The Daily

On Translation

Of Pimps and Pyknics

February 24, 2015 | by

Adventures in dictionaries.

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An aurochs from The Wonderful Paleo Art of Heinrich Harder, 1920.

I.

In the novel by Patrick Modiano I’m translating, a bus stops at Cross Road in Bournemouth “devant un cottage pimpant,” and I had a feeling, somehow, that my first try, “in front of a pimpin’ little cottage,” was probably not right.

“Origin obscure,” says the Oxford English Dictionary about pimp. You can hear a titch more donnish vinegar in the etymology than the stolid lexicographers usually let show:

Generally thought to be in some way related to 16th century French pimper, vb., present participle pimpant alluring or seducing in outward appearance or dress…. French pimper is taken as ≈ Provençal pimpar, pipar, to render elegant. But these leave much to be explained in the history of the word before 1600.

Much to be explained indeed. Read More »

On the Shelf

The Service Industry’s Snobbiest Sector, and Other News

February 24, 2015 | by

Who could say no to that face?

  • Your stereotypical French waiter is condescending, arrogant, and rigid with hauteur—a veritable seven-course meal of Gallic clichés. But that radiant superiority is earned: French waiters are still more talented than most everyone else in the game. No one has perfected the art as they have. Sartre wrote of their “lively and exaggerated manner, a little too precise, a little too fast … trying to mimic the rigor of a robot while carrying his tray with the temerity of a tightrope walker.”
  • It’s time to bury Pablo Neruda again, a Chilean judge has ruled. Forensic scientists exhumed Neruda’s remains nearly two years ago to investigate a claim by his former driver, who’d said the poet “had been murdered by an injection to his stomach by political enemies.”
  • On Oscar Wilde’s long journey from tasteless sodomite to canonized icon: “In the English classrooms of my youth, Wilde was taught as a pillar of classical learning and modern suavity, not some licentious bogeyman. Wilde, now, is tame; safe. We canonize authors to pretend we understand them; we forgive authors who ought rather to forgive us.”
  • Charles Simic knows how to beat writer’s block: just stay in bed. “When you write in bed, you don’t feel like you’re doing something serious. I’ve been traveling, visiting European institutions, and they give you a gorgeous space to work, with perhaps a lake and a beautiful desk. I could never write there; I feel intimidated by the whole thing. When you’re in bed, you feel very casual about it. It’s just doodling.”
  • Industry analysts, publishers, and grown-ups are flummoxed by news that hip, digitally native young persons apparently prefer reading printed books to reading electronic ones. “These are people who aren’t supposed to remember what it’s like to even smell books,” said one wide-eyed, confused adult. “It’s quite astounding.”

Correspondence

Autobiography (With Oysters, Orgy)

February 23, 2015 | by

Chekhov in 1897.

A letter from Anton Chekhov to V. A. Tihonov, dated February 23, 1892. Chekhov had just turned thirty-two at the time. Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett.

You are mistaken in thinking you were drunk at Shtcheglov’s name-day party. You had had a drop, that was all. You danced when they all danced, and your jigitivka on the cabman’s box excited nothing but general delight. As for your criticism, it was most likely far from severe, as I don’t remember it. I only remember that Vvedensky and I for some reason roared with laughter as we listened to you.

Do you want my biography? Here it is. Read More »

Our Daily Correspondent

We Have the Stars

February 23, 2015 | by

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The other side of the red carpet.

Over the past several years, a series of reports have said that fewer medical students than ever are choosing to go into psychiatry. There are factors the authors generally cite: the wider availability of prescription drugs, the decline of analysis, the range of alternative therapies. There are fewer stigmas about seeing a psychotherapist nowadays—and people who might once have visited a psychiatrist can now avail themselves of yoga, meditation, and other means of self-help.

Having watched the Oscars red-carpet coverage last night, I have yet another theory: E! From what I could gather, every member of the network’s team—Ross Mathews, Kelly Osbourne, special correspondent Khloé Kardashian, the inevitable Giuliana Rancic—is well versed in the jargon of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (Doubly impressive as they are also all trained in fashion law enforcement.) They threw out self-diagnoses with the confidence of a 1960s Jungian analyst: Osbourne was “obsessed” with Marion Cotillard’s dotted Dior; Zoe Saldana’s post-baby body was “literally insane.” Countless things were, of course, crazy. I started to keep a tally on a paper napkin, but I couldn’t bear to watch the whole thing, so my results were compromised. (I already had a little hieroglyphic army, though.) Read More »

On Poetry

My Lost Poet

February 23, 2015 | by

Anger and tenderness in Philip Levine.

Photo: Frances Levine

In the spring of 2012, Philip Levine delivered a lecture at the Library of Congress called “My Lost Poets,” marking the end of his tenure as the eighteenth U.S. poet laureate. In the talk, which was later published in Five Points, Georgia State University’s literary journal, Levine takes us to Wayne University’s Miles Poetry Room in 1948, where, once a month, he and other aspiring poets gathered to talk shop and critique one another’s work. The group comprised four World War II vets and a number of Wayne University students, including a young man who would eventually be drafted to the Korean War, a narcissistic Hart Crane wannabe, a rural Southern Baptist woman from Kentucky, and a young black man obsessed with Walt Whitman. In the wake of the war, Levine explained, the group found urgency and vitality in poetry, regardless of their respective talents. This poetic camaraderie was short-lived, though. The Hart Crane fanboy died in a car wreck at an early age; the Southern Baptist disappeared into the jungles of Latin America; the Whitman worshiper saw his idealism dissolve in the face of fifties-era politics and Jim Crow laws. Still, it was these people, along with the war poets he discovered during that time, who helped shape Levine’s own poetic voice.

That voice, when he finally found it, decried the injustices of our society, of working-class life in particular, lending Levine’s experience a “value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own.” Unlike his great hero, Walt Whitman, Levine doesn’t seem to stand over us, exalting and exalted. Instead, he’s always among the multitude bearing witness to the historical moment. He looks out every so often to address his reader with a plural or a singular you that invites us to share his vision, expanding our own. His poems are full of unrealized dreams, with auxiliary verbs—would, could, should—signaling inevitable disappointments or a foreboding sense of what’s to come. This dissonance between one’s idealistic fantasies and reality conjure a tremendous anger in his work, evident especially in his earlier poems about factory life in Detroit. Read More »

On the Shelf

Today’s Defacement Is Tomorrow’s Artifact, and Other News

February 23, 2015 | by

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Mark Twain’s annotations to translations by John Dryden. Photo via NYRB

  • The FBI kept a file on James Baldwin that ran to 1,884 pages. What was in it? Reasonably adept criticism, among other things: “The mixed bag of memos, letters, and clippings that composed the typical FBI author file included more than espionage reports … It also included outbursts of literary critical prose, a type of writing judgmental in nature, but always indebted to the prior writing it describes. FBI author files thus qualify as recognizable works of literary commentary, as state-subsidized assessments and interpretations quietly warring with those produced by English professors and less stuffy book reviewers.”
  • A new exhibition at the New York Society Library, “Readers Make Their Mark,” collected annotated books from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, thus continuing the culture’s growing fascination with marginalia. “Sometimes they are making proclamations about their own books: George Bernard Shaw identifies a printed text of his Too True to be Good as a ‘Provisional Prompt Copy’ for a particular production and calls it ‘Frightfully Private. No Press Agent to be let near it.’ And sometimes—as in the case of an early woman reader who judges the characters in Emma, one by one—they respond to their books in ways that still seem familiar.”
  • “Let’s get out of here” is one of the most common lines in film—people in movies just love to leave places. “It confers agency on whoever says it. It draws a line under what’s gone before. It propels action. It justifies a change of scene, no matter how abrupt.” But in more contemporary movies, “getting out of here” faces stiff competition from its longtime nemesis, “staying put.” “This emphasis on staying suits our times: The people writing and watching these movies are all part of an introspective, if not isolationist, culture that’s still licking its wounds after plotless wars and a traumatic recession.”
  • Is there anything more insufferable than our current predilection for all things twee? “Twee is a symptom of profound cultural exhaustion, a pop-cultural response to the death of grand narratives and radical politics: too weary to fight the corporate capitalist machine, the twee instead create hyper-stylized alternative worlds in which kittens play, ukuleles sound and childhood is eternal. Their basic disposition is melancholy rather than angry, and they will always opt for owl-print wallpaper over kicking against the pricks.”
  • I’ve always dreamed of winning an Oscar—I could put it up for auction, I thought, and make a lot of money, and that would be cool. But it turns out that selling your Oscar trophy is a great way to get sued by the Academy. In fact, the Academy thrills to a good lawsuit; they’ve also brought suits against “television shows that use the name ‘Oscar’ (i.e., ‘The Wine Oscars’); a website that predicts Oscar winners; and a chocolate-maker who produced Oscar-shaped candies.” Next up: people named Oscar, or people related to those people.