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{Thursday}

 
THE BIG READ (AND THE EVEN BIGGER UNREAD)

Now that even the merest thought of listing various books has crossed my mind... a wind of confusion starts up, and two dozen different LIST definitions suggest themselves. Guilty secrets, true confessions. The impressive and weighty sounding books you started but never got further than 11 pages into. The slutty looking books you ended up devouring and being v. surprised by. Micro politics. Macro politics. Sleaze (politics). Sleaze (music). Sleaze (literary biogaphy). Beautiful objects ... Alchemical rarity re-issues ...

I think I'll just go completely ad hoc, drift along the bookpiles, and see what themes and clusters and resonances and surprises arise ...

If I had to pick just one book, in terms of a book which ticked ALL boxes, which completely involved me from start to finish; and which, moreover, involved me on just about every level (selfless interest in history; self-obssessed echo-checking with emotional disaster area of own life; constant tug on heartstrings and head strings and political radar; way back in to re-reading someone's work anew; picture of one specific closed little society + pictures of various wider circles of societal set-up, hell and reconstruction; a book which both depressed beyond measure, but didnt leave you flattened; a book which brought the complexity of analysis/fiction to bear on the debased form of biography; a book about a man often perceived to be a saint, but which was as far from hagiography as it's possible to imagine - and, crucailly, was a work of imagination as much as research ...) then it would have to be:

THE DOUBLE BOND PRIMO LEVI A Biography
by Carole Angier

a book which, strictly speaking, came out in 2002; but this was the 2003 Penguin paperback issue; and a book which, when it did come out, polarised critics and Levi watchers/readers.

I was already a huge fan of Angier's JEAN RHYS biography, and I didn't have much investment in Levi as a figure per se; so I think I probably started reading with something of a (double) advantage. The book dealt with epic themes while always staying at a fiercely intimate level. I can see why some readers might find Angier's imaginative, surpa empathetic, 'deep listening' approach an irritation; but there is also the thought that this is at least partly because some Keepers of the Levi flame have decided in advance (and on no one's say so) that Levi was a kind of modern day secular saint. (Something, coincidentally, which even a cursory reading of his work would seem to incriminate as completely wrong-headed. He was ALL too aware of his own flaws; which is just what makes him both so readable, and sharpens his moral authority.)

In a (secondary) way, the Levi biography also affected my other reading. It made me far more sympathetic to simpler, more human books - WHICH I ACTUALLY READ (ALL THE WAY THROUGH) - as opposed to weighty theoretical tomes which looked impressive but left me huffy and sludge brained and migrainous after 13 long drawn out amorphous learning-on-sleeve pages. A case in point is THE HOLOCAUST: Theoretical Readings Edited by Neil Levi & Michael Rothberg [Edinburgh University Press]. Even given the fact that this is probably intended as an introductory 'academic' reader, for Modern History/Ethics courses, or whatever (as opposed to s/t you sit down and read from cover to cover) it seemed to me to end up giving us the WORST of all possible theoretical worlds. The selection is, in its own way, exemplary: the expected heavyweights like Blanchot and Derrida are here, as well as more experiental accounts (Primo Levi indeed, and Jean Amery); Levinas, Arendt, Agamben, Adorno, Theweleit ... et (exemplary) alia.

All these authors are represented with individual essays, or excerpts, which have been edited down to fit, though. This seems deeply unsatisfactory - reducing already difficult texts down to quasi soundbyte level doesnt make them easier to comprehend; if anything it makes them more opaque. Very hard to get a foothold ... and it just makes you desperate to get (e.g.) Arendt and Theweleit in their original, unedited form, where you can follow, unconstrained, the unique working out of a (moral) intelligence through all its bends and flexes and tight rope spins.
It seems to me that this is a time when we need this more than ever: NOT columnists with 200 word trouble stirring agendas, whose 'take' on complex issues often doesnt go much further than sniping at other rival columnists ... but re-learning what it is to THINK, in the realm of the unthinkable, to work through, to TAKE THE TIME to truly think, and re think anew.

In which terms, coincidentally, a very readable 'theoretical' book, a book which fell very pleasingly between the experiential narrative of Levi, and the world of Foucault/Benjamin/+, was:

The Origins of Nazi Violence,
by ENZO TRAVERSO
[The New Press, £14.95]

Five sections, 20 odd essay-ish meditations-on-a-theme, and the firt time in years that I genuinely felt someone had opened my intellectual eyes to NEW ways of thinking about Nazism/the Holocaust. And while it's not an 'easy' read [whatever that is], Traverso's cool, cutting prose seemed to me purest Gift after what I have to admit have been often frustrating years slogging through the obtuse likes of Blanchot and others. Like Foucault/Benjamin, Traverso considers the social constellation[s] underlying a historical shift:he repeatedly shows that things lazy commentators/historians have often labelled 'unprecedented' about the Nazi project, were anything but. And this was a double bevelled cop-out: it was often a way of forgetting precedents - especially in the area of racism and genocide - that the likes of England, Belgium, France and Russia had themselves exhibited and pursued. (And - oh god - you just KNOW that I'm itching to say something here about a dubiously UN "elected" oil gangster GD Bush lecturing the world on democracy, and condemning terrorism while condoning cluster bombs (and not even having the guts to be straight about it) ... don't you? Well, I'm not going to. That would be unforGIVably cheap.)

ALSO

Best Re-issue

THE OCCULT ROOTS OF NAZISM
Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke
[Tauris Parke Paperback]
70s Panther Paperback sounding title, but astounding work of scholarship inside. BIG revelation if you've never come across this stuff before. I read it in the late 80s, then lost or lent my copy out and have grieved for it ever since. Thankyou Tauris Parke ... [NB: I think this is ACTUALLY out January 2004.]

{Received but Not Yet Read}

Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and The Logic of Destruction
Gotz Aly and Susanne Heim
[Phoenix Paperback]

{TO BE CONTD ...


posted by Ian 12/18/2003 11:06:00 AM

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