Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan at the age eighty-seven. Best known for Night, an autobiographical account of his experience in Nazi concentration camps toward the end of World War II, Wiesel, “more than anyone else, seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world’s conscience,” wrote the New York Times.
- Imre Kertész, a Holocaust survivor whose novels won him the Nobel Prize, died this morning at eighty-six. “I was able use my own life to study how somebody can survive this particularly cruel brand of totalitarianism,” he told The Paris Review in 2013. “I didn’t want to commit suicide, but then I didn’t want to become a writer either—at least not initially. I rejected that idea for a long time, but then I realized that I would have to write, write about the astonishment and the dismay of the witness—Is that what you are going to do to us? How could we survive something like this, and understand it, too?”
- Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City takes David Wojnarowicz as one of its subjects. With Rebecca Mead, she looked at some of his early work: “The other day, Laing was in New York, and she stopped by the Fales Library, at N.Y.U., where Wojnarowicz’s archive is kept: photographs, diaries, recordings, and an orange crate crammed with odds and ends which he called his ‘Magic Box.’ ‘It feels like his work has this capacity for resisting all those silencings and false histories,’ Laing said, as she opened a folder containing an early series, ‘Arthur Rimbaud in New York.’ The photographs, taken by Wojnarowicz in the late seventies, show a figure wearing a mask of the French poet’s face while riding the subway, masturbating in bed, wandering the decrepit Hudson River piers. ‘I can’t think of another artist who works in that same way—the more that attempts at silencing happen, the more potent they become,’ she said.”
- In 1947, Paul Bowles moved to Tangier and began writing The Sheltering Sky. Ten years later, he returned to the city to make field recordings of its vibrant music, now reissued as The Music of Morocco: “As Bowles saw it, Morocco’s sounds were forms of experience that had yet to be contaminated by Western influence … Bowles set off on his first recording expedition in mid-July 1959 in a Volkswagen Beetle that belonged to a Canadian expatriate friend, Christopher Wanklyn. He was forty-eight years old … Over the next five months, they took four separate trips—covering a distance Bowles estimated at 25,000 miles—returning to Tangier for a few days after each journey so that Bowles could check in on his wife, who was ill. Bowles recorded 250 pieces of music, in twenty-two separate locations, with an unwieldy twenty-eight-pound Ampex 601 tape recorder.”
- In midcentury Britain, where it was officially illegal to be gay, a secret language called Polari emerged as a means of clandestine communication: “Polari is a language of, in linguistic professor Paul Baker’s words, ‘fast put-downs, ironic self-parody and theatrical exaggeration.’ Its vocabulary is derived from a mishmash of Italian, Romani, Yiddish, Cockney rhyming slang, backslang—as in riah to mean ‘hair’—and cant, a language used by eighteenth-century traveling performers, criminals, and carnival workers. Many of the words are sexual, anatomical, or euphemisms for police … During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the language was used by merchant seafarers and people who frequented the pubs around London’s docks. In the 1930s it was spoken among the theater types of the West End, from which it crossed over to the city’s gay pubs, gaining its status as the secret language of gay men.”
- If you like your dead languages a little older, try Etruscan. Though few examples of it survive, archaeologists have just unearthed a five-hundred-pound slab of sandstone with seventy legible letters and punctuation marks—so things are about to get easier for the novice speakers. “Researchers with the University of Florence will be examining and conserving the sixth-century BCE stone … Being that it was found at a temple, salvaged for its foundation some 2,500 years ago, it’s likely the writing may relate to religion, potentially filling in gaps in historic knowledge of Etruscan practices … Deciphering Etruscan can still be difficult, as no literature or major written work still exists, and although it shares characteristics with the Greek alphabet, it was distinct.”
Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality, newly reissued, is not a memoir, a novel, or a poem, though it has been called all those names, and compared rightly with the works of Proust and Kafka. Blecher belongs in that company for the density and lyrical force of his writing, but he is also a recording diagnostician of a type the twentieth century had not yet fully birthed, but the twenty-first is honoring in the highest degree.
This is a book that soothes without sentimentality. Blecher chronicled his dying from both the interior of his body and the outside of nonexistence. He made that veil permeable: his words are vehicles traveling through the opaque membrane that surrounds the seemingly solid world. These are the “adventures” of the inside and the outside exchanging places, while being somehow exactly the same in the light of Blecher’s extraordinary sensibility. Nobody knows how to die. Max Blecher, because he was young and a genius, suggests a way that investigates, rediscovers life, and radiates beauty from suffering.
“Ordinary words lose their validity at certain depths of the soul.” Read More
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
The Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow made a career of disassembling the body, of exposing its weaknesses, its many vulnerabilities, whether through the uses and abuses it’s been put to in the abattoir of twentieth-century history or at the mercy of the more mundane, if no less fatal, everyday mortality. If that sounds like a bit of a downer, worry not: Szapocznikow managed to keep a sly tongue firmly in cheek, and her work, for all its startling beauty, its nearly unbearable intimacy, its sublime evocation of pain and disease and suffering, is witty, even funny.
Her sculptures—on display, through January 28, at the Museum of Modern Art, where they are presented as part of a retrospective entitled “Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972”—indulge in the darkest shade of black humor, extracting their punch lines from abysmal pockets of human experience. Take, for example, her Lampe-bouche (Illuminated Lips) (1966), a series of resin casts of a female mouth set atop metal stands and wired to work as lamps. Read More