June 12, 2014 | by Michael Lipkin
A racetrack in obsolescence.
Every year on the third Monday of January, the Aqueduct Racetrack, in South Ozone Park, Queens, runs a six-furlong race in honor of Jimmy Winkfield. The choice of date, Martin Luther King Day, is not accidental. Of Winkfield’s many accomplishments, which include winning the Russian Oaks an incredible five times for Czar Nicholas II, he is best known as the last black jockey to run a winner in the Kentucky Derby, in 1902.
To be black in the world of horse racing was no easy thing in the early part of the twentieth century. Winkfield, born in Kentucky, had enjoyed a storied career in Russia and France, but when he returned to America he was forced to enter a reception held in his honor through the hotel’s service entrance, with the bellhops and the kitchen staff.
Because of the raw January weather, attendance at the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes is usually rather sparse compared to the bigger events at the height of the racing season. This year, my older brother Ilya and I saw the race completely on a whim—we thought it might be fun to trek out to the Aqueduct like we used to when we were younger. Back then, if the weather was fine, our father would drive us to the track out in Ozone Park, a favorite destination for the unattached men in the neighborhood. Edik from the dry cleaners down the street was a fixture there, as was Pavel, the bartender at the Pennant Sports Bar on Northern, and Parsons, whose brother was an orderly at the elder-care facility where our grandfather died. To me, gaining admission to that world of working men was no less exciting than the races themselves. I watched with great interest as they quaffed beer and studied the odds on the board and cursed when they invariably lost their money. Being a bit older, Ilya had a better sense of what was actually going on. He nagged Pavel until the bartender showed him how to decipher the near-hieroglyphic racing form. The one time my father let him place a bet, we won eighty dollars. It proved to be a red-letter day, because that same afternoon, I fed a carrot to Cigar, the Hall of Fame thoroughbred, just before the first big win of his career. (The Aqueduct now runs a race in his honor as well.) Read More »
April 22, 2014 | by Michael Lipkin
There were no best-seller lists in 1809, but it was quickly clear to the German reading public that Goethe’s third novel, Elective Affinities, which appeared in the fall of that year, was a flop. His first, The Sorrows of Young Werther, had inspired a fashion craze and copycat suicides, and had fired the heart of a young Napoleon. His latest effort, on the other hand, received befuddled notices from critics and little love from the coterie of writers and philosophers drawn to the Great Man. Everyone from the Brothers Grimm to Achim von Arnim to Wilhelm von Humboldt agreed that the book was a bore, that its plot made nearly no sense, and that its treatment of adultery bordered on the distasteful.
At sixty, Goethe was not one to let bad reviews get him down. The universally beloved Faust had appeared in 1808, and by 1810, Goethe was to have completed his Theory of Colors as well as his autobiography, Poetry and Truth. Nonetheless, in the correspondence he sent out around the time of publication, Goethe found himself compelled to admit that he had as little idea as anyone else of what he was trying to accomplish with his most recent book, or of what it had finally become. Then as now, Elective Affinities is an incredible, deeply mystifying read, the headstone of a man who hoped to groom the wilderness of life into an English park where even loss, pain, and death have finally found their proper place. Read More »
December 30, 2013 | by Michael Lipkin
In 1784, a twenty-five-year-old Friedrich Schiller, then Germany’s most famous playwright, published a notice announcing his new journal, the Rheinische Thalia. “It was a strange misunderstanding of nature that condemned me to the calling of poet in the place where I was born,” he wrote, reflecting on his path to fame. “To be inclined towards poetry was strictly against the laws of the institute where I was educated, and ran counter to the plan of its creator. For eight years, my enthusiasm struggled against the military rules, but passion for poetry is fiery and strong, like first love. What those rules should have smothered, they only fanned.”
These bitter words were written in memory of the Hohe Carlsschule, the military academy founded by Carl-Eugen, Duke of Württemburg, where Schiller spent his teenage years and young adulthood. In Germany the duke was known for his autocratic rule, wasteful spending, and eleven illegitimate children. At the same time, Carl-Eugen was deeply interested in statecraft and, above all, in educational reform. Decades into his rule, he decided to found an academy whose goal was to create a bureaucratic class free of the aristocracy’s tangled family loyalties. The only criterion for entrance was merit. Accordingly, students from bourgeois backgrounds (like Schiller) vastly outnumbered the noble-born.
Schiller was fourteen when he was sent to the Carlsschule, and he was not happy to be there. Visits from family were strictly regulated; female relations, particularly sisters and cousins, were forbidden entirely. Worse, Élève 447, as he was now known, had to wear a uniform, march in formation to meals, and sleep in a dormitory that was kept lit even at night to make sure the students weren’t masturbating. Any violation of the rules or attempt to flee resulted in the student’s having to write out his crime on a red card, which he wore pinned to his chest at mealtimes. As the students ate, the duke would work his way around the tables, read each card aloud, and give the student a slap. Serious offenses were punished by imprisonment or caning. Read More »
May 20, 2013 | by Michael Lipkin
My literary hero, Adalbert Stifter, was introduced to me by a professor of German studies during my sophomore year at Binghamton University. At the time, I lived alone in a studio apartment on the west side of Binghamton, a small city in upstate New York crippled by its loss of the computer and defense industries. The low standard of living and high crime rate, palpable even in the city’s nicer parts, are all the more jarring for the beautiful view of the Catskill Mountains that graces the area. At the end of the school year, the cold lifts, the rains stop, and the weather turns mild. The air, normally raw and wet, is balmy, and thick with the smell of pine.
In an e-mail, I expressed particular curiosity about the desiccated natural landscapes in Thomas Bernhard’s novels, and my professor suggested that I read Adalbert Stifter, an Austrian author who, despite the endorsements of Thomas Mann and W.G. Sebald, is remembered as a hokey sentimentalist, interested mostly in mountains and flowers.. The stories, novellas, and novels for which Stifter is known were written at the height of the Biedermeier period, a time of bourgeois reaction after the catastrophic, continent-wide destruction unleashed by the Napoleonic Wars. Beidermeier culture was fond of middle-class comfort, of painted plates, copper prints, simple furniture, and little knickknacks. Rather than challenge the political repression of post-Metternich Europe and take stock of the hopes for equality and immediacy in human relations shattered by the failed revolutions of 1848–49, the German-speaking world of Stifter’s time withdrew into the home, the family, and from there, into a world of fantasy.
Desperate for my professor’s guidance and approval, I found Stifter’s novella collection Bunte Steine (Many-Colored Stones) in the deathly quiet German-language stacks of Bartle Library. Read More »