Thursday, October 11, 2007

Lessing, eh; kudos for Lydia Davis, Kany and Jonathan Spence

We were surprised and, well, underwhelmed by the choice of Doris Lessing for the Nobel. Well, we're happy for anyone who succeeds, but geez. There was a time when "Golden Notebook" and Simone de Beauvoir's "Second Sex" were de riguer reading for women as well as men trying to find their way through the sexual politics of a couple of generations ago. But Simone was poorly translated and misunderstood, and Lessing read as though she were poorly translated until one realized she had written in English. This is a lot like the William Goldman choice - maybe the Swedish Academy gets better translations than what appear in the original.

More important to us is that Lydia Davis, Institute Fellow, was nominated for a National Book Award. Now there's a writer.

Today was an Institute "long day" - in co-operation with people at our host, the University at Albany, the Institute organized a double visit by Kang Zhengguo and Jonathan Spence.

This was a homerun hit: Mr. Kang's "Confessions," a window onto the world of China in the heinous Cultural Revolution (which Jonathan Spence described as neither cultural nor revolutionary) is a landmark of writing about the time and stands with Da Chen's remarkable series of memoirs on the same period. Kang, whose English is good nonetheless worked effectively with Albany professor Jim Hargett who engaged in a translation/conversation/dialogue with Kang as Kang described his last trip to China, during which he was targeted by secret police who tried to draw him into a compromising web, and then physically tried to detain him. Kang, who was visiting his son in Shanghai barely escaped through the strange product of western influence on China's buildings: the upscale code entry system for apartment buildings that we see in New York. As he scuffled with the secret police, Kang was able to punch in his son's apartment entry security code, enter the building, and slam the door shut on his antagonists. What was pleasurable about the presentation was that Kang chose to tell his story in Chinese with Hargett as the on-scene interpreter. Kang would go on in his native languauge with an animated and engaging story. Hargett would enunciate, "Oh my," and then translate the next section of the long tale. It kept the engaged audience anxiously waiting for the next step of the story. Good fun, a great book, and a great individual, that Mr. Kang, a man who was willing to risk serious jail-time to read Pasternak's "Dr Zhivago."

"Do we love Jonathan Spence or what?" someone said to us on the occasion of his later afternoon presentation. Spence, who exhibits the kind of cool yet passionate, cunning yet scholarly mix that has won him lauds as an educator at Yale, and numerous prizes, among them a MacArthur, was in fine form. His "Return to Dragon Mountain," an exquisite book with all of the echoes of a Calvino novel and with a hero, Zhang Dai, a man of beyond Proustian brilliance, naturally carried the day. We would venture to say that since the passing of Shelby Foote, no one has been able to write as powerful a narrative sense of history as Spence. Look at the Circles of Pleasure section of "Return to Dragon Mountain." You'll see in a heartbeat.

A salute to all mentioned here.