Some thoughts on the beauty of this project

It’s strange to have written so little about The Adelphi Project in the past year. Having read 341 books or so (a few more now), and having spent so much time thinking about everything even slightly related, I still seem to forget to bring you along.

  • I regret that we don’t write the short novels of early 20th century Austria. These astonishing books that are really never about their author. I am going to try to talk you into doing this, soon. We need these, our world needs these, our cultures need these.
  • I am astonished by how much history my brain can absorb and re-weave together into new fabrics to fold beneath the story I am trying to tell.
  • I’ve discovered that what I see wants to be made into short movies, with archival footage, because the images of the past are beautiful. As are the sounds. More sound archives please!
  • I find I can tell stories of history the way I tell stories at Mythology Club, that there is a magic in knowing something so well that I can tell it in any direction and a thousand different ways, and they will all be as true as the next. My own personal creation of a European Mahābhārata.
  • I think I underestimated the importance of Adelphi Edizioni in the history of Italy. Yep, I am just going to leave this here for now. This is big and I need to get it right.
  • There is no good software to track the tangential thoughts and pathways that are part of the magic of this project. Network theory and history and a million other things are complex enough, but this model is stored in my head in five languages, and that’s just hard for the machines. And I can rotate it, like a chemical model, to see the view through a different lens, or language, or time period. If I could figure out how to do this with software it would be gorgeous. If you have ideas, please get in touch.
  • I want to translate the untranslated books, or the old translations that aren’t able to resonante now. I want to become a translator of both the books and the magic of the history that interweaves them. I want to tell you the stories that make me laugh or weep or wonder or love. The stories big and small. There are so many. Stop by for tea, and I will tell you a story.
  • Hand drawn maps and the chalk walls are an amazing tool for seeing simplicity in complexity. Especially as I sit in the morning with coffee and stare at the wall, in that slightly unfocused way, where I can see things that aren’t there, or weren’t until I only half looked.
  • Most of the really cool bits of this work to date are in notebooks and on pieces of paper and I really need to figure out how better to share them with you. I want you to fall in love, along with me. I want to make you movies and stories and books and pictures.
  • As I read, the project continues to shift, and it becomes more beautiful and more meaningful. Back to the point before this one, this is really important. How do I bring you with me? I am working on it. Funding is ever a problem. Great sorrow that this is. I need a de Medici.
  • My friends still love me, it seems, even though I talk about history and literature and mythology and languages and all that, and not a whole lot of other things. Thank you for that.

A few stand-out books from the past year

I started this project a year ago, end of October 2015, with just the thought that it would be interesting to read all the books in the Biblioteca Adelphi series in order, and since I read quite fast, it would be a few years of reading, and we’d see what we saw.

It became more than that, by the time I wrote about what I was doing, last August, and since then, again, it has taken on a completely new form and shape.  I am still reading the books in order, but a bit slower than I initially thought, as I am delving much deeper into history and context, and a different type of understanding. I’ve been writing about it, but haven’t nailed it, so it hasn’t posted up yet. Sometimes the writing explains itself to me, and the output is in the process. So, I keep writing.

The past year, Nov-Nov, now, in my world, Adelphi Time, perhaps I shall call it, I read 341 books. Probably the most I’ve ever read in a year, though maybe not by much. I usually average around 300. The difference this year was the level of direction and focus, and the sheer weight of non-fiction, which was probably about 80%.

There is so much I could say about so many, yet here is only a small bit on a few of the stand-outs:

  1. Youth Without God,  Ödön von Horváth, 1937: This book reminded me of an early 20thc European literature that was short, to the point, and not about the author. A teacher’s students begin to change with the sentiment of the times and it his story of how to be the adult in a world in which the children begin to believe in the Fatherland and they begin to mirror the behaviors of their fathers and their state. Reading this last fall, I can remember being struck that Americans needed to take a serious look at what was happening in the country and for what one would be responsible, within oneself and in the broader world.  Which made this book feel both important and forgotten.
  2. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape PainterCésar Aira, 2000: This book had nothing to do with the project, but it invoked Alexander von Humboldt on the back cover, and it was pretty and short, and seemed like a good Adelphi sorbet course. I still find it hard to explain what the magic is, and find myself just handing it to people, “read this,” and letting it go at that. The visible world is made more visible in his sweet prose, it is straightforward, and engaged with the intellectual and artistic worlds. This doesn’t necessarily explain what about it is different, but perhaps this difficulty to define the magic is exactly the indicator of what magic it is.
  3. Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman, completed in 1960 and ‘arrested’ by the KGB, finally seen in print in the 1980s, after Grossman’s death, Robert Chandler, trans: This book covers everything that goes with Stalin and Hitler, the small, familiar, day to day realities of a life in a totalitarian regime. Which says so little about how this book as well, grips you, and carts you off til the dawn hours, refusing to let go, as you ponder how you will make it through another day without sleep. I had read Grossman’s Everything Flows, which is also gorgeous, but the fraying of the edges are quite visible, as he died before he finished it, and so I picked up the 800+ pages of Life and Fate, to get a sense of what he was like when more polished, and that was that. (Oh also, I found really enjoy Robert Chandler’s translations from the Russian, and his commentaries.)
  4. Manuscript Found in the Saragossa, Jan Potocki, 1804: This book is the third on The Adelphi List and I found it so utterly agonizing to read the entire book that I am fascinated enough to include it on this list. It certainly stands out! It gives me a sense that I have entirely missed something, that it was not engrossing.  It has all manners of topics I am interested in and usually enjoy, the gothic, the inquisition, kabbala, adventure, danger, swords, seduction, but no. It took me three weeks of enforced agony (“you have to read 100 pages before dinner or you don’t get dinner”). It reminded me a bit of The Canterbury Tales, but with a whole lot more sex and things going awry, enough so, that I went back and re-read The Canterbury tales. If you read it and enjoy it, or not, let me know. My fascination is not dimming.
  5. Conversations in Sicily, Elio Vittorini, serial 1938-9, book 1941, Alane Salierno Mason, trans. 2000:  One of the stunning things about the beauty of this book is the language he is using, in the 1930s. It would be stunning if written now, the prose and structure, the language. Salierno Mason’s translation is gorgeous, one of the examples of art entwining two elements and creating more than is expected. The book itself is political and personal, written and published in the time of the censors, so the constraints force what is to be understood beneath the language and the langour of the Sicilian heat, but it is there, racing the narrow gauge tracks,  heading into the hills.
  6. The Story of my People, Edoardo Nesi, 2011, trans Antony Shugaar: This is a short and heart-breaking tale of the destruction of the textile industry in  northern industry. The post-war period, the ‘recovery’ that was meant to open Italy to a broader market tore down centuries of family business and village life, and Nesi’s tale breaks your heart with it. The personal bits are better than when he attempts to expand to a global view, but even with those, the rest is more than worth the read. And Mr Shugaar is one of my favorite translators, usually translating mysteries and police procedurals, which Italy does well.
  7. Wandering Jew: The Search for Joseph Roth, Dennis Marks, 2016: This book is physically gorgeous, the red cloth cover, the interior map to orient the reader, the texture of the pages; I can’t be certain I didn’t love the object so much that it colours the feel of the text. However, what Marks’ has done in this little book is much of what I am doing for all the authors on The Adelphi List which really catch my heart: tracing their worlds, their paths, the creation of their selves, and the mysteries that they present to the world, these mysteries which create meaning, in these artifacts they leave us. Marks’ long time fascination with Joseph Roth is pulled beautifully through the book, and if you have read Roth you can follow the untruths you knew he was telling into a deeper space, a contemplative space, with Mr. Marks. If you haven’t read Roth, read some of his first, perhaps The Radetzky March and The Hotel Years would give a quick sense of his extremes.
  8. Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900-1920: Art, Life & Culture, John E Bowlt, 2008: A gorgeous survey of the arts of this period, their culture and interconnections. Particularly gorgeous for me, as with all the history and culture I am reading for the project, I can follow all the tendrils out into the world. It is also just a gorgeous representation of artwork that I have never seen personally.

And three that I seem to toss in my bag and carry around a lot, and read and read and read, and I won’t say more than that.

  1. The Complete Essays 1973-1991, Luigi Ghirri
  2. Ardor, Roberto Calasso (trans. Dixon)
  3. What Color is the Sacred, Michael Taussig