Friday, January 27, 2023

Edith Bruck on surviving Auschwitz

This line alone says so much: 

"Chi ha Auschwitz come coinquilino devastatore dentro di sé, scrivendone e parlandone non lo partorirà mai."

It comes from Bruck's nonfictiom book, Signora Auschwitz, and it can be translated as follows:

"Whoever has Auschwitz inside of her like a rampaging tenant will never get rid of it by writing and talking about it."



Monday, January 23, 2023

Before and after Auschwitz (Liana Millu) Jan. 27, 2023

In writing a summary of the research I did during a short-term fellowship at the New York Public Library this year, I had to leave out some of the brilliant bits of information I uncovered because I think inhaled enough research for two or three or maybe even four summaries.

And yet they must be recorded and shared because they offer insight, in this case, into one of the greatest enigmas of the 20th century: the Holocaust. Thus I will share them here on my blog, which in fact began many years ago as my digital record of how I keep up my Italian so perhaps it's fitting.

I was at the Library to study the works of an Italian transnational writer whose work I've been translating. And as such, I consulted other works by women authors writing in Italian who survived the Holocaust.

One such writer was Liana Millu [1914-2005]. My old Bennington prof, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, translated her work Smoke Over Birkenau, which was one of the books I read at the Library.

Millu also published another book that hasn't been translated into English: Dopo il fumo: Sono il n. A 5384 di Auschwitz Birkenau [you can translate the title as: "After the Smoke: I Was Prisoner No. A-5384 in Auschwitz Birkenau"].

And in it she defines what it means to survive a concentration camp:

“Venne il funesto 1938 con le leggi razziali; poi la guerra, e con la guerra, uno spartiacque che da solo determina un “prima” e un “poi”: venne Auschwitz.”

Translation (or one way to translate this sentence):

"The grim year 1938 arrived with the racial laws; then the war, and with the war, a watershed moment that alone dictates a 'before' and an 'after': then came Auschwitz."

As I translate work by Italian transnational writer Edith Bruck (the purpose of my fellowship at the Library and the subject of my NEA fellowship in literature), I am galvanized despite the difficulty of placing work in translation in American journals or with American publishers. 

Because this testimony must be shared, disseminated and conserved for as long as humans roam the earth.

(I am posting this now for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, 2023)


Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Year in Writing and Failing (final edition)

The year went so badly for writing that I pre-empted this now-annual post with a precocious version over the summer, declaring that "while I am writing, I am failing."

My year-end taking-stock has been an enjoyable ritual for the past 7 years as I am typically able to log a few solid accomplishments each year. 

That's despite the fact that I am still a completely unknown writer (trust me) and an emerging literary translator (emerging at my tender age, by the way, not so great).  

(If you're curious, here's the post from 2019 and another one dedicated to literary translation)

But 2022 diverged so thoroughly from the outline of my writing goals for the year that in a fit of despair, I decided in July to declare 2022 'The Year In Writing and Failing' (OK, yes, only on my blog, which is read by about five people, but as you can see on the right, last year was 'The Year in Writing and Contemplation,' which sounds oh so much better than failure).

And it's because I'd decided that 2022 would be the year to write about the uncle I never knew.

What I didn’t know, of course, is that it would also be the year I struggled to write about the uncle I never knew -- struggled over and over and over. I submitted the idea dozens of times in myriad different versions, writing it and rewriting it.

Nicknamed Spike, my uncle died long before I was born -- before he could even become my uncle. Exactly 65 years ago this year.

And now at the end of what I’d dubbed the Year of Spike, I have not told his whole story -- but I did manage to tell a part of it. An 11th hour compromise that introduced my readers to him, and the hole his death left in my mother's life.

By which I mean: at the end of November, I published an essay in Boston Globe's Ideas section about the importance of recording our parents' stories, and it included excerpts from an interview I conducted with my mother about Spike. Here's the essay:

So much about Spike remains in my notebook and unpublished: the details of an archival article I found about the accident ("Youth, 18, Killed in Crash"), the comments sent via email by his octogenarian schoolmates from the now defunct Brooklyn Prep high school (that he was "a wild man," that he went to "smoochie smoochie parties," that he was defined by speed and fun), the list of high school activities (he ran track, was in the honor guard, had twice been elected Class Vice President, etc), the scholarship he may have received to the College of the Holy Cross (the college doesn't still have admission records from 1957 -- I checked).

Thursday, December 15, 2022

What I read in 2022 & What I plan to read in 2023

Reading is much more than a hobby for many of us, right? It's the equivalent of a runner's pre-marathon workouts. It's breathing (essential) and also eating chocolate (indulgent). Reading is such an important part of the work I do -- and the way I want to live my life -- that I have long kept lists of what I read each year.

So I suppose it's natural that I've now evolved into the kind of reader who plans what she's going to read each year.

Not that I always fulfill my reading campaign promises (you can see here what I planned to read in last year's reading roundup) but having a plan helps me map out the genres I want to immerse myself in.

I always know I will read books in Italian (mainly 20th century fiction by emerging or overlooked Italian women authors). I also know that I will do a fair amount of reading connected to my translation work, in particular this year books about the Holocaust since I have an NEA grant in literature to translate the short stories of Edith Bruck, a transnational Italian writer whose work is often inspired by her deportation at age 12 to Auschwitz. 

Lastly, I write memoir so I read memoir or works with aspects of memoir. And this year I read Bonnie Tsui's Why We Swim, and Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails by Tim Parks, as well as my first Emmanuel Carrere: Lives Other than My Own, plus I re-read Il sistema periodico (=The Periodic Table) by Primo Levi.

Reading is tied to obsessions, right? So I've become obsessed with dual-language editions but not actually in Italian and English (though I spent a lot of time reading English translations of Italian works, with the original in one hand and the translation in the other). Instead, I have come to love French-Italian dual language books (all because I bought one by Erri de Luca on a whim in Montreal a few years ago), and hunted them down in Florence this past summer by visiting the French bookstore in Piazza Ognissanti.

I also returned to an author who mesmerizes me: Patrick Modiano. (To be clear, I read his work in English, not French -- let there be no mistake!). New books of his that I read in 2022:

Invisible Ink

The Black Notebook

Dora Bruder

This year, I did tackle a whole new genre for me: Graphic novels. And that includes the best of the best: Maus (which, of course, is also connected to my reading on the Shoah).

You'll see below if I read the books I set out to read -- in some cases, yes, in others no. But the most important thing is that I set out to read "any book my father owned or recommended (including perhaps Alan Turing: The Enigma)" and I did just that (including the Turing biography). I wanted to immerse myself in the Michael F. Bonner book collection in the year following his death, and I DID.

Also, a note about the numbers: I read about 40 books, though that doesn't account totally for all of the books I re-read but only in part. I would like to read 50 books one year, which I believe is the annual total for my Uncle Larry (and for my father? Who knows how many books he put away each year?).

The year ahead could be daunting as I feel I need to get serious about reading works that will help me with my translation work. I also feel the press of classics I haven't gotten around to.

Without further ado, here is a partial log of what I read in 2022 ...

(If I list it, you can consider it an endorsement, in the event you're looking for suggestions)

What I actually read (English):

*Forty-one False Starts (essays) by Janet Malcolm (Nonfiction)
*Alan Turing: The Enigma (biography)
*Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails by Tim Parks
*Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui
*Occupation Journal by Jean Giono
*Lives Other than My Own by Emmanuel Carrere
*The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (Sacks)
*The Secret History by Donna Tartt (about Bennington!) (Fiction)
*The Torqued Man by Peter Mann (ditto)
*If You Kept A Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani and translated gloriously by Elizabeth Harris
*We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
*Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett
*Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (permission given to all to stop reading my blog right now to go read this book right now)
*Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness
("This anthology was born of a desire to gather works of poetic witness to the sufferings and struggles of the 20th century," reads the introduction, and the compendium includes this line of verse from Abba Kovner: "Sorrow already on his clothes/Like an eternal crease.")

What I actually read (Italian):

*Accabadora by Michele Murgia (Fiction)
*Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano (In Italian, yes, just because)
*Le otto montagne by Paolo Cognetti
*Come una rana d'inverno: Conversazioni con tre sopravvissute by Daniela Padoan (Nonfiction)
*Sono Francesco by Edith Bruck
*"Inverno in Abruzzo" ("Winter in Abruzzo") an essay by Natalia Ginzburg that I re-read every year or so if for no other reason than she writes, "...era quello il tempo migliore della mia vita e solo adesso che m'è sfuggito per sempre, solo adesso lo so." = It was the best time of my life and only now that it has gone from me forever, only now do I realize it.)

Graphic novels that I read (NEW CATEGORY!!!):

*The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman (file under essential reading for any human being on Earth)
*Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Dual-language books (NEW CATEGORY!!!):

*La plage/La Spiaggia by Cesare Pavese
*Placeres carnicos/Meaty Pleasures by Monica Lavin, translated by Dorothy Potter Snyder
(This category in 2022 also included quite a few Italian-English combos, such as La stanza del vescovo, Il sistema periodico and Lettera alla madre, as part of my on-the-job translational studies, but I am particularly interested in the French-Italian editions).

What I re-read (Italian):
*Se questo è un uomo, Levi
*Il sistema periodico, Levi
*Lettera alla madre by Edith Bruck
*A ciascuno il suo by Leonardo Sciascia (birthday treat; I sometimes re-read his novel, Il giorno della civetta, in which he wrote this inimitable thought: "Niente è la morte in confronto alla vergogna." You can translate it like this: Death is nothing compared to shame. And there you were thinking nothing could be worse than death, right?)

What I re-read (English):
*A Christmas Carol -- Dickens

Some of the books I'd planned to read but did not:

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold 
Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey
*The Ones Who Don't Say They Love You by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Books I began but did not finish:

*What You Have Heard Is True 
*The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain
*This Is Your Brain On Music

What I'd like to read in 2023:
*Horizontal Vertical: A City Called Mexico by Juan Villoro (began it last year but had to return it to the library before I was finished -- it's brilliant!)
*A book by new Nobel Laureate Annie Ernaux
*The Ones Who Don't Say They Love You by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
*Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
*Emily Wilson's translation of the Odyssey
*Books about Patrick Modiano (and probably by him, too)
*The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin
*Graphic novels of the caliber of Maus and Fun Home (SUGGESTIONS, PLEASE!)
*Se consideri le colpe by Andrea Bajani (in the original)
*The Friends of Eddie Coyle (file under 'books from my father's library')
*The bible in Italian (I've never read it in Italian, now have I? So I bought a copy this year)
*The Letters of Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante (Quando verrai saro’ quasi felice)
*Clint Smith's How the Word Is Passed

So what did you read this year? What can you recommend, especially in the genres of graphic novel, memoir and spooky post-war psychological thrillers (fiction or nonfiction)?

And what do you plan to read in 2023? So exciting! Another year of reading awaits us, my friends.


Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Dialogue I once overheard on the bus to Bennington town from campus:

“Down there in Texas when I was working for A&M, they asked me to make some pizzas," a passenger says to no one in particular. "I made some heart pizzas, some diamond pizzas. And they were like, ‘Whoa!’”

“Chili’s. They keep saying they’re hiring,” he continues, as we pass the fast food restaurant. “But then I put in an application and they say they have no jobs.”

“Fuck it -- I’ll keep putting applications in.”

“De-termination,” the bus driver says.

“What does that mean?”

“You keep at it. Perseverance.”


Monday, December 12, 2022

Spode Christmas cup time (sort of like pumpkin spice season?)

It's the little things, right? 

Always the little things that make life worth living.

So Spode Christmas coffee cups for my Italian coffee.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Why you should press 'record' on Thanksgiving (for the Boston Globe)

I began by recording Leo, and ended up recording my parents. 

And I've published an essay about doing both while also researching the Uncle I Never Knew for the Boston Globe.

I also managed to quote Jay Allison, the Moth Radio Hour impresario who says something so beautiful it might have been worth building an essay around:

"Sound gets inside of you -- it inhabits you. It can break your heart."

Friday, November 18, 2022

Why does it have to be so hard?

April 12, 2022

Lost diary entry

Last night after a day of working in the garden in Avon and admiring my father’s books and running on the beach with Caramel, I couldn’t resist any longer – I began to cry, saying to Mike, “Why does it have to be so hard?” But really I should have said, Why do we have to only appreciate everything when it's gone? Most interesting man I ever knew, my father, and yet I often shooed him away like he was some bothersome child. Like everyone had a father who was an encyclopedia of musical knowledge (among other things) and a master gardener and a minor comedian.


Monday, November 14, 2022

Writing about Didion for CNN and revisiting 'The Second Coming'

I spent yesterday writing a piece about the Joan Didion auction, and immersing myself once again in her seminal 1968 essay collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem, I couldn't help but think over the lines of verse from Yeats that inspired the title:

...what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

So I re-read the poem ("The Second Coming") and now it's all my head can conjure.

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Read the poem here courtesy of The Poetry Foundation.


(P.S. I sought it out first in the 1944 anthology of British and American verse that I cadged from my father decades ago but it wasn't there; what was there, once again: "Dulce et decorum est": 'the ecstasy of fumbling' and the bitter descriptions of how war distorts the very flesh of the men forced to wage it)

Sunday, November 13, 2022

On all of the Joan Didion items you might want to buy (for CNN)

Every now and again, I file stories for CNN (instead of simply editing other writers' stories), and every now and again I am able to combine my identities as a part-time journalist and a part-time essayist while reporting a story.

This is one of those occasions. I wrote about the auction of personal items that once belonged to seminal writer Joan Didion.

Of course, I've read Didion's work! I aim to chronicle my whole life through essays so I've absorbed many of hers, and was thrilled to quote a few of my favorites in this auction preview story.

A bit chagrined that I am already priced out of said auction -- which includes artwork, furnishings and unused writing notebooks (that last item, hmmm, yes I would happily take those if they weren't selling for $2,500!).

I began reading the Tracy Daugherty biography & revisiting other works -- I'm even thinking it's time to find my copy of Play It As It Lays, though I haven't seen it in years. Maybe decades.

Oh and I'll take recommendations for favorite Didion works I haven't read. Not that I need anything else to put on the TBR pile but...

Here's to pioneering women writers. Here's to women writers who are so successful and iconic that their belongings are coveted.