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Posts Tagged ‘Nobel Prize’

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 »

The Hermit Kingdom—in Fabulous 3-D! And Other News

October 8, 2015 | by

Won Il-myong, a furnace worker at North Korea’s Chollima Steelworks. Photo: Matjaž Tančič, via The Guardian

  • The Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich has won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. Read her piece “Voices from Chernobyl” from our Winter 2004 issue. “Alexievich,” The New York Times writes, “is best known for giving voice to women and men who had lived through World War II, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that lasted from 1979 to 1989, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.”
  • Our editor Lorin Stein discusses translating Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission—specifically, one sentence about arousal, Muslims, and politics: “At first I wrote, ‘Given the political situation, choosing a Muslim turned me on.’ But this was very un-Houellebecqian … One of us came up with arouse: ‘Arousing, in a way’ — for me, that’s how Houellebecq sounds. And even though the syntax doesn’t track the French exactly, it preserves the air of anticlimax, the slight fussiness, the stoicism of the original. The sentence became less brutal, less vulgar.”
  • When he’s not making movies, Wim Wenders takes photographs—and yes, most of these photos contain landscapes, and sure, most of them are devoid of human life, but don’t call the guy a landscape photographer. He’s got your number. “I am not a landscape photographer. I am interested in people. I am interested in our civilization. I am interested in what traces we leave in landscapes, in cities and places. But I wait until people have gone, until they are out of the shot. So the place can start talking about us. Places are so much more able to evoke people when people are out. As soon as there is one person in the shot everybody looks at that person. If there is nobody in the shot, the beholder is able to listen to the story of that place. And that’s my job. I try to make places tell their stories about us. So I am not a landscape photographer. I am really interested in people, but my way of finding out things about people is that I do photos about their absence, about their traces.”
  • When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced plans to translate all thirty-six plays into modern English, people got very pissed, very fast. These days we like our Shakespeare unadulterated; his genius, the thinking goes, reposes in his language. But it wasn’t always so.So many serious Shakespeareans over the centuries have argued the opposite: that Shakespeare’s genius had to be salvaged from the obscure, indecorous, archaic, quibbling mess of his language. For poets, playwrights, editors, and actors from the seventeenth century through much of the nineteenth, Shakespeare’s language wasn’t intoxicating so much as intoxicated: it needed a sobering intervention.”
  • North Korea just held its first photography exhibition curated by Western artists. Among the works on display were pictures by the Slovenian photographer Matjaž Tančič, who took portraits of North Koreans in—wait for it—3-D. And though that art form is liberating, his travels were not: “My guides would keep trying to trick me by taking me to the ‘beautiful bits’ like the pristine maternity hospital in Pyongyang, or a newly refurbished library. I’d keep trying to trick them into letting me talk to ordinary North Koreans.” Tančič described the country as “like a stage,” and then, later, “like a movie.”

The Subjective Flow of Time, and Other News

October 17, 2014 | by


Detail from Camille Grávis, Captive balloon with clock face and bell, floating above the Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, ca. 1880.

  • Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which just won the Booker Prize, tells the harrowing, oft forgotten story of Australia’s role in building the Thai-Burma Railway: “Although there were nine thousand Australian P.O.W.s who worked on the railroad, a third of whom died while imprisoned, the episode never took hold of the national imagination. Flanagan himself has said that ‘it’s a strange story that isn’t readily absorbed into any nation’s dreams.’”
  • Flanagan’s name is also set to appear on a special British postmark congratulating him on the Booker. “We’re really pleased to share his success in winning this renowned literary award with a postmark that will be delivered to addresses nationwide.”
  • “One way researchers have tried to measure the subjective flow of time is by asking people of different ages to estimate when a certain amount of time has gone by. People in their early twenties tend to be quite accurate in judging when three minutes had elapsed, typically being off by no more than three seconds. Those in their sixties, by contrast, overshot the mark by forty seconds; in other words, what was actually three minutes and forty seconds seemed like only three minutes to them. Seniors are internally slow tickers, so for them actual clocks seem to tick too fast.” (That’s from Lapham’s Quarterly’s elegant new Web site, by the way—note it.)
  • Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, which provides sanctuary to exiled writers from around the world, celebrates its tenth anniversary this weekend with an event featuring their five current residents, Huang Xiang, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Khet Mar, Israel Centeno, and Yaghoub Yadali.
  • Why did Sartre refuse the Nobel Prize in 1964? “Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel Prize was not personal. It was metaphysical. Every act I take as a writer, Sartre was saying, affects the existence of my readers. Accepting the Nobel Prize would have been, for Sartre, to compromise the freedom of his readers. Indeed, it would have compromised the freedom of all mankind.”


How to Win the Nobel Prize

October 9, 2014 | by

A close reading of the Swedish Academy’s citations.


Reading the news about Patrick Modiano today, I was struck by the insipidness of the Nobel Foundation’s citation: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” It bears all the hallmarks of an overblown blurb, one of those in which a bold, gimlet-eyed novelist is elucidating the now, or a limpid, singular poet is saying the unsayable. (Very few poets are saying the sayable these days, if our blurbs are to be believed.)

Let’s unpack this citation, beginning with this business about “the art of memory,” which doesn’t seem like much of an art to me. (To conceive of it as such invites a corny geriatric punch line: “Just wait till you start forgetting so much!”) Granting that it is art, is it really the art through which Modiano “evokes”? That would have to be his writing. If he’d simply sat at his desk lost in memories, he wouldn’t evoke much more than his own sighs. For that matter—can one really “evoke” a destiny, and, having been evoked, is that destiny still “ungraspable,” let alone the most ungraspable? Who’s to say that one destiny can be grasped more easily than another? (“He was destined to be a pediatric podiatrist—he saw it plain as day.”) Then there’s this murky concept of the “life-world,” which sounds like something out of Heidegger—wouldn’t one word or the other have sufficed? To speak of a life-world implies its negative, the death-world, which, despite our best efforts, has never been uncovered.

Drafting these citations must be painstaking, fairly joyless work. This one, at least, reads like an act of circumlocution by committee; the choice to append “the most” to “ungraspable” may have occasioned hours of debate. And for what? The final result could apply to anyone; in the broadest terms, not just every writer but every person in history has practiced the art of memory, evoking destinies and uncovering life-worlds. Read More »


“The Life-World of the Occupation,” and Other News

October 9, 2014 | by


The Nobel Foundation’s announcement this morning.

  • Just in case you haven’t heard: the French writer Patrick Modiano has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. His work evokes “the most ungraspable human destinies,” the Swedish Academy says. Apologies to the many runners up whose work evokes only the second most ungraspable human destinies.
  • Such as, oh, say, Philip Roth: “For years, the story goes, Roth would actually make the trip into New York to wait in his agents’ office for the call, a rough publicity schedule ready to be printed and activated. There he would sit, in a meeting room presumably prepared with refreshments, and at the end of the day, make the long, sad trip back to Connecticut.”
  • “There’s been a trend, in recent years, of novels based on the biographies of novelists. If some readers might recoil from the genre, the success of writers such as Colm Tóibín (who novelized the life of Henry James) and David Lodge (who also wrote a fictional account of James, as well as of H. G. Wells) suggest that a fictionalized life can revivify even the most heavily biographized writers—or at least those from the turn of the nineteenth century.”
  • Newly discovered Indonesian cave paintings, some forty thousand years old, suggest “a new view about modern human origins, about when we became cognitively modern.”
  • Pong, the video game that launched an entire industry, was first manufactured in an abandoned roller rink: “The Pong games were put together not on an assembly line but in the middle of the floor, with young workers ambling up to stick in the various components.


They Can’t Take That Away from Me

October 8, 2014 | by

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 5.24.09 PM

On this, the eve of the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy seems so furtive, so inscrutable. The suspense is palpable. Bookies are collecting bets; laureled authors around the globe are making steeples of their hands, entertaining their wildest fantasies. But if you want a quick and easy way to dispel the mythos, to lend a touch of levity to the pomp and circumstance of this nervous hour, just spend a few minutes with the Nobel’s Lord of the Flies game.

It is heinously unfun.

Really. Endodontic surgery is more fun than this game.

In its first stage, you match certain quotations and objects from the novel (glasses, bananas, a pig’s head on a pike) to their respective characters. From there, you’re invited to do more matching, this time pairing objects to themes (“Law and Order,” “Hope and Rescue”) that are mounted to palm trees. But wait—wait—what’s that theme there on the right?

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 6.20.39 PM

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 5.24.53 PM

Look, I know it’s pedantic, but at the moment it’s all we’ve got—a typo, a typographical error, disseminated by the offices of the highest literary prize in the land. A sign of fallibility from these infallible Swedes!

May it offer some succor to those writers perennially rumored to be Nobel front-runners—all those who are passed over, year after gnomic Swedish year. I may never join that banquet in Stockholm, your Philip Roths and Thomas Pynchons can say, but at least I can spell supervision.