustrates her parents with her behavior, but instead of sending her to a psychiatrist, they opt for a change of scenery, sending her back to Europe to live with some relatives. As she is torn between two worlds, her emotional difficulties only mount when she arrives in Vienna. There she attracts the attention of a wealthy businessman, Theophil Kanakis, who has come to the city for very different reasons, hoping to increase his fortune by cashing in on the depressed, postwar economy.

De Waal’s most vividly drawn character is Kuno Adler, a research scientist who, despite building a comfortable life for himself in Manhattan, has abandoned his wife and returned to his native Vienna in part to escape his adopted country’s ingrained anti-Semitism: “He had not been prepared for it in America, where, although there was no danger of physical extermination, there was an ever-present insidious consciousness of it, like a suppressed toothache which one could never quite forget.” But, of course, the city of his birth has changed a great deal during his 15-year absence.

De Waal brings these characters together in a tightly wound story of love, betrayal and class tension among Austria’s aristocratic, clerical and intellectual spheres. If the plot can seem a bit like a PBS costume drama waiting to happen, so does de Waal’s personal history. She was born in 1899 into what her grandson, Edmund de Waal (best known for his memoir, “The Hare With Amber Eyes”), calls in his foreword to the novel “a dynastic Jewish family that had adopted Vienna as its home.” Before World War II, she studied law, economics and philosophy; wrote poetry; and engaged in an extensive correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke. She would go on to write five unpublished novels and hold a fellowship at Columbia University, eventually settling in London. Clearly, she knew a little something about life as an exile, and she renders her characters’ inner lives — most notably Resi’s — with tremendous nuance.

Any story that takes place amid major historical events runs the risk of what you might call, thinking of James Cameron’s bloated 1997 movie, the Titanic effect. In many such novels, an all-too-real tragedy functions something like the static backdrop to an old cartoon, and the fictional characters never engage with it in any meaningful way. For the most part, “The Exiles Return” manages to sidestep that problem.

“Who speaks of victory?” Rilke wrote. “To endure is everything.” But that’s not entirely true. With the publication, after all these years, of “The Exiles Return,” we are allowed to hear a voice that has not only endured but, by the subtlety and fervor of its free expression, triumphed.