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Posts Tagged ‘Tim Parks’

Staff Picks: Bad Calls, Bad Books, Breakups

June 24, 2016 | by

From Cemetery of Splendor.

A still from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Cemetery of Splendor.

Tate Modern, in London, recently showed Cemetery of Splendor, the new and wonderful movie by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It was part of a weekend homage to the sly, metaphysical Thai filmmaker, including an all-night sequence of his complete works. Now, I am no longer young enough to watch movies all night, so I contented myself with my own home retrospective, including the wonderful bipartite movies Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. In the new Tanks space at Tate Modern, which just opened this weekend, you can also see his installation Primitive, a nine-video extravaganza. There are few people thinking more rigorously, or more joyfully. —Adam Thirlwell

I was so relieved to read Tim Parks’s review of The Vegetarian, the Man Booker–winning novel by Korean Han Kang. The novel came recommended by a friend, so I persisted till the bitter end, despite grousing about every awkward sentence, every cliché, every narrative contradiction. I spent much of the first section wondering whether it was the fault of the writer or the translator. Parks was bothered by the same question and spends the space of his review examining the way content and style in the English translation work in relation to one another. He concludes that “the prose is far from an epitome of elegance, the drama itself neither understated nor beguiling, the translation frequently in trouble with register and idiom.” But for Parks, The Vegetarian isn’t merely a bad book badly translated; it’s representative of a “shared vision of what critics would like a work of ‘global fiction’ to be.” The desire to always see oneself in a story necessarily limits one’s view of the world, and seems to me to be the exact opposite reason for reading a book in translation—or any book, for that matter—in the first place. —Nicole Rudick

Just yesterday I was given two gorgeous chapbooks, both part of a series called Señal of contemporary Latin American poetry in translation. I began the first in the series—Sor Juana y otros monstruos, a dissertation (of sorts) in verse by Luis Felipe Fabre, translated by John Pluecker—this morning, and I haven’t been able to put it down. Fabre muses on the scholarship buzzing around the seventeenth-century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, tackling one assertion in particular. “Yes: Sor Juana was a monster,” he writes. It’s a claim most academics accept as true, but “where they differ / is / / on what kind of monster she was.” Was she a phoenix? A sphinx? Will she, as Fabre imagines, return at night to devour her scholars because her body has never been found? And yet, the most striking question Fabre goes on to ask is this: “What kind / of monster is it whose power / resides in language?” Whatever it is, Fabre would be one, too; Sor Juana y otros mostruos is like nothing I’ve read in a long while. —Caitlin Youngquist
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Poets Saving Parks, and Other News

June 24, 2016 | by

From a WPA poster for Yosemite.

  • When I think of the Beats, I think of drugs, of brooding nights in dens of iniquity, of casual misogyny. But it’s time to revamp their public image: they were also, as Timothy Egan writes, eloquent proponents of our national parks. “They were known as literary subversives, rebel voices in the era of Silent Generation conformity. But among their other contributions to American life are words that some of the Beats marshaled on behalf of wild places. Kerouac, inspired by Snyder’s rapture about a summer spent in the clouds, followed him as a lookout to an area that eventually became North Cascades National Park in Washington State … In this year when the Park Service is celebrating its centennial with all sorts of hand-wringing about the future, it’s instructive to remember how language can save landscape. Powerful prose has been put to good use in the cause of America’s Best Idea.”
  • Cynthia Ozick, at eighty-eight, is still a force of midcentury belletristic intellectualism—even her regular cabdriver in New Rochelle is quick to say that “the old lady” still has “all her marbles.” Giles Harvey paid her a visit: “Like her characters, a sorry gaggle of pallid shut-ins and thwarted fantasists, Ozick doesn’t get out much. She has spoken of her aversion to stages and of her impatience with what Henry James, her lifelong inspirator, called ‘the twaddle of mere graciousness.’ She writes at night, for years at the Sears, Roebuck desk she has owned since childhood, measuring her existence ‘in sentences pressed out, line by line, like the lustrous ooze on the underside of the snail.’ When I first wrote to her to propose this article, she responded with a detailed message about her unsuitability. As far as she could tell, her life was altogether devoid of public action, public interest. ‘I once wrote that I’d flown cross-country, solo, from the Westchester County airport to the Rocky Mountains in a single-engine 180-horsepower Piper Cherokee,’ she added promisingly. ‘But that was a lie.’ ”
  • In which Emma Cline offers a glimpse into her past as a child actor: “For that week of filming, it was like I had a new team of parents … I thought the blessing would never end. And my mother must have felt it, too: she had met people who would chat with her during downtime, crew members who brought her bottles of water, other parents of kid actors who would commiserate over work permits and Screen Actors Guild dues. She belonged and so did I, marked by rare luck, sanctioned by all the busyness and effort that surrounded us. And who wouldn’t want to believe that the world took notice of you, made a space for you, fussed over your presence and wished for your success?”
  • True-crime stories are more popular than ever—and so, too, by extension, are white dudes with martyr complexes hoping to solve cold cases. James Renner’s new book True Crime Addict tells a familiar tale: “Cold cases have long attracted hangers-on like Renner, who work for years on ‘solving’ the crime but never do. In cases that broke before the advent of Internet sleuthing, they often called themselves ‘private investigators,’ which represented a shockingly diverse category. Now many of these people gather on the Internet, posting on sites like Renner’s. The result is a complicated morass of uncontrolled speculation. It certainly isn’t justice … I’m frankly surprised that a major publishing house decided to release Renner’s book.”

The Night Men with Their Rude Carts, and Other News

March 16, 2016 | by

An undated illustration depicting night-soil men

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.”

Martians—They’re Just Like Us! And Other News

December 2, 2015 | by

Robert Abbett’s cover art for John Carter of Mars, 1965.

  • Compared to writers at the beginning of their careers, successful authors have an enormous freedom to experiment with form and style: their reputations are sound. And yet so few of our most prominent authors risk anything in their books. Writers like Haruki Murakami and John Irving compare their readers to addicts, “always waiting” for the fix of a new book; Tim Parks asks if “addiction” is really what an author should seek in his readers. “If a writer accepts such addiction, or even rejoices in it, as Murakami seems to, doesn’t it put pressure on him, as pusher, to offer more of the same? In fact it would be far more plausible to ascribe the failure (aesthetic, but not commercial) of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and indeed Franzen’s Purity, not to the author’s willingness to take exciting risks with new material … but rather to a tired, lackluster attempt to produce yet another bestseller in the same vein … to create anything genuinely new writers need to risk failure, indeed to court failure, aesthetically and commercially, and to do it again and again throughout their lives, something not easy to square with the growing tendency to look on fiction writing as a regular career.”
  • On social media, hyperbole reigns supreme: I’m literally dying because it’s the worst thing ever. It can be hard to mock or even to coolly discuss the trend toward overreaction without sounding like an uptight dad with a wedgie—but let’s try to have that conversation, because right now we’re standing at the brink of Total Overstatement. The Internet, Jessica Bennett writes, “has taken all these speech patterns and hit them with a dose of caffeine: the need to express emotion in bite-size, 140-character bits; the fact that we must come up with increasingly creative ways to express tone and emphasis when facial cues are not an option. There’s a performative element, too: We are expressing things with an audience in mind … Yet if a bacon-flavored ice cream sundae gives you all the ‘feels ever,’ or you are ‘dead’ over a cute cat photo, how do you respond if something is actually dramatic?”
  • Along with hyperbole, the Internet has made a cozy home for trite bursts of New Age pabulum, and science has at last intervened to ask: Why does anyone like this shit? Last month a journal called Judgment and Decision Making published “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit,” by Gordon Pennycook and colleagues. “People who are more susceptible to BS,” he found, “score lower for verbal and fluid intelligence, are more prone to ‘conspiratorial ideation,’ and more likely to ‘endorse complementary and alternative medicine’ … In a series of studies, the authors presented participants with randomly assembled pseudo-profound statements, Deepak Chopra tweets, and tests of cognitive and reasoning ability… In general, the profoundness ratings that participants gave the BS statements were very similar to those they gave to Chopra’s tweets.”
  • Given the ever more likely presence of water on Mars, it’s time to reevaluate the Martian in fiction. Though the Martians of the later twentieth century were often destructive, bloodthirsty creatures with only a superficial resemblance to humankind, the earliest Martians were basically exactly like people—demonstrating either a failure of imagination or a deep optimism. Percy Greg’s 1880 novel Across the Zodiac features a polygamous society of ‘Martialists’—diminutive men and women, less than five feet tall, who look a little bit like Swedish people and dominate the planet. They’re an agricultural society: they raise one-horned antelope-like creatures, birds ‘about twice the size of a crow,’ and a range of crops, that, besides their color, basically resemble plants on Earth … In Aleriel (1883), Martians are about twice the size of humans and much more hairy; in Stranger’s Sealed Package (1889), besides being blue, they are essentially the same as humans—they even share ancient ancestors.”
  • One of the more bizarre artifacts of the eugenics movement is this 1904 map showing “The Distribution of Men of Talent” throughout our fair nation. Its author, Gustave Michaud, thought we needed to see where geniuses lived in high density so that, I don’t know, laypeople could move to their towns and force them to reproduce with us, spawning a new generation of baby geniuses. Unsurprisingly, Michaud contended that the overwhelming majority of geniuses lived in New England, and that Wyoming was all but genius-free. Sorry, Wyoming.