I am staying at the Hotel BildungsZentrum in Basel, Switzerland. It is thirty-four degrees centigrade. I’m sustaining myself with delicious fresh fruit and cold green tea. Having finished my work late this morning I picked up Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and it would appear that Levin is beginning his transformation. (more…)
I have a new routine. Since finishing my duties at the university where I work, I have been dividing my time between applying for full-time academic posts and working on a manuscript for Ibidem’s Samuel Beckett in Company series.
I rise early and prepare myself a light breakfast with a cup of green tea. I check the news headlines with a sense of stoic resignation. And then I spend some time reading and writing. After finishing Stephen King‘s The Stand a week or two ago I moved on to William Peter Blatty‘s notorious novel, The Exorcist, and then found myself completing Georges Bernanos‘ excellent Diary of a Country Priest.
Yesterday morning, I restlessly searched among my books for another novel to read. Something that might pique my interest. As someone with a tendency to collect books, there is never a shortage of titles to choose from. Among the contenders were Émile Zola‘s Germinal, and both of Gustave Flaubert‘s novels, Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education. But I stopped on Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina. I am an avid reader of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but have never read Anna Karenina before. Somewhat ridiculously, I own two translations of the novel: the recent Pevear and Volokhonsky edition that drew critical attention and acclaim, and a 1912 translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude. According to my Everyman’s Library edition, the latter were a Quaker couple that befriended Tolstoy while living in Russia, and helped him organise the Doukhobor migration to Canada in 1893. I also find in their short biography that they “share[d] many of Tolstoy’s views on spiritual life, moral obligation, and passive resistance to violence”. I picked up the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation and began reading. (more…)
What motivated you to write the book?
Probably it was an early childhood and adolescent awareness of our mortal condition, of human vulnerability in general: the death in infancy of my younger sister (I was seven years old), the assault on human life and dignity by totalitarian regimes that forced families like mine into multiple exiles, and later the experience of war and the Nazi occupation of France, our escape to the United States on an overcrowded freighter zigzagging for six weeks across the Atlantic to elude German U-boats, my joining the American army and surviving the Omaha Beach landing and the Battle of the Bulge — perhaps above all the growing belief that all valuable human achievements, especially in literature and the arts, were a defiance of death.
Your subtitle traces a history between Leo Tolstoy and Primo Levi. What is significant about these two writers?
It is a long trajectory between Tolstoy and Primo Levi. The distance and the contrast tell a story. Whereas Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych is concerned with an exemplary individual, his morally and spiritually empty life, and his ultimate salvational epiphany at the hour of death, Primo Levi by contrast is dealing with a collective moral and political context in which private salvation is no longer thinkable. The trajectory as well as the authors along the way tell the story of the 20th century as that of a growing awareness of a collective tragedy. (more…)