The Exemplary Sentence: Primo Levi

At a friend’s suggestion, I have been reading Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. I rather skimmed through the early chapters about his relatives, but once I got to the chapter on Hydrogen, I was hooked.

This is not a book about his time in Auschwitz, but about his early years and the years after the war, about life, Italy, the elements and their role in his life. He is a terrific storyteller and a lucid writer, and I’ll quote a few paragraphs here. These are completely separate but should give yo a feel for his writing:

“In January 1941 the fate of Europe and the world seemed to be sealed. Only the deluded could still think that Germany would not win…And yet, if we wanted to live, if we wished in some way to take advantage of the youth coursing through or veins, there was no other resource than self-imposed blindness… “we did not notice,” we pushed all dangers into the limbo of things not perceived or immediately forgotten… Our ignorance allowed us to live, as when you are in the mountains and your rope is frayed and about to break, but you don’t know it and feel safe.”

I often feel like we are holding that same frayed rope now. Continue reading “The Exemplary Sentence: Primo Levi”

The exemplary sentence

I’m thinking I should call this “the exemplary paragraph” as it’s usually more than one sentence that catches my eye… but of course the paragraph is made up of sentences. In this case from three books I read recently.

But the first is just a sentence, from Trajectory by Richard Russo, a recent book of his short stories. “Because people cling to folly as if it were their most prized possession, defending it, sometimes with violence, against the possibility of wisdom.”

The second is a paragraph from a book by a Jewish woman who masqueraded as a gentile and married a Nazi to get through the war. She is talking with an acquaintance who is telling her about her life.

” ‘Let me tell you we had some hard times when I was a kid. For twelve years Papa had no steady job. We lived on charity mostly. Then, when our dear Führer came to power, things got much better. Just about all the young people we knew joined the Hitler Youth. When I was fifteen I went to a Nazi Party banquet, and they served rolls with butter.’ Is that the reason? I wondered. Is that why they averted their eyes, made themselves blind? For the butter?” from The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn Beer. Continue reading “The exemplary sentence”

The exemplary sentence

I just finished Clever Girl, by Tessa Hadley.  I enjoyed this story of a woman in England, growing from child to teenager to mother to older woman largely because of the writing. Here are a couple of examples. First a description of Manchester that could be any 20th Century first world city:

“…a broad vista opened up across a stretch of wasteland overgrown with scrubby bushes and rugged with the flooring of vanished factories, the humped remains of brick outbuildings. Cranes stood up in the distance against a sky with a thin blue sheen like liquid metal, striated with pale cloud; puddles of water on the ground reflected the sky’s light as silver. The beauty of it took me by surprise. Dark skeins of birds detached themselves, shrilling from the bushes and ruined buildings while I stood watching.” Continue reading “The exemplary sentence”

More Baldwin: Whoever debases others is debasing himself

I was so impressed by The Fire Next Time, which I finished today, that I have to quote a few more passages.

This after Baldwin’s meeting with Elijah Muhammad, talking in the car to a young follower about the idea of black nation separating from the United States:

“On what, then, will the economy of this separate nation be based? The boy gave me a rather strange look. I said hurriedly, ‘I’m not saying it can’t be done–I just want to know how it is to be done.’ I was thinking, In order for this to happen, your entire frame of reference will have to change, and you will be forced to surrender many things that you now scarcely know you have. I didn’t feel that the things I had in mind, such as the pseudo-elegant heap of tin in which we were riding, had any very great value. But life would be very different without them, and I wondered if he had though of this.”

Later:

“If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch. This is precisely what the Nazis attempted. Their only originality lay in the means they used. It is scarcely worthwhile to attempt remembering ow many times the sun has looked down on the slaughter of the innocents. I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know–we see it around us every day–the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement, but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff–and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition… Continue reading “More Baldwin: Whoever debases others is debasing himself”

Still relevant

I was inspired by the movie “I Am Not Your Negro” to reread a bit of James Baldwin. I find his essays every bit as lucid and apposite as I did in the late 60’s. Here’s a sample, in which he is talking about his adolescence:

“I certainly could not discover any principled reason for not becoming a criminal, and it is not my poor, God-fearing parents who are to be indicted for the lack, but this society. I was icily determined–more determined, really, than I then knew–never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me, before I would accept my “place” in this republic. I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was, and limit me that way, and polish me off that way. And yet, of course, at the same time, I was being spat on and defined and described and limited, and could have been polished off with no effort whatever… Continue reading “Still relevant”

An exemplary sentence

I just finished The Story of a Brief Marriage, by Anuk Arudpragasam. I can’t say I read the whole book–a painful though extraordinary tour de force that covers one day through the eyes and voice of a young man in a refugee camp in an unnamed country. I had to skim certain parts, despite the excellent writing.

This paragraph seems so true to me, so beautifully thought through!

“Conversation was a fragile thing after all, like a plant that grows only in rich, warm, nourishing soil. Just as the cells of the human body couldn’t survive above and below certain temperatures, just as human eyes couldn’t see above and below certain wavelengths of radiation, and human ears couldn’t hear above and below certain thresholds of frequency, perhaps there existed only a narrow range of conditions under which human conversation could flourish. It wasn’t that people in the camps didn’t want to talk, for human beings would always talk, if they had the opportunity. Continue reading “An exemplary sentence”

The exemplary sentence

I’ve been reading Tim Gautreaux’s work for years now, and recently finished his latest book, Signals: New and Selected Stories. His books deal with the everyday travails of the lower or middle class. This excerpt is from a story about a junk yard operator whose life if altered by finding a stunning, jeweled demonstration sewing machine with a needle with the engraved message: ART STITCHES ALL. You can read that story here. This paragraph occurs before the transformation: Continue reading “The exemplary sentence”

from The Pigeon Tunnel

Larry is reading The Pigeon Tunnel, a collection of memories by John le Carre. Over breakfast yesterday he read this excerpt to me about the transition from the Soviet Union to Russia, which made me laugh out loud:

…in 1993, criminalized capitalism had seized hold of the failed state like a frenzy and turned it into the Wild East. I was keen to take a look at that new, windy Russia, too. It therefore happened that my two trips straddled the greatest social upheaval in Russian history since the Bolshevik Revolution. And uniquely–if you set aside a coup or two, a few thousand victims of contract killings, gang shootouts, political assassinations, extortion and torture–the transition was, by Russian standard, bloodless.

Clive James, master of the exemplary sentence

Sentence DiagramIt’s always a thrill when someone I’ve just discovered, and therefore think must be obscure, turns out to be well known. This happened recently with Clive James, a poet, critic, and essayist whose latest book on DVD collections was recently reviewed in the NY Times.

I’ve been enjoying his Poetry Notebook 2006-2014. It’s full of lines like this in any essay about the strange idea that art should be somehow completely spontaneous, without any rigorous training in the craft of it:

“Even though nobody can expect to master, without years of practice, a performing art such as playing the piano, there will still be the wish that music itself might be composed by an ignoramous.”

An exemplary sentence

Sentence DiagramHow have I missed Dennis Lehane until now? I just read (according to the book jacket) his 12th book, The Drop. It’s a stunner.

It’s hard to know which sentences to quote. Here are a few. Chovka is a Chechen mob Boss. Bob is a quiet man, an underling:

“Chovka nodded. He was concentrating on his phone, texting away like a sixteen-year-old girl during school lunch. When he finished texting, he put the phone away and stared at Bob for a very long time. If Bob had to guess, he’d say the silence went on for thee minutes, maybe four. Felt like two days. Not a soul moving in that bar, not a sound but that of six men breathing. Chovka stared into Bob’s eyes and then past his eyes and over his heart and through his blood. Continue reading “An exemplary sentence”

A Meal in Winter

winter

This extraordinary little book is told as if a memoir, in very straightforward, matter-or-fact prose, which makes it all the more chilling. It is translated from the French by Sam Taylor. The basic plot concerns three German soldiers who no longer want to shoot Jews. They go to the commander, who is “a reservist like we were”:

“We explained to him that we would rather do the hunting than the shootings. We told him we didn’t like the shootings: that doing it made us feel bad at the time and gave us bad dreams at night. When we woke in the morning, we felt down as soon as we started thinking about it…” Continue reading “A Meal in Winter”

Morning reading

I set aside David Lipsky’s review of Nabokov’s Letters to Vera in Harper’s to read this morning, and was rewarded by a truly elegant piece of work.  Lipsky doesn’t just review the letters, he provides a succinct and literate overview of Nabokov’s life, his work, his long marriage. “No marriage of a major twentieth-century writer lasted longer,” he quotes from Brian Boyd’s introduction. He manages to cull and quote gems from the 864 pages and relate them to the body of Nabokov’s fiction.

lolita1He notes the shocking intimacy of Nabokov’s work–“The hero takes a sleepy, eye-watering yawn–and the world ‘shivered and dissolved in the prism of his tears.’ …Nabokov’s people are constantly yawning scrunching, nose wiping, bug-bite scratching.”

He’s especially funny about the popular “hurricane” of Lolita, published thirty years into Nabokov’s literary career: “There were Lolita dolls, Lolita cartoons (arriving Martian: ‘Take me to your Lolita’), a Kubrick movie, a San Francisco drive-in serving Lolitaburgers.” And Eichmann–instrumental in the murder of (among others, Nabokov’s brother), who finds the book “unwholesome.”

veraThe essay was especially moving to me having visited the Nabokov museum in St. Petersburg–all those many title pages with hand-drawn butterflies dedicated to Vera. Continue reading “Morning reading”