The Daily


Bringing Voices from Chernobyl to America

October 9, 2015 | by

Svetlana Alexievich in Berlin. © Photo M. Kabakova

Svetlana Alexievich in Berlin. © Photo M. Kabakova

Svetlana Alexievich, the latest Nobel laureate in literature, has said that “after twenty years of work with documentary material and having written five books on their basis I declare that art has failed to understand many things about people.” But art is precisely what she has made: a “novel of voices,” as she has described her work, built from fact and feeling. Voices from Chernobyl, which Dalkey Archive Press published in 2005, is Alexievich’s fourth book but only her second to be translated into English. None of her other works have, to date, been published in English.

I asked Chad Post, who was then Dalkey’s associate director—he’s now the publisher of Open Letter Books—about what led him to publish Voices from Chernobyl in America and about his first impressions of Alexievich’s work, a blend of narrative and reportage that doesn’t offer conclusions. “Why can’t we say, I don’t want to be a slave anymore?” she said in a 2013 interview. “Why do we suffer again and again? Why does this remain our burden and fate? … I don’t have an answer, but I want my books to motivate readers to think about the question for themselves.”

What struck you about Alexievich’s writing when you first read her?

That it’s very political of course. She’s writing about the way the government ruined people’s lives. People died, they knew it, and they covered it up. They didn’t care. But at the same time, her writing is made up of all these voices—there are hundreds of people are in the book, but each one is fairly distinct, and even when their stories overlap, they retain their own voices, their own particular tales. That made it feel very human. It’s miserable to read, but it’s made very human and very powerful because of the way she allows their voices to tell truths that are hard to take. When those truths in the context of a narrative, of someone telling a story, it’s much stronger than if the experiences had been reported. Instead of “Then, on April 24, this thing happened, these people died in this way,” she let someone say, “My husband brought home his firefighter’s hat, and gave it to our son, who later got brain cancer and died.” Read More »

Sick Souls

October 2, 2015 | by

On the long line of conversion literature from imprisoned writers.

Eldridge Cleaver in the pants he developed.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the first entry, on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from a Dead House, here.

In one of his later theological tracts, the sixteenth-century Nonconformist preacher John Bunyan interpreted a few lines from 2 Timothy—“I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand”—as a kind of challenge. “Here we see,” he wrote, “that a Christian’s heart should be unclenched from this world; for he that is ready to be made a sacrifice for Christ and his blessed Word, he must be one that is not entangled with the affairs of this life: how else can he please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier?”

Modern Biblical scholars suspect that Paul didn’t write most of 2 Timothy at all (it was likely composed by the apostle’s acolytes some time after his execution), but Bunyan could just as easily have extracted the same lesson from any number of lines in the letter Paul wrote to the young church in Philippi during one of his several imprisonments by the Roman government. “My desire,” Paul confesses frankly early in the epistle, “is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Some verses later, he heaps scorn on the respected Pharisee he’d been earlier in life. On the road to Damascus decades earlier, he’d survived a violent conversion experience: Read More »

The Nonessential: On Marianne Fritz

October 1, 2015 | by

Marianne Fritz’s apartment in Vienna. From the volume Marianne Fritz Archiv Wien. Eine Dokumentation, edited by Klaus Kastberger and Helmut Neundlinger.

Marianne Fritz’s apartment in Vienna. Image from Marianne Fritz Archiv Wien. Eine Dokumentation, edited by Klaus Kastberger and Helmut Neundlinger.

In an interview published three months before his death, W. G. Sebald referred to his aversion to the systematic and to his faith in the haphazard: “If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I’ve always had dogs, I’ve learned from them how to do this.” Though my own aversion to structure is less an outgrowth of any faith in serendipity than a temperament both indolent and indecisive, rooting around has at times for me, too, yielded benefits that a single-minded approach to literature wouldn’t have afforded. And it is particularly fitting, in light of the quotation above, that I should have hit upon Marianne Fritz—whose novel The Weight of Things I have just translated—by following up on a footnote from Sebald’s posthumously published Across the Land and the Water, a selection of poems translated by Iain Galbraith.

In the late poem “In Alfermée,” named for a Swiss commune where Sebald twice visited the scholar Heinz Schafroth and where the ashes of the poet Günter Eich are scattered, the following two stanzas appear:

Threading sleep
letter by letter
comes a language
you do not understand

The exhausted eyes
of the writer the fingers
of one hand on the
keys of her machine

Read More »


Will They or Won’t They?

September 24, 2015 | by

The not-quite-romance of Eudora Welty and Ross MacDonald.

Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald.

Some friendships hover between romantic and platonic, anchored to the latter by circumstance or fate. It’s a sitcom trope: the will-they-or-won’t-they couple, always teetering at the edge of love. But though TV demands a tidy resolution—the answer is almost always that they will, and do—in life such friendships often remain in limbo indefinitely, stretching on for years, even decades.

Such was the case for Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald. By the time they became acquainted, in 1970, both were well established in their fields—Welty in that nebulous genre called Southern literature, and Macdonald in hard-boiled detective fiction. Welty’s stories and novels captured the voice of small towns in Mississippi; Macdonald, the pen name for Ken Millar, set his novels in Southern California, where he and his wife, Margaret, had settled. His books explored, through his Philip Marlowe–equivalent Lew Archer, the ways in which the dream of suburbia could turn twisted and nightmarish.

Welty was an avid reader of crime fiction, so much so that the now-defunct Choctaw Books in Jackson used to keep a pile of paperbacks on hand for when she stopped by. Though she went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, the only award Welty publicly displayed in her house was the Mystery Writers of America’s Raven Award, which she received in 1985 for being the Reader of the Year. She and Millar, by all accounts, had admired each other’s writing from afar for many years, but never connected. Then Welty published her novel Losing Battles, and Millar, using his real name, wrote her a brief, appreciative note. Read More »

Notes from a Dead House

September 15, 2015 | by

This is the first in a series by Max Nelson on prison literature.

Käthe Kollwitz, The Prisoners, 1908.

No writer intends to produce prison literature. Just as incarceration involves its own awful set of debasements, drudgeries, and abuses, so it marks any writing done under its restrictions as part of a genre, one of the oldest to which new work is still added daily. The loose canon of prison literature includes novels (Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Toer’s Buru Quartet), autobiographies (Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Madame Roland’s memoirs), poems (Pound’s Pisan Cantos), erotic fictions (de Sade’s Justine, Cleland’s Fanny Hill), poetic dialogues (Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy), economic tracts (Gramsci’s prison notebooks), histories (Nehru’s Glimpses of World History) and works of philosophy (portions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus)—but with the stipulation that whoever enters it must have suffered to an extent, and in a way, for which practically no one would volunteer. No prison writing is professional, but nor is any of it exactly recreational; it comes, by definition, from environments where “any self-willed display of personality … is considered a crime.”

Those words arrive early in Notes from a Dead House, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s extraordinary, semi-fictionalized account of the internment he endured in a Siberian prison camp after being sentenced to four years of hard labor for his involvement in a revolutionary conspiracy—and the latest installment in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s grand, ongoing effort to retranslate the Russian canon. Episodic, rambling, full of keen and deliberately stretched-out character sketches, the book is the drama of a person working out how to reproduce prison life in prose: its longueurs, its diversions, its pleasures, traumas, and inurements. Read More »

The Citadel

September 3, 2015 | by

In his ninety-three years, Chimen Abramsky amassed a vast collection of socialist literature and Jewish history. Here, his grandson Sasha explores some of the rarities.

From the cover of The House of Twenty Thousand Books.

Much later in his life, Chimen turned his eye to cataloging his library. It was a task he stubbornly refused to finish, despite having cataloged many of the world’s most important Judaica libraries for Sotheby’s, despite having even compiled a catalog of catalogs that he would occasionally show to fellow bibliographers. “It takes the magic out of it. It becomes a thing to sell, not a real collection. Once you catalogue the book, it becomes a dead object almost,” was how the rare-books dealer Christopher Edwards, who knew Chimen decades later, interpreted this reluctance. Chimen loved being courted by would-be buyers; adored being taken out to restaurants and clubs, such as the Garrick in central London, where dealers could flatter him by talking about the importance of his collection. But when push came to shove, he did not want to admit that, apart from a few missing pieces (he bemoaned the fact that he did not have any original issues of Marx’s newspaper the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, published in Cologne during the revolutionary year of 1848 and into 1849), his collection—his life’s project—was complete. Even when his insurance agent, Will Burns, repeatedly wrote him letters requesting that he provide a catalog of his library, Chimen managed to find one excuse after another. He was too busy; he was traveling; he was ill; he would do it next month. “I had hoped to do it during the summer vacation,” he informed Burns in late October 1981, “but unfortunately, as Miriam had an accident in Israel, I was unable to do so. I hope to complete it towards the end of January.” He did not, and Burns wrote him several more letters on the matter before eventually giving up. The collection remained insured only as general contents; had disaster struck and the House of Books burned to the ground, Chimen would have found, to his horror, that his inability to provide a catalog was a costly oversight.

What Chimen did do, though, was pen a series of memoranda about how he had acquired some of his rarest prizes. He wrote, for example, about how, in the early 1950s, he had managed to buy William Morris’s complete collection of the Socialist League’s journal, The Commonweal, along with the wooden box, with a rexine cover dyed blue and lined with a white feltlike material, that Morris himself had constructed to house a 1539 Bible, and in which, ultimately, he kept his copies of the revolutionary newspaper. The pages of the publication—its words printed in double columns originally on a monthly basis, then later weekly, from 1886 until 1895, and filled with the revolutionary musings of Morris, Marx’s daughter Eleanor, and other radical luminaries of the late-Victorian years—had passed from Morris to his close friend, the typographer Emery Walker; from Walker to his daughter; and from her to a poet named Norman Hidden. Chimen eventually bought it from Hidden for £50. And there they stayed, in their Bible box, high on a wooden shelf in the upstairs hallway at 5 Hillway, for more than half a century. Read More »