The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Primo Levi’

My Chemical Romance, and Other News

May 24, 2016 | by

  • Today in fancy Russian plagiarism scandals: upward of a thousand prosperous Russian bureaucrat types, all with doctoral degrees, stand accused of having bought their dissertations on the black market. Leon Neyfakh reports: “The alleged fraud was exposed by members of a volunteer organization that calls itself ‘Dissernet’ … Started in early 2013 by a handful of scientists and journalists, the group has undertaken the task of identifying and publicly shaming government functionaries, academic administrators, and members of Russia’s so-called elite who allegedly hold advanced degrees they did not earn through legitimate means … Some of the intellectual theft Dissernet has identified is comic in its brazenness and absurdity. Duma member Igor Igoshin allegedly earned his economics degree by turning someone else’s paper on the Russian chocolate industry into a thesis on meat; the dissertation replaced every mention of ‘chocolate’ with ‘beef,’ ‘dark chocolate’ with ‘home-grown beef,’ and ‘white chocolate’ with ‘imported beef.’ ”
  • Finally, it’s back in print: the unforgettable story of an alchemical marriage and the horny old coot who watched it happen! Johann Valentin Andreae’s 1616 story, The Chemical Wedding, “opens as a winged woman, ‘so bright and beautiful, in a sky-coloured robe,’ invites Christian Rosencreutz—the real-life founder of the philosophical secret society of Rosicrucianism—to a ‘Royal Wedding.’ ‘If God Himself decree it, Then you must to the mountain wend Where three stately temples stand. From there you’ll know Which way to go. Be wise, take care, Wash well, look fair, Or else the Wedding cannot save you,’ says a letter which sends Christian on a seven-day journey to serve the Bridegroom and the Bride, in [John] Crowley’s new version of the text … ‘When Andreae confessed late in life to writing it he called it a ludibrium—a Latin word that can mean a joke, a skit, a jeux d’esprit, or a hoax. I don’t think he was trying to disown it, but he certainly didn’t seem to want it taken with full seriousness. And it’s the fun, the outlandish incident, the surprises, and the wonderful main character—Christian Rosenkreutz, an old self-doubting, curious, kindly, horny guy—all that’s what I wanted to bring to new readers.”

No One Should Envy a Writer, and Other News

February 3, 2016 | by

Edvard Munch, Jealousy, 1907.

  • Sarah Manguso holds up the many sources of writers’ envy—“of money, of accolades, of publication in this or that place … of profligacy and of well-managed scarcity … of accomplishment and of potential”—to remind us of how easy it is to mess things up: “The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.”
  • In which Dan Chiasson attempts to peer through Frederick Seidel’s voluptuary persona in search of the man himself: “Whenever Seidel publishes a book, a portion of his readers recoil in offense, while others celebrate his courage and cunning … The louche vampire who sniffs his fingers and spurns the poor isn’t Frederick Seidel—even though, as we learn elsewhere, this ‘character’ who has so little to do with Seidel lives in Seidel’s apartment, socializes with his friends, and shares his tastes in wine, shoes, and motorcycles. In photo shoots, Seidel stands in his Upper West Side living room, dressed up like ‘Frederick Seidel,’ surrounded by décor whose provenance we have come to know from his poems. The troubling power of this work isn’t its distance from its author but its stifling proximity … His style favors successive tremors of bile and animus, often crudely rhymed so as to suggest doggerel or ad copy.”
  • How Chris Jackson, executive editor of Spiegel & Grau, is building a list of writers from the margins: “ ‘I want to protect the writer, of any race, from the dishonesty of racism, and how it can inflect any kind of work,’ he said. ‘And, for writers who are trying to challenge the pandering of the white gaze, if you have to go through a series of gatekeepers who are uniformly white, you’re going to end up with something that’s’— here came a considered pause—‘it’s going to be tough to preserve the integrity in the end.’ ”
  • Reading Primo Levi in translation, Tim Parks stumbled on the word ankylosed, prompting some thoughts on diction between languages: “A certain credit or self-esteem now attaches itself to reading translations; it is something that intelligent, broad-minded people do. Above all, it is understood that the books will be literary and challenging, perhaps with something of their exotic origins still clinging to them … The American reader of translated novels is predisposed to read a rather different, non-standard English. No one need be anxious that quintals or ankylosed might force themselves into standard vocabulary; rather, they will remain pleasant curiosities, or perhaps even pretentious markers, catering to a self-consciously ‘informed’ reader of foreign novels … We know what it sounds like when an Italian speaks English with an Italian accent. But how can we possibly recognize the flavor of written Italian in written English, if we can’t read in Italian? How can we distinguish it—in English—from the flavor of Spanish or French or Russian or Czech? What can we experience beyond a muddled exoticism?”
  • Book trailers: Those are funny, right? Watch as writers who’d normally object to crass consumerism sit down in the front of the camera to sell some hardcovers. It’s a uniquely self-loathing spectacle, as Katy Waldman writes: “Perhaps everyone is embarrassed by the apparent fact that a soft-shoeing writer gets people’s wallets out faster than flashes of plot and craft. Perhaps authors resent that it’s so hard to sell their actual books, or phone it in because the clips feel tangential to this tower of words they’ve made. Perhaps hustling your person is just grosser than hustling an object. Or perhaps writers appreciate not having to ‘pimp’ their novels, retreating, instead, inside their winning personalities, if applicable, and the self-mockery represents a kind of nervous laughter.”

The Art of Investing, and Other News

January 25, 2016 | by

Sarah Meyohas, Paradise INC on January 12, 2016, 2016, Oil stick on canvas, 50" x 60". Image via 303 Gallery

  • 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.”

Hey, Are You Really Dead? And Other News

November 30, 2015 | by

Christian Eisenbrandt’s 1843 design for a “life-preserving coffin,” with breathing holes and an easy-open lid, to be used in the case of the doubtful dead.

  • Primo Levi died in 1987, after he tumbled over a railing in his apartment building in Turin. The consensus held that this was a suicide, but the publication of The Complete Works of Primo Levi has, at least in some quarters, renewed the debate. Tim Parks has chosen his side: “The three biographers—Ian Thomson, Carole Angiers, and Myriam Anissimov—who worked intensely on Levi’s life, interviewing most of those who knew him, all speak of his suicide as fact. The police on the scene concluded that the death could only have been suicide, this for the simple reason that one does not take a ‘tumble over a railing’ in a Turin apartment block … Given that Levi’s instinct was always to encourage the reader to confront the hardest of facts and not take refuge in any comfort zone, we owe it to him to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of the way he died. His suicide does not diminish his work or his dignity.”
  • While we’re on matters of life and death—when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she drew on a fierce and as-yet unresolved debate between two surgeons, John Abernethy and William Lawrence, about the blurry boundary between the living and the dead: “Questions were asked about how to define life, and how living bodies were different to dead or inorganic bodies. Abernethy argued that life did not depend upon the body’s structure, the way it was organized or arranged, but existed separately as a material substance, a kind of vital principle, ‘superadded’ to the body. His opponent, Lawrence, thought this a ridiculous idea and instead understood life as simply the working operation of all the body’s functions, the sum of its parts. Lawrence’s ideas were seen as being too radical: they seemed to suggest that the soul, which was often seen as being akin to the vital principle, did not exist either.”
  • Today in Propaganda for Kids™: in China, publishing for children is still geared to less-than-subtle ends. “Parents and the state still believe the primary role of such works is to shape young minds, not amuse them … The moral is often laid on thick. One provincial publisher (state-owned, like all of them) has titled a six-volume set of nursery rhymes ‘A Good Father Is Better Than a Good Teacher.’ Chinese-language versions of foreign classics often proclaim their didactic worth: Paddington, a marmalade-loving bear from darkest Peru, is a model of ‘thoughtfulness, modesty and self-discipline.’ ”
  • Marlon James believes the publishing industry panders to white women, pursuing fiction that “panders to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, ‘older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life’ … If I pandered to a cultural tone set by white women, particularly older white female critics, I would have had 10 stories published by now … Though we’ll never admit it, every writer of colour knows that they stand a higher chance of getting published if they write this kind of story. We just do.”
  • Some have claimed that poetry today has no appeal to the common man. If that’s true, why has Kobe Bryant chosen to announce his NBA retirement in verse? Featuring such lyrical turns of phrase as “my dad’s tube socks” and “garbage can in the corner,” Bryant’s poem, “Dear Basketball,” may well show up in anthologies before his jersey number has been retired.

On Epitaphic Fictions: Primo Levi

April 30, 2014 | by

The final entry in our three-part series on writers’ epitaphs. Read yesterday’s installment here, and Monday’s here.

levi grave

Primo Levi’s grave, in Turin.

The poet and memoirist Primo Levi was buried in Turin in 1987. According to a notice printed in the New York Times shortly after his funeral, “His grave was marked with a simple marble headstone giving his name and the dates of his birth and death.” At some later date, a sequence of six numbers was carved into the stone in the space below his name, the same sequence that had been tattooed on Levi’s left arm upon his arrival at Auschwitz.

I have not been able to discover whether or not Levi himself had left instructions in his will, or had told family members, that the sequence 174517 should be inscribed on his stone. In her biography of Levi, The Double Bond, Carole Angier explains that the six men who lowered Levi’s coffin into the grave were all concentration or death camp survivors, and that among the mourners who followed the body to the cemetery were scores of Holocaust survivors “wearing neck-scarves marked with the names of their camps.” Could the revision of his stone have been the wish of Levi’s “survivors”? However it was, the sequence is the most striking and original part of his epitaph, and, set against even a bare skeleton of Levi’s life story, its use here offers us redeeming fictions. On the marble face of his headstone, the sequence is a kind of postlinguistic, numerical poem. Read More »