Tim Parks is Associate Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan. He is the author of many novels, translations, and works of nonfiction, the latest being Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books and the novel Painting Death.

 (January 2016)

A Long Way from Primo Levi

Drawing by Sonja Waldsteinová during her captivity in Terezín concentration camp; Waldsteinová, who survived, was sixteen when she was interned in March 1943

In my previous piece on translation, discussing Stuart Woolf’s translation of Levi’s first memoir, If This is a Man, I observed that, although mostly serviceable as a translation, the English is frequently a little stilted or simply odd where the original is fluent and standard. Here, I compare places, in Goldstein’s translation of Levi’s The Truce, where the English sounds distinctly odd, or where I felt that there was some interference from the Italian original, to Woolf’s translation of the same text. Since it seems unfair to criticize others without offering up something of one’s own to be shot down, I’ll give my version too.

In the Tumult of Translation

Francisco Goya: <em>Against Common Good</em>, 1810-1820

My review of Levi’s Complete Works regrettably did not name the translators or discuss their work. We owe Stuart Woolf our gratitude and admiration for having introduced If This Is a Man to the English-speaking world when it mattered in a highly serviceable, if undistinguished, translation. Unfortunate­ly, that is the version we still have, since the 2015 “revision” amounts to little more than a light edit.

The Road to Freedom?

Simon Critchley, Tilburg, the Netherlands, 2012
In Samuel Beckett’s novel Malone Dies the eponymous hero becomes obsessed with the idea of reciting a complete inventory of his worldly goods in the few moments preceding his death: a unique occasion, he feels, for producing “something suspiciously like a true statement at last.” Needless to say, despite Malone’s …

Pretty Violence

US Special Forces in Khost, Afghanistan; photograph published in <em>The New York Times</em> on August 30, 2002, and included in David Shields’s <em>War is Beautiful</em>, 2015

It’s hard to deny, as you leaf through the photos in David Shields’s War is Beautiful, that they do indeed very deliberately aestheticize their subjects, and hence anaesthetize the viewer; these are glamour pictures to be admired, rather than documentary images that give immediacy to violence and horror. “Connecticut-living-room trash,” is how Hickey sums it up. In short, we are a long, long way from the more sober black-and-white images that chronicled the Vietnam War in the same paper.

A Novel Kind of Conformity

Francisco Goya: <em>As Far back as his Grandfather</em>, 1799

Is it really possible to be free as a writer? Free from an immediate need for money, free from the need to be praised, free from the concern of how those close to you will respond to what you write, free from the political implications, free from your publisher’s eagerness for a book that looks like the last, or worse still, like whatever the latest fashion might be?

How Could You Like That Book?

Charles Joseph Travies: <em>La Critique</em>, 1842

I rarely spend much time wondering why others do not enjoy the books I like. On the other hand I do spend endless hours mulling over the mystery of what others like. Again and again the question arises: How can they? Could this be the function, then, or at least one important function of fiction: to make us aware of our differences? To have our contrasting positions emerge in response to these highly complex cultural artifacts?

Looking for Primo Levi

Tullio Pericoli: <em>Primo Levi</em>, 2014

I began to suspect that the small changes to the facts that Primo Levi makes in his memoirs are driven by a desire for freedom. His commitment to bearing witness to the truth of Auschwitz was becoming a kind of straitjacket, something people expected of him, imposed almost. He was also expected to behave in a proper fashion, receiving warnings from the Turin synagogue when it became known he was flirting with a woman journalist. Was writing about the imprisonment of Auschwitz becoming itself a kind of prison?

Clearing Up Ambiguity

Herbert List: <em>Spirit of Lycabettus XXI</em>, Mount Lycabettus, Athens, Greece, 1937

In every other sphere of expression ambiguity is a flaw. What is it about ambiguity that it is so highly praised in literature? Above all, how did it come to take on, at least for some, a cloak of liberal righteousness, to shift from being an aesthetic to a moral virtue, as if the text that wasn’t clear, that didn’t state its preferences clearly, were ethically superior to the text that does.

The Most Influential Invention

Abelardo Morell: <i>Two Open Books: Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens</i>, 2000
In his 1964 essay “Civilized Man,” lamenting the growing standardization of culture across the globe, the Romanian-French writer Emil Cioran first reassures readers he is not proposing protection for the world’s dwindling numbers of cannibals, but he then steps up to defend “illiterates” who are being “tyrannized,” he claims, “with …

The Key to Rereading

Quality Locks, Walsall, England, 2011

My first reading of The Waste Land, in a high-school literature class at age sixteen, was hardly a reading at all. It would take many lessons and cribs and further readings before suddenly Eliot’s approach could begin to awaken recognition and appreciation. The mind had conjured a lock that allowed the poem to function as a key; it fitted into my mind and something turned and swung open.

Reading Is Forgetting

A cartoon from <i>Punch</i> magazine, December 28, 1867

Vladimir Nabokov tells us, “One cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” Only on a third or fourth reading, he claims, do we start behaving toward a book as we would toward a painting, holding it all in the mind at once. He does not mention forgetting, but it’s clear that this is what he is largely talking about.

The Writer’s Shadow

Tullio Pericoli: <em>Antonio Tabucchi</em>, 1990

How is it possible that 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? 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.

Italy’s Seriously Playful Genius

Antonio Tabucchi, Lisbon, Portugal, November 2011
Sometime in the late 1980s, while living in Verona, Italy, I received a call from a publisher in London asking me if I would speak rather urgently to the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi (1943–2012). I had translated four of Tabucchi’s books. The publisher had invited the author to London for …

Stories We Can’t See

Cardinal Nicholas of Rouen, detail from Tommaso da Modena’s fresco cycle of forty Dominican scholars, 1352

What do we see when we read? First the page, of course, and the words printed on it. We do not really “see” characters such as Anna Karenina or Captain Ahab, or indeed the places described in novels, and insofar as we do, what we are seeing is something we have imagined, not what the author saw. Meantime, characters and places are given to us in discontinuous fragments—this kind of nose, that kind of hair, a scar, a limp, a grimace.

Too Many Books?

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: <em>The Librarian</em>, 1566.

In 1742, responding to what he already saw as a deafening chorus of incompetent poets, Alexander Pope spoke of “snows of paper” providing space for the ever more widespread publication of the “uncreating word.” Two and half centuries later, the Internet and the e-book have also given us access to hundreds of thousands of contemporary novels from this very space into which I am writing. Is it possible our experience of literature might be crucially influenced by the mere availability of the materials necessary for its production? If the Internet hadn’t opened up endless oceans of space on which to write, would we take our books more seriously?

Stifled by Success

We can admire a writer’s determination not to surf a wave of public acclaim, but all the same no one is isolated from the consequences of success. The work is clearly influenced by the attention it achieves. And since many admire a writer all the more for his intransigent refusal to cozy up to the reader, this hostile reaction actually feeds the public’s interest and esteem.

Revolutionary Italy: The Masterwork

Ippolito Nievo, circa 1860
It would be hard to think of a novel, certainly such a long and unfailingly lively novel, that has more instances of psychosomatic malaise, more accounts of attempted suicide, than Ippolito Nievo’s Risorgimento classic Confessions of an Italian (originally published in 1867 and only this year available unabridged in English).

In Search of Authenticity

Dave Eggers

When an author renounces some easy twist, some expected payoff, to take us into territory we didn’t expect but that nevertheless fits with the drift of the story, then the novel gains force and conviction. And when he or she does it again, telling quite a different story that is nevertheless driven by the same urgent tensions, then we are likely moving into the zone of authenticity.

The Limits of Satire

Drawings of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, proclaiming, Charlie Hebdo, May 2, 2007" />

Is the kind of satire that Charlie Hebdo has made its trademark—explicit, sometimes obscene images of religious figures (God the father, Son, and Holy Spirit sodomizing each other; Muhammad with a yellow star in his ass)—essentially different from mainstream satire? Is it crucial to Western culture that we be free to produce such images? Do they actually work as satire?

How I Read

Copperplate engraving of a machine designed for studying several books at once, 1588

We all read from different places, different backgrounds, and my meeting with Proust or Woolf, or Lydia Davis or J. M. Coetzee, will not be yours, nor should it be. On the other hand I do believe reading is an active skill, an art even, certainly not a question of passive absorption. Borges would often remark that he was first and foremost a professional reader, not a writer, and he meant the claim as a boast, not a confession; certainly his wonderful essays on other writers, the fruits of that reading, are at least as fine an achievement as his stories. So if reading is a skill, there must be techniques and tools that everyone can use or try, even if we use them differently.

A Weapon for Readers

Annotated pages from David Foster Wallace's copy of C. S. Lewis's <i>The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe</i>

We have too much respect for the printed word, too little awareness of the power words hold over us. We allow worlds to be conjured up for us with very little concern for the implications. We overlook glaring incongruities. Learning to read with pens in our hands would bring huge benefits.

Why Read New Books?

Virginia Woolf thought one of the pleasures of reading contemporary novels was that you have to decide for yourself if they are good. This uncertainty of ours, as we tackle, say, our first Eggers, our first Pamuk, our first Jelinek, our first Ferrante, or as we switch from an early Roth to a late Roth, is actually part of the pleasure.

Reality Fiction

It has long been a commonplace that fiction provides a way to talk about potentially embarrassing or even criminal personal experiences without bringing society’s censure on oneself. Put the other way round you could say that taboos and censorship encourage creativity, of a kind. But Taboo after taboo has fallen away. Homosexuality is no longer something to be hidden. Love relationships and marriages are no longer conceived of as fortresses of propriety. And everybody’s leaving traces of what they do or say on email and Twitter. What does all this mean for writers?

The Charms of Loneliness

Becoming a loner has its price. Within a family, a community, one has a position in relation to others and life has a visible drama, tragic or comic, that makes sense inside the dominant culture. To fall outside that network of relationships or deliberately withdraw from it is to be thrown entirely onto one’s own resources, to become prey to bizarre thought processes, dreams, hallucinations, perhaps to sink into a deep well of depression. Wells are a recurring image in Murakami’s work, holes one falls down, but also bubbling with strange psychic life.

The Books We Talk About (and Those We Don’t)

We tend to categorize novels as well or poorly written, popular or unpopular. Perhaps more usefully, we should distinguish those that make the conversation, and those that do not: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections became part of the national conversation; Lydia Davis’s short stories, for all their brilliance, did not.

Muriel Spark, Moral Hypnotist

Muriel Spark, London, 1965
Muriel Spark converted to Catholicism in 1954 and published her first novel to critical acclaim three years later. She was thirty-nine. She always insisted that the book could not have been written without her conversion. Catholicism had enabled her to write. It is hard to imagine another novelist, however devout, …

References, Please

In the age of the Internet, do we really need footnotes? For a book to be taken seriously, does it have to take us to the yellowing page of some crumbling edition in the depths of an austere library, if the material could equally well be found through a Google search? Has an element of fetishism perhaps crept into what was once a necessary academic practice?

Reading Upward

Arnold Eagle: <i>Boys Climbing the Fire Escape of a Deserted Building</i>, 1935

“Frankly, I don’t mind what they’re reading, Twilight, Harry Potter, whatever. So long as they are reading something there’s at least a chance that one day they’ll move on to something better.” How many times have we heard this opinion expressed? Needless to say the sentiment comes along with the regret that people are reading less and less these days and the notion of a hierarchy of writing with the likes of Joyce and Nabokov at the top and Fifty Shades of Grey at the bottom. Between the two it is assumed that there is a kind of neo-Platonic stairway, such that from the bottom one can pass by stages to the top, a sort of optimistic inversion of the lament that soft porn will lead you to hard and anyone smoking marijuana is irredeemably destined to descend through coke and crack to heroin. The user, that is, is always drawn to a more intense form of the same species of experience.