Posts Tagged ‘Rhys Tranter’

Want to communicate with the dead? A dead man tells us how. (Plus some kind words for the Book Haven!)

Saturday, September 16th, 2017
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Words of praise for the Book Haven from Rhys Tranter over at his lively and excellent website:

One of the finest literary blogs around is Cynthia Haven‘s The Book Haven, hosted by Stanford University. The site covers a rich variety of topics in a lively and accessible way, and includes reviews and interviews alongside thought-provoking essays. In addition, Haven is alert to the political and cultural turmoil that continues to shape contemporary American consciousness. In a recent post, she draws on the words of American writer James Baldwin to examine how literature can lead to greater empathy and understanding between people and communities:

Preach it. (Photo: The Granger Collection)

There’s a direct line between our moral and social crises and the collapse of the humanities. […] Here’s one reason: literature is our chance to explore the world of  the “other,” to enter into some head other than our own. You can’t read The Brothers Karamazov without being able to understand multiple ways of living and thinking in the world, and some quite alien to one’s own p.o.v. That’s precisely what’s lacking in today’s public life, and that’s the understanding that should have been grounded in our educational system.

Then he included the words of James Baldwin I had cited: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”

There’s so much to be said beyond Baldwin’s insightful words, however. We’ve said it before here and here, for example. Here’s a passage from James Marcus‘s interview with the late Susan Sontag on the subject:

“Education of the heart”

“Reading should be an education of the heart,” she says, correcting and amplifying her initial statement. “Of course a novel can still have plenty of ideas. We need to discard that romantic cliché about the head versus the heart, which is an absurdity. In real life, intellect and passion are never separated that way, so why shouldn’t you be moved by a book? Why shouldn’t you cry, and be haunted by the characters? Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too.”

“Perhaps some people don’t want to be taken out of themselves,” I suggest.

“Well, reading must seem to some people like an escape,” she allows. “But I really do think it’s necessary if you want to have a full life. It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”

“a form of moral insurance”

Joseph Brodsky went even further in his Nobel lecture (here), famously saying, “There is no doubt in my mind that, had we been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth. It seems to me that a potential master of our fates should be asked, first of all, not about how he imagines the course of his foreign policy, but about his attitude toward StendhalDickensDostoevsky. … As a form of moral insurance, at least, literature is much more dependable than a system of beliefs or a philosophical doctrine.”

It also prevents us Gary Saul Morson what I call the “Downton Abbey Syndrome”: “the more that authors and characters shared our beliefs, the more enlightened they were. This is simply a form of ahistorical flattery; it makes us the wisest people who ever lived, much more advanced than that Shakespeare guy. Of course, numerous critical schools that judge literary works are more sophisticated than that class on Huckleberry Finn, but they all still presume the correctness of their own views and then measure others against them. That stance makes it impossible to do anything but verify what one already believes. Why not instead imagine what valid criticisms these authors would advance if they could see us?”

“converse with the dead, the absent, the unborn”

According to Abraham Lincoln:  “Writing – the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye – is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it – great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions.”

Protection against propaganda returns us to Rhys Tranter again, in his post this week:, which has takes on the more ominous side of a society that no longer cultivates emotional standards and discrimination, this time in the words of Thomas Merton: “[In] an evolved society there are no innocent victims of propaganda. Propaganda succeeds because men want it to succeed. It works on minds because those minds want to be worked on. Its conclusions bring apparent light and satisfaction because that is the kind of satisfaction that people are longing for. It leads them to actions for which they are already half prepared: all they ask is that these actions be justified. If war propaganda succeeds it is because people want war, and only need a few good reasons to justify their own desire.”

Dante: did he really go to hell?

Monday, August 3rd, 2015
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Dante_GiottoDante Alighieri was one of the world’s greatest prophets and poets, yes, but what was he like to have dinner with? What did his neighbors think of him? What was he like to hang with?

First, the externals: He was of middle height, “and after he had reached mature years he walked with somewhat of a stoop; his gait was grave and sedate; and he was ever clothed in most seemly garments, his dress being suited to the ripeness of his years. His face was long, his nose aquiline, his eyes rather large than small, his jaws heavy, with the under lip projecting beyond the upper. His complexion was dark, and his hair and beard thick, black, and crisp; and his countenance always sad and thoughtful.”

The black, crisp beard was very much to the point, and apparently he was a bit of a ham, too. His fame and his Commedia – especially the Inferno – preceded him everywhere, and he was recognized on sight. One day in Verona, “as he passed before a doorway where several women were sitting, one of them said to the others in a low voice, but not so low but that she was plainly heard by him and by those with him, ‘Do you see the man who goes down to Hell, and returns at his pleasure, and brings back news of those who are below?’ To which one of the others answered in all simplicity: ‘Indeed, what you say must be true; don’t you see how his beard is crisped and his color darkened by the heat and smoke down below?’ Dante, hearing these words behind him, and perceiving that they were spoken by the women in perfect good faith, was not ill pleased that they should have such an opinion of him, and smiling a little passed on his way.”

He enjoyed his mystique, then. The words are, of course, Boccaccio‘s, recounted in a recent blog post over at Rhys Tranter‘s blog on literature, philosophy, and the arts. Here’s another anecdote he great Italian maestro:

dante… on one of the occasions when he was in Siena, he chanced to be at an apothecary’s shop, where a book was brought to him which had been previously promised him, this book being one of much reputation among persons of worth, and having never yet been seen by him. As he happened to be unable to take it elsewhere, he leant over on to the bench in front of the apothecary’s shop, and there, placing the book before him, began most eagerly to examine it. Soon afterwards, in that same quarter, close to where he was, on the occasion of some general festival a great tournament took place among the noble youths of Siena, accompanied, as is usually the case on such occasions, with a great deal of noise caused by the various instruments and shouts of applause from the bystanders; yet, in spite of all this, and of many other things likely to attract the attention, such as fair ladies dancing, and youths’ sports of all kinds, he was never seen to stir from his place, nor so much as to raise his eyes from his book. Indeed, although it was about noon when he took his stand there, it was not until past the hour of vespers when, having examined the book thoroughly and taken a general survey of its contents, he got up to leave it. He afterwards declared to several persons, who asked him how he could refrain from looking on at such a splendid festival as had taken place in his presence, that he had been wholly unaware of it—an answer which made his questioners wonder even more than they had done at first.

Read the whole thing here.

The Cahiers Series: “really, really beautiful” – and hand-stitched, even

Monday, September 26th, 2011
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In a world where everything is becoming faster, cheesier, and more functional – when books are no longer tactile, sensual objects, but characters on Kindle – it’s cheering to see anything swimming upstream.  Bonus points if it extols that most underrated of literary trades, translation.

Applause keeps mounting for the Cahiers Series, published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. It’s hard to stay on top of it.  But Daniel Medin, one of my more charming correspondents, has been sending me updates from the American University.

The latest plug is in Friday’s New York Review of Books blog, where Colm Tóibín introduces László Krasznahorkai‘s Animalinside (with illustrations by Max Neumann):

The prose of Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai is full of menace, but it would be a mistake to read the menace either as political or as coming from nowhere. In novels such as The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War, his imagination feeds on real fear and real violence; he has a way of making fear and violence seem all the more real and present, however, by removing them from a familiar context.

Daniel, now an associate professor at the American University (after teaching at Stanford a year or two back), said this:

The allegorical tissue in that text [i.e., Animalinside] is very thick, the “animal inside” a literal and metaphorical thing at the same time – think Herbert‘s Report from the Besieged City, where “a rat became the unit of currency.” We’re in the realm of Kafka and Beckett here, and not just in approach: I believe that Krasznahorkai is a writer of nearly the same magnitude who has the mixed fortune of having been born Hungarian – mixed because of that country’s embarrassment of (literary, cultural) riches on one hand and its linguistic isolation on the other.

Quite a coup for a small series that lives more or less hand to mouth, on uncertain funding. Part of the problem is shipping, which makes U.S. distribution difficult, even for a downright modest price of, say, $15.  Distribution in France is a little problematic, too, since the language is English.  “Every penny goes toward quality of production and keeping down the price,” Daniel writes.

Via the Cahiers Series subscription page you can buy a boxed set of volumes 1-6 (or a boxed set of volumes 7-12) for £51 – “which is approximately $4,000, but like I said, these are really, really beautiful. (Kidding—£51 is only $75 and these are worth every dime),” according to the Three Percent blog.  (Sorry, the blogger got me going for a moment – so I had to try it on you.)

[New updated deal: In addition to having the option of ordering cahiers individually, readers can now select any 6 cahiers for £55 in Europe/£59.50 everywhere else. Check it out here.]

Last year Daniel  told the Three Percent blog: “There are two main justifications for the Cahiers Series. The first is that we publish material that cannot easily be published anywhere else; we can play with form in a way that commercial publishers cannot. The second justification is to make something where the parts, through their relation to each other, add up to more than just that.”

Much more.  Clearly, the project is gaining momentum and some very high-profile attention – for example, from James Wood in the New Yorker here.

Daniel – handsomer than this, really

Daniel also sent me a copy of George Craig‘s Writing Beckett’s Letters. Craig spent 15 years translating the thousands of letters Beckett wrote in French.  It’s chock full of impressive insights, and handsomely produced – hand-stitched, even. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Rhys Tranter did, and said this in the Spectator Book Blog (it’s here and here):

Whilst George Craig’s book is neatly timed to anticipate the next volume of Beckett’s Letters, it is more than just a preview of things to come. To Beckett scholars and enthusiasts, the appeal of this book is obvious, tightly-woven with rare insight and beautiful reproductions. But it is also thoughtful and engaging introduction to the problems of translation, and a testament to the status of correspondence as a kind of art-form. To paraphrase Craig’s description of Beckett and Duthuit’s correspondence, this is a work that abounds in strange, unexpected things.

Prescient words. Daniel has been promoting literary translations in other ways: He’s proud that the first invitation he issued at the American University was to Adam Zagajewski, who read from his latest collection and chatted with his students about his first encounter with Kafka. “An incredibly lucky bunch, they were: Tomas Venclova dropped by the next week and shared his own stories about discovering The Metamorphosis – in Polish!”

We’ll be writing more on the exceptional Cahiers series in posts-to-come.