What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

September 28, 2015 Issue

I’m pleased to see James Wood in the magazine this week. He’s been absent for the last four months, and I’ve missed him. His reviews are, for me, an essential part of The New Yorker. His excellent "The Art of Witness," in this week’s issue, considers The Complete Works of Primo Levi. The piece is noteworthy for at least three reasons: (1) Wood’s recurring use of “moral”; (2) the surprisingly high value he places on “story”; (3) his ongoing preoccupation with death. I can’t recall another Wood review that uses “moral” as often as this piece does. Wood usually takes a formalist approach to criticism. It’s one of the reasons I admire his work. But in “The Art of Witness” he repeatedly invokes morality: Levi’s friend, Sandro Delmastro, is described as being “physically and morally strong”; the clarity of poet and concentration-camp survivor, Dan Pagis, is “ontological and moral”; Levi’s storytelling is “a kind of ethics, when the writer is constantly registering the moral (which is to say, in this case, the immoral) novelty of the details he encounters”; “Levi seems to join us in our incomprehension, which is both a narrative astonishment and a moral astonishment”; “You can feel this emphasis on moral resistance in every sentence Levi wrote”; “This is a classical prose, the possession of a civilized man who never expected that his humane irony would have to battle with its moral opposite”; “That emphasis on resistance makes its sequel, The Truce, not merely funny but joyous: the camps are no more, the Germans have been vanquished, and gentler life, like a moral sun, is returning”; “The philosopher Berel Lang, in one of the best recent inquiries into Levi’s work, argues that this moral optimism makes him a singular figure”; “And he does not exempt himself from this moral mottling: on the one hand, he firmly asserts his innocence, but, on the other, he feels guilty to have survived.” Has Wood exchanged formalism for moralism? No, I don’t think so. He’s describing a writing that is distinctly moral in nature. He says, “You can feel this emphasis on moral resistance in every sentence Levi wrote.” His frequent use of “moral” is a way of conveying this feeling.

Another interesting aspect of “The Art of Witness” is Wood’s praise of Levi’s storytelling. He says, “Many of these horrifying facts can be found in testimony by other witnesses. What is different about Levi’s work is bound up with his uncommon ability to tell a story. It is striking how much writing by survivors does not quite tell a story….” And later in the piece, he observes, “But If This Is a Man and The Truce are powerful because they do not disdain story. They unfold their material, bolt by bolt.” There was a time not long ago when Wood praised “antinarrative” – the “reaching for what cannot be disclosed in narrative” (see his great "Life's White Machine: Ben Lerner," included in his 2012 collection The Fun Stuff). But lately, he seems to have developed a taste for old-fashioned storytelling – stories that “unfold their material, bolt by bolt.” In his recent "All Her Children" (The New Yorker, May 25, 2015), he says of Anne Enright’s The Green Road, “This is storytelling, with the blood-pulse of lived gossip….” And in “Using Everything” (included in his The Nearest Thing to Life), he says, “The good critic has an awareness that criticism means, in part, telling a story about the story you are reading.” Wood has made a strong case for the merits of antinarrative, and he’s made a strong case for storytelling. Lately, he seems to favor the latter.

Like his hero W. G. Sebald, Wood is death-haunted. “Life is bounded by death,” he says in "Why?" (included in The Nearest Thing to Life). “Life is death-in-waiting.” “Toward becoming these old things, these old headstones in mud, we are all traveling,” he says in “Austerlitz” (The Fun Stuff). In “The Art of Witness,” he writes,

Repeatedly, Levi tolls his bell of departure: these vivid human beings existed, and then they were gone. But, above all, they existed. Sandro, in “The Periodic Table” (“nothing of him remained”); Alberto, most beloved among the camp inmates, who died on the midwinter death march from Auschwitz (“Alberto did not return, and of him no trace remains”); Elias Lindzin, the “dwarf” (“Of his life as a free man, no one knows anything”); Mordo Nahum, “the Greek,” who helped Levi survive part of the long journey back to Italy (“We parted after a friendly conversation; and after that, since the whirlwind that had convulsed that old Europe, dragging it into a wild contra dance of separations and meetings, had come to rest, I never saw my Greek master again, or heard news of him”). And the “drowned,” those who went under—“leaving no trace in anyone’s memory.” Levi rings the bell even for himself, who in some way disappeared into his tattooed number: “At a distance of thirty years, I find it difficult to reconstruct what sort of human specimen, in November of 1944, corresponded to my name, or, rather, my number: 174517.

But, above all, they existed – I relish that elegiac note. Perhaps Wood’s profoundest contribution to literary theory is his idea that “To notice is to rescue, to redeem; to save life from itself” (“Serious Noticing,” included in The Nearest Thing to Life). As Wood makes clear, Levi is one of literature’s great rescuers.

Postscript: This week’s issue contains three terrific Talk stories: Andrew Marantz’s "Paint Job" (“He uses Rust-Oleum paint, mostly five colors – black, white, red, blue, green – that are available at Bruno’s Hardware Center, on Court Street”); Emma Allen’s "Big Silky" (She stepped outside to call Bruce Cost, of artisanal-ginger-ale fame, for black-chicken advice”); Jonathan Blitzer’s "Drive-By" [“He taught Chris Penn how to drive stick in ‘The Funeral’ (’37 LaSalle), and he drove Chloë Sevigny around in ‘The Last Days of Disco’ (’75 Checker Cab)”].

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