- Today in translating bugs: The Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn’s Insect Literature (1921), newly reissued, reminds that certain literary tropes are far from universal: “Yoko Tawada recently remarked that one of the difficulties she faced when translating The Metamorphosis into Japanese was that the associations Japanese people had with insects—even presumably giant beetles—were different from those of Europeans … In Japan, Buddhism teaches that a person might be reincarnated as any kind of animal or insect, creating a strong sense of continuity between the human and insect realms. That butterfly flapping above your head may contain the soul of a deceased lover … Humans (in the West at least) had, [Hearn] argued, become numb to the magic and horror implicit in the daily lives of insects.”
- Want to support the work of young artists without pumping capital into the infernal machine that is Big Finance? Invest in Sarah Meyohas, whose first solo show is up now: “Meyohas, who studied finance at Wharton and recently received an M.F.A. from Yale, is known for creating a cryptocurrency called BitchCoin. Here, she cheerfully explains to visitors that she is using her laptop to buy and sell stocks on the New York Stock Exchange. Every day she selects a company for which little or no trading is happening, and with her own money she buys stock in that company, which drives up its price. This precipitates a sell-off, at which point she may or may not buy more stocks. After cashing out, she takes a black marker and draws a line on one of the canvases, loosely tracing the stock’s price line during the time she invested in it.”
- Tim Parks does a close reading of Primo Levi in translation, looking at what changes in his prose and why: “The fact is that much space is required to say anything even halfway serious about a translation. For example, the three volumes of Levi’s Complete Works include fourteen books and involved ten translators … While Levi liked to describe himself as a writer with a determinedly plain style, the truth is rather different. Often a direct, speaking voice shifts between the colloquial and the literary, the ironically highfalutin and the grittily scientific. It’s true that there are rarely serious problems of comprehension, but the exact nature of the register, which is to say the manner in which the author addresses us, the relationship into which he draws us, is a complex and highly mobile animal. It is here that the translator is put to the test.”
- In Medieval Graffiti, the historian and archaeologist Matthew Champion studies the long history of defacing English churches and the thin line between desecration and devotion: “Rarely were these marks and messages removed or written over by other parish members, showing a sign of respect and acceptance. Curiously, many of the graffiti traces discovered by Champion relate to curses, magic, and more pagan practices than are often connected with Christianity … It wasn’t outside the realm of belief that a symbolic carving in this sacred space had transformative power.”
- Diana Kennedy is a ninety-two-year-old writer living in Mexico City. She’s also, as it happens, embroiled in a fierce debate about Mexican food writing: “Kennedy is far more than just a writer of cook books. ‘All anthropologists and botanists, they ought to learn to cook,’ she has said, ‘or they will miss the whole point of how culture and plants and food come together’ … There’s probably no better contemporary book that illustrates the food/non-food question than Diana Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy. The book is exotic less for its unlikely ingredients, although there are plenty of them, than for its variety: throughout the province of Oaxaca, there are thousands of valley-specific dishes.”
Bicycling from Oregon to Patagonia.
I was fourteen months into my bicycle trip to the bottom of the world. I’d started in Oregon, traveled through Mexico and Central America, through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and was now, in October of 2014, in Argentina. Mostly I went by bicycle. I won’t bullshit you, though: Sometimes a tire would blow and I’d hitchhike with poor farmers in fifty-year-old trucks held together by twine. Other times I’d hop a local bus to pass through an urban center like Mexico City, where the only available roads were freeways. I just want you to picture it correctly.
It was a filthy, patchwork travel plan, biking the back roads of the world, slowly making my way south. Often I’d sleep in thickets by the road; I’d push my bicycle through vines and disappear into jungle pockets and hide for the night. Some nights I’d ask a local shepherd if she minded a tent in her field; she’d nod and shuffle away with a shrug, as if I’d wasted her time by asking. I slept under bridges, in hammocks, and, once I reached the Andes, in tents. I slept in hostels when I could find them. I slept in the houses of people I met on the street, people I met on Instagram, friends of friends from back home. Read More
- This spring, Zachary Leader’s new life of Saul Bellow arrives—“transparently meant as a corrective to the authorized biography published by James Atlas in 2000, which presented Bellow as a racist and a woman-hater, among other things, and accelerated Bellow’s fall from literary grace. You can feel the lines being drawn and the gloves going up … ”
- “Characters having hallucinations and apparitions; super-strength robots throwing cars on a destructive rampage; jealous gorillas who are furious they didn’t end up with the girl; a thieving woman stealing a piglet under the cover of nighttime; circus murder mysteries … ” You’ll find all these and more on the pulpy covers of Mexican paperbacks.
- A nineteenth-century guide to oratory tells you everything you need to know about giving a good speech; it will generously expand your gestural vocabulary, if nothing else. (The key to public speaking is to flail around like you’re an out-of-water synchronized swimmer, apparently.)
- You might also make liberal use of litotes—the art of ironic understatement “in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary”—a not unsubtle addition to any rhetorician’s arsenal. “Litotes is best appreciated as a kind of rhetorical magician or illusionist. It can draw our attention to something—its badness, its difficulty, etc.—while, simultaneously, emphasizing its opposite. The quickness of the rhetorical hand deceives the mind’s eye—now you see what’s being meant, now you don’t.”
- And steer clear of zombie nouns, while you’re at it: “Judith Butler, in the essay that won the 1997 Bad Writing Contest, uses account, relations, ways, hegemony, relations, repetition, convergence, rearticulation, question, temporality, thinking, structure, shift, theory, totalities, objects, insights, possibility, structure, conception, hegemony, sites, strategies, rearticulation and power—all in a single sentence. It is not much clearer with the other words added.”
- Wackford Squeers, Peg Sliderskew, Charity Pecksniff … the names of characters in Dickens novels are outré enough to put Thomas Pynchon to shame.
- Relatedly: naming one’s characters is arguably the fiction writer’s most critical task. “I make up names for people all the time—it’s part of writing. Very often, the name comes with the character, along with of a sense of who they are and what they do … All names are masks, as well as identifiers.”
- For her services to literature, Hilary Mantel—with whom we’ll feature an Art of Fiction interview in our next issue—has been made a dame.
- Early in the twentieth century, an unlikely duo developed the first mechanistic theory of the mind: Warren McCulloch, “a confident, gray-eyed, wild-bearded, chain-smoking philosopher-poet who lived on whiskey and ice cream and never went to bed before four a.m.,” and Walter Pitts, “small and shy, with a long forehead that prematurely aged him, and a squat, duck-like, bespectacled face.” They asserted that the brain “uses logic encoded in neural networks to compute.”
- Finally, without further ado: Mexican prison art. “The tradition of paño (from the Spanish ‘pañuelo,’ which means ‘handkerchief’ ) began in the correctional facilities of Western American States sometime in the 1940s. At the time, decorating handkerchiefs was the only way for illiterate Mexican prisoners to communicate with the outside world. To this day, paños are still often sent to friends and family instead of letters, while, in certain prisons, the handkerchiefs are a popular form of currency.”
A haunted house for writers on the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
The writers are coming.
But first, we must get our house in order, because, ay carajo, Hurricane Odile’s rude visit left the place in a shambles—muy malo, as our property manager Paula told us by e-mail a few days later, after Odile’s wrath had passed and the Internet had been restored to our dusty little town on the Tropic of Cancer. The Day of the Dead approaches, and while so many are mourning their losses and celebrating their miraculous survival, we have much to do.
Our house, the house in question, is known as the Casa Dracula, an ancient two-story, adobe-brick landmark in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur. Odile was a category-four hurricane and she made a direct hit on the southern Baja peninsula last month.
The writers are the attendees of the 2015 Todos Santos Writers Workshop, taking place for the second year at Casa Dracula at the end of January. They’ll draw inspiration from the old haunted house, a noble structure built around a courtyard in 1852 by a local sugar baron. Legend has it the Casa was given its name by the barrio children in awe of the imposing, long-vacant, bat-infested structure, and it was later officially designated such by the town—a town with, in fact, its own official designation as a Pueblo Mágico by the Mexican government. Nobody is sure what that means exactly, a “pueblo mágico,” but in Mexico the exact meaning of anything is not necessarily the point. The poetry is what matters, and Todos Santos is known for its lyrical beauty—a lush oasis bounded by mountains to the north, an oddly verdant desert, and a Pacific Ocean coastline alive with whales spawning, with baby sea turtles emerging from sandy nests on certain moonlit nights to begin their tireless journey to the sea, and with surfers skimming the waves by day. Read More
The many deaths of Ambrose Bierce.
Ambrose Bierce’s old house in St. Helena, California, surrounded by the vineyards of Napa Valley, is in good repair. Eight stout sequoia trunks flare outward from a fused base in the front yard. An hour and a half drive to the south, in San Francisco, is a short knife-thrust of an alley in North Beach named Ambrose Bierce. It runs behind the old San Francisco Examiner building, where Bierce worked as a columnist for the young William Randolph Hearst.
This year marks the centennial of the presumed death of Bierce, Civil War soldier, journalist, and author of The Devil’s Dictionary, a wickedly witty book of social commentary disguised as definitions. He’s still best known for his fiction: his fastidiously plotted horror tales and the dark, vivid stories—including the often anthologized “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—that drew from his early war experiences at Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Kennesaw Mountain, where he was wounded. In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, the famous writer saddled up a horse and rode into Mexico, not speaking any Spanish, in order to cover the Mexican Revolutionary War, perhaps to participate in it, perhaps to interview Pancho Villa. As newspaper accounts of his time reported, he disappeared without a trace.
More accurately, there were too many traces to follow and World War I soon broke out, so a thorough search for Bierce was postponed. In his disappearing act—and some thought it was an act meant to cloak his suicide or his removal to a sanitorium—Bierce becomes a bit like one of the ghostly characters in Mexico’s most celebrated novel, Pedro Paramo, which is narrated by a man who doesn’t realize he’s dead. Or like the protagonist in Bierce’s own story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” who stumbles across his own tombstone. According to witnesses, Bierce died over and over again, all over Mexico. There is even a cenotaph for him in the sleepy mining town of Sierra Mojada, in the Chihuahua Desert. Curiously, although his body doesn’t lie under it, it is the most distinguished marker for any of Bierce’s immediate family. Back in St. Helena, his two sons and his wife are buried in unmarked graves. Read More