Surprised and saddened to hear that one of my favourite filmmakers, Jonathan Demme, has passed away. Demme is perhaps best known for his superb adaptation of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a film that received all five major Academy Awards: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally). His other works include Philadelphia (1993), Married to the Mob (1988), and Stop Making Sense (1984), the genre-bending music documentary about Talking Heads. Demme was not just a supreme talent but a humanitarian.
Sad to hear that Robert M. Pirsig, the American writer and philosopher best known for his “novelistic autobiography” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, has died at the age of 88. Laurel Wamsley reports for NPR:
“Zen was published in 1974, after being rejected by 121 publishing houses. ‘The book is brilliant beyond belief,” wrote Morrow editor James Landis before publication. “It is probably a work of genius and will, I’ll wager, attain classic status.’
Indeed, the book quickly became a best-seller, and has proved enduring as a work of popular philosophy. A 1968 motorcycle trip across the West with his son Christopher was his inspiration.”
Pirsig was also the author of Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, published in 1991.
In a recent piece for The Times Literary Supplement, Ian Thomson has reviewed Penguin’s new three-volume collection of Primo Levi‘s Complete Works in English. Thomson praises the work of Ann Goldstein, the editor who oversaw the new translations (including one revision) over the course of fifteen years. He also takes time to acknowledge the power of Goldstein’s own translation, which bring “Levi’s formidably concise Italian into a transparent and bracingly spare English”.
Thomson, the author of Primo Levi: A Life, offers a number of fascinating insights into the character and sensibility of the late writer, chemist, and Holocaust survivor (including a note on Levi’s distaste for the term “Holocaust”). Readers of Franz Kafka will be interested to learn that Levi attempted to translate the Prague writer in the early 1980s, and found the experience deeply unsettling:
“In his essay ‘Translating Kafka’, included in Volume Three, Levi relates how his translation of The Trial in 1982 left him more terribly involved than he could have imagined. Originally he had hoped to improve his German, but found only bleakness in Josef K., who is arrested for a crime he probably did not commit. Levi wonders in the essay if he has any ‘affinity’ at all with Kafka. Yet the more he immersed himself in the work of ‘St Franz of Prague’, the more he saw uncomfortable parallels. Kafka lived an unremarkable life as an insurance clerk in Prague, rarely travelling beyond his home or that of his parents; Levi believed he was similarly constricted in his own life as the manager of a paint and varnish factory outside Turin. Moreover, Kafka’s three sisters had all perished in the Nazi gas chambers – victims of a grotesque bureaucratically structured system foreshadowed by their brother two decades earlier in The Trial. Kafka must have had ‘astounding clairvoyance’, Levi comments, to have looked so accurately into the future.”
Rebecca Mead has posted a profile of Margaret Atwood in The New Yorker, recognising the increasing relevance of her work to our political and ideological climate. When conversation moves onto the subject of writing and writing practices, Atwood reveals that she follows no specific method or routine:
“Unlike many writers, Atwood does not require a particular desk, arranged in a particular way, before she can work. ‘There’s a good and a bad side to that,’ she told me. ‘If I did have those things, then I would be able to put myself in that fetishistic situation, and the writing would flow into me, because of the magical objects. But I don’t have those, so that doesn’t happen.’ The good side is that she can write anywhere, and does so, prolifically. […] On one occasion, over tea, she showed me her left hand: it had writing on it. ‘When all else fails, you do have a surface you can write on,’ she said.”