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Posts Tagged ‘Tim Parks’

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.

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.

The Existing State of Things, and Other News

November 11, 2015 | by

Joseph Severn, Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound, 1845.

  • The Bodleian Library has recovered a lost poem by Shelley—the ambitiously named “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things,” written when he was just eighteen. It’s 172 lines of pure political invective, and its themes, as one professor said, “remain as relevant today as they were 200 years ago.” It’s true. Certain lines (e.g., “cold advisers of yet colder kings … who scheme, regardless of the poor man’s pang, / Who coolly sharpen misery’s sharpest fang, / Yourselves secure”) resonate quite well on this, the morning after the GOP debate.
  • We’ve all wondered, in our lives as readers, how our cohort could be so fantastically wrong about some author or another—why such fantastical lapses of taste are celebrated far and wide. And so it falls to Tim Parks to ask the question on everyone’s mind: How could you like that book? “I live under the constant impression that other people, other readers, are allowing themselves to be hoodwinked. They are falling for charms they shouldn’t fall for. Or imagining charms that aren’t there. They should be making it a little harder for their authors … What might really be worth addressing here is the whole issue of incomprehension: mutual and apparently insuperable incomprehension between well-meaning and intelligent people, all brought up in the same cultural tradition, more or less. It’s curious, for example, that the pious rhetoric gusting around literature always promotes the writing and reading habit as a powerful communication tool, an instrument for breaking down barriers, promoting understanding—and yet it is exactly over my reaction to books that I tend to discover how completely out of synch with others I am … Could this be the function, then, or at least one important function of fiction: to make us aware of our differences?”
  • Here, I brought you these rhetorical questions about the cloud, that most porous of metaphors for digital space: “How did we come to place our faith in a symbol that is so ephemeral—all vapor and crystal? … What kind of thinking does the cloud, so porous and diffuse, enable? Does our participation in the cloud require us to surrender a bit of our privacy? Can it help explain the rise of the meme and our increasingly lax attitude toward notions of authorship and origins, the way something on the Internet begins to seem ubiquitous and ambient, as if it had always just been there?”
  • Michael Bierut is responsible for a lot of the high-profile signage you see around New York—his new book How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World testifies to his reach as a designer and his expectations for design. His designs all emerge from his notebooks: “ ‘I get very protective about them, like children, pets, lucky charms and security blankets,’ he says. One spread shows sketches of the deconstructed Saks Fifth Avenue logo for the department store’s shopping bags from a decade ago. He remembers one of the designers in his firm screaming after blowing it up into fragments. Bierut ran over immediately to look, and compared it to a Franz Kline or a Barnett Newman piece. ‘I remember at that moment saying, Wait, this could be it, sixty-four squares—each one of them was like a beautiful abstract painting.’ ”
  • At the start of the twentieth century, Arnold Genthe, a German immigrant, took photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown. They’re some of the only remaining photos of the neighborhood from that period; most were swallowed in the earthquake of 1906. “Genthe was fascinated by Chinatown and took hundreds of photographs of the area and its inhabitants. He used a small camera and sometimes captured his subjects covertly. He later cropped some of his images to remove western references.” “Some day the whole city will burn up,” a friend told him. “There’ll never be another Chinatown like this one, and you have its only picture record.”

Man Versus Machine, Part 1,000,000,001, and Other News

June 9, 2015 | by

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In 1959, the Mark 1 Translating Device produced its first automated Russian-to-English translation. The Mark 1 was demonstrated for the public at the IBM Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.

  • With machine translation growing ever more sophisticated, we may as well revive the old is-translation-an-art-or-a-science question—and ask if machine translation imperils human translation. “What mostly annoys human translators isn’t the arrogance of machines but their appropriation of the work of forgotten or anonymous humans. Machine translation necessarily supervenes on previous human effort; otherwise there wouldn’t be the parallel corpora that the machines need to do their work … In a sense, [Google’s] machines aren’t actually translating; they’re just speeding along tracks set down by others. This is the original sin of machine translation: the field would be nowhere without the human translators they seek, however modestly, to supersede.”
  • When we read, we often recognize—The Death of the Author be damned—a personality behind the page, even when we don’t want to; our opinion of this shadowy presence is compartmentalized from the rest of the reading experience. “Even when I know nothing about a novelist’s life I find, on reading his or her book, that I am developing an awareness of the writer that is quite distinct from my response to the work … I might be attracted to both work and author, but in different ways … Literary genius is the ability to draw readers into one’s own world of feeling, with all its nuance and complexity, and to force them to position themselves in relation to you.”
  • In 1910, Apsley Cherry-Garrard accompanied Robert Falcon Scott on his doomed Terra Nova Expedition to Antarctica. The latter froze to death; the former returned and did what every survivor must: he wrote a book about the experience, The Worst Journey in the World. Now Jason Novak, who has drawings in our new Summer issue, has made some illustrations to accompany one of the book’s bleaker passages. “If the worst, or best, happens, and death comes for you in the snow, he comes disguised as sleep, and you greet him rather as a welcome friend than as a gruesome foe.”
  • Today in privilege: a young, straight, white, male poet bemoans his status as a young, straight, white, male, and another young, straight, white, male says, Hey, man, it’s okay to write as a young, straight, white male, because, like, “Every human has a unique perspective.”
  • John Aubrey and John Soane: two men, two singular approaches to paper. “After his death in 1837, Soane’s elaborate will instructed his executors and trustees to open a series of containers revealing the family secrets at preordained intervals. The last of them, his bathtub, was opened in 1896: the contents included papers which revealed further grim episodes in Soane’s family battles and a set of false teeth.”