Monthly Archives: April 2017

A museum of mobile and grimacing images

In the first 11 years of his life, his family had been caught up with the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian-Polish war. As Milosz wrote,

“When I reached adolescence, I carried inside me a museum of mobile and grimacing images.”

Sudipta Datta  reviewing  Milosz: A Biography by  Andrzej Franaszek, Edited and translated by Aleksandra and Michael Parker,

(from here) 

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Putting real people into memoirs and novels

Germaine Greer to Primo Levi, discussing his book The Periodic Table on his experiences in the concentration camps.

. . .  Would Sandro recognize himself from the account you give of him in The Periodic Table? [Sandro Delmastro is the hero of a section of The Periodic Table. He was the first of the Piedmontese Resistance group to be killed in 1944.]

Primo Levi: No, he wouldn’t recognize himself. He’d have protested. As his nephews in fact did protest. They attacked me violently, for stupid reasons: because I wrote that his father was a capomastro and in fact he was an industrial surveyor. It’s always dangerous, transforming a person into a character. No matter how good the author’s intentions, no matter how much he tries not to distort anything, or tries to improve the character of the person, to make it more noble or more beautiful, the person is always disappointed. Because everyone has an image of himself which is different from the image that other people have of them. It’s as if I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a different face from the usual one. A human being is a ‘unique’, complicated object. When that object is reduced to a page, even by the best writers, it’s reduced to a skeleton. It took Flaubert five hundred pages to describe Emma Bovary. I think if Sandro had lived, and I’d made him read the portrait of himself, he would have burst out laughing. He would have thought it comical that he’d turned into a written page. He was a young man who so loathed all forms of rhetoric that he’d have been afraid to find himself described as a hero, a saint, a warrior. He’d have laughed and said something in dialect, ‘Balls!’ probably.

Now that I’m retired I go to a swimming pool and nearly every Tuesday I meet Sandro’s brother there. We greet each other, talk about the weather but he has always refused to talk to me about Sandro.

Germaine Greer: It is dreadful, isn’t it? A writer’s like a parasite whose excrement lasts longer than the thing it fed on.

Primo Levi: That’s true. But the writer’s not only a parasite, he’s also a creator. In the best cases, the book lasts longer than the man who wrote it and transmits a reality which isn’t the true one.

Germaine Greer: And no matter what he confesses to, the narrator is always invulnerable.

Primo Levi: Because he is in control. The author is omnipotent and can create the reality he wants.

(from here) 

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The need for love

The need for love is the central experience of our existence. However foolish it may seem, we feel truly alive only when we have an arrow in our side and that we drag around night and day, everywhere we go. The need for love sweeps away every other need and, on the other hand, motivates all our actions. Read Book 4 of the Aeneid. The construction of Carthage stops when Dido falls in love. . . .

Individuals and cities without love are a danger to themselves and others.

Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia p72

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What is a quote?

“What is a quote? A quote (cognate with quota) is a cut, a section, a slice of someone’s orange. You suck the slice, toss the rind, skate away.”

Anne Carson, Decreation

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The power of what can’t be spoken

Poets, and maybe most writers, struggle to relay experiences or insights that may be fundamentally unspeakable, beyond the reach of language. . . .  Ben Lerner argues poems are “always a record of failure,” tangible proof of the great chasm between what the human spirit wants to convey and what it is able to. This is also a plausible explanation for the intense reward that comes with quoting poetry, snapping it off into its best bits for a unit that can stand alone or else be embedded like a strut inside one’s own writing.

To pull the most evocative phrases from a piece also creates the illusion that the whole is as seamlessly powerful as that isolated part, a hammer-strike of sustained perfection. As Lerner puts it, “lines of poetry quoted in prose preserve the glimmer of the unreal […] the echo of poetic possibility,” but this phenomenon is not unique to poems. Something similar is at work when friends text each other pictures of paragraphs from a novel, or when a blogger quotes a passage of an essay on tumblr. I keep an ever-expanding document of the lines I’m most struck by in whatever I’m reading at the moment. This tendency of mine is probably the reason I’m still so annoyed with Richard Sikken’s complaint about readers who lift phrases: “I crafted poems — units made out of lines placed in a specific order — and the poems have disappeared. My loveseats have been broken into chairs, into matchsticks.”

Charlotte Shane, Anne Carson’s Splintered Brilliance: On the pleasures of poetry that deliberately defies our comprehension, 

(from here) 

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The power of what we forbid ourselves from telling

Often that which we are unable to tell ourselves coincides with that which we do not want to tell, and if a book offers us a portrait of those things, we feel annoyed, or resentful, because they are things we all know, but reading about them disturbs us. However, the opposite also happens. We are thrilled when fragments of reality become utterable.

Elena Ferrante (from here) 

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The most difficult things to tell

The writer  pushes ‘the protagonist much farther than I thought I myself, writing, could bear.

Leda says:” The most difficult things to tell are those which we ourselves can’t understand.”

It’s the motto — can I call it that?— which is at the root of all my books.

Writing should always take the most difficult path. The narrating “I” in my stories is never a voice giving a monologue; she is writing — that is, struggling to organize in a text what she knows but doesn’t have clear in her mind.’

Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia: A  Writer’s Journey, p 257

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Stepping through the door into the tree

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Dimitri tells me his dream. “I’m on a beach, dressed in armor, beautiful metal, but very cumbersome. A powerful voice orders me to go into the water. I am extremely upset, because with this armor, I will certainly drown. At the same time, I cannot avoid the obligation to go into the sea. So I go forward in great anxiety, knowing that the armor will stop me from swimming. I wade into the sea until I’m almost submerged. Just when I feel completely overwhelmed with panic, the armor suddenly opens, and I find I am swimming, free and happy.”

[This is the response to the dream from the psychologist who has been sitting with him  in his moments of dying]

Dimitr’s dream tells him of a terror that will give way of its own accord as soon as he agrees to commit himself to the waves. Coming into the palliative care unit could be experienced as entering a sea in which one knows one will drown. And doesn’t the dream also announce a kind of miracle: being freed from the armor, or rather, the social face he has forged for himself like an iron mask? The sea of death transforms itself into the sea of life; the dream says in living his death, he would also experience liberation and happiness.

Marie de Hennezel: How The Dying Teach us to Live, Trans Carol Brown Janeway

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Thinking but not saying

How quiet you are, my aunt said.


It was true —

sounds weren’t coming out of my mouth. And yet

they were in my head, expressed, possibly,

as something less exact, thought perhaps,

though at the time they still seemed like sounds to me.

Something was there where there had been nothing.

Or should I say, nothing was there

but it had been defiled by questions —

Louise Gluck, Faithful and Virtuous Night, p 13

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