Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wish list

If someone would like to translate these books for me as a personal favor I'd be really quite grateful. Thanks.

Ivan Klíma, My Mad Century, Vols. I and II. Edice Paměť, Prague.

Update: An English translation of My Crazy Century will be published by Grove Press in November 2013.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Notes for a Commonplace Book (7)

Tony Judt:

We often find ourselves asserting or assuming that the distinctive feature of modernity is the individual: the unreducible subject, the freestanding person, the unbound self, the unbeholden citizen. This modern individual is commonly and favorably contrasted with the dependent, deferential, unfree subject of the pre-modern world. There is something in this version of things, of course; just as there is something in the accompanying idea that modernity is also a story of the modern state, with its assets, its capacities, and its ambitions. But taken all in all, it is, nevertheless, a mistake—and a dangerous mistake. The truly distinctive feature of modern life—the one with which we lose touch at our peril—is neither the unattached individual nor the unconstrained state. It is what comes in between them: society. More precisely civil—or (as the nineteenth century had it) bourgeois—society.

The railways were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord (and, in recent times, common expenditure), and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike. This is something the market cannot accomplish—except, on its own account of itself, by happy inadvertence. Railways were not always environmentally sensitive—though in overall pollution costs it is not clear that the steam engine did more harm than its internally combusted competitor—but they were and had to be socially responsive. That is one reason why they were not very profitable.

If we lose the railways we shall not just have lost a valuable practical asset whose replacement or recovery would be intolerably expensive. We shall have acknowledged that we have forgotten how to live collectively. If we throw away the railway stations and the lines leading to them—as we began to do in the 1950s and 1960s—we shall be throwing away our memory of how to live the confident civic life. It is not by chance that Margaret Thatcher—who famously declared that “there is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”—made a point of never traveling by train. If we cannot spend our collective resources on trains and travel contentedly in them it is not because we have joined gated communities and need nothing but private cars to move between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who don’t know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss would far transcend the demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life.

From "Bring Back the Rails!," in The New York Review of Books

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Out with the Old (2010)

The second annual retrospective of the year's postings at this address.

The Frogs' Discovery

When the Money Was Gone

The Assault of the Roly-Rogues

Up in the Downs

Written & Printed And Bound

Corinne West & Kelly Joe Phelps: "Amelia"

Found in translation (Mark Strand)

Bad Guys

Conrad at Anchor

Things Gone & Things Still Here


Cortázar: All Fires the Fire

From a Green World (Kayano Shigeru)


Of empires and dreams


Looking back, I wish I had been able to do more with ephemera and manuscript materials this year, or at least with printed books that aren't readily obtainable, but I seem to have picked all the low-hanging fruit in that regard and must venture further afield (i.e., out of the house). There is, of course, a virtually inexhaustible amount of material to be mined on the web now, some of which could benefit from fresh attention and presentation, but the fact is that there are people out there who have more time and energy to devote to it, and who are already doing a better job of sifting it than I could do.

As to the tales, sketches, and other original writing in which I've indulged in the last twelve months, I'm in general happier with the shorter pieces than the longer, but I'm content to set the latter down as experiments that, while perhaps not ultimately successful, served their purpose at the time and at least provided me some amusement while I was writing them.

If all goes according to plan I'll be taking a breather for the rest of December and will be back, hopefully with fresh inspiration, after the first of the year.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Boatmen of Venice (The Passion)

Jeanette Winterson:
Rumour has it that the inhabitants of this city walk on water. That, more bizarre still, their feet are webbed. Not all feet, but the feet of the boatmen whose trade is hereditary.

This is the legend.

When a boatman’s wife finds herself pregnant she waits until the moon is full and the night empty of idlers. Then she takes her husband’s boat and rows to a terrible island where the dead are buried. She leaves her boat with rosemary in the bows so that the limbless ones cannot return with her and hurries to the grave of the most recently dead in her family. She has brought her offerings: a flask of wine, a lock of hair from her husband and a silver coin. She must leave the offerings on the grave and beg for a clean heart if her child be a girl and boatman’s feet if her child be a boy. There is no time to lose. She must be home before dawn and the boat must be left for a day and a night covered in salt. In this way, the boatmen keep their secrets and their trade. No newcomer can compete. And no boatman will take off his boots, no matter how you bribe him. I have seen tourists throw diamonds to the fish, but I have never seen a boatman take off his boots.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


Katazome (stencil-dyed) calendar page by Keisuke Serizawa (1895-1984). (Scanned from a commercially issued reproduction.)