Conversations by Primo Levi and Tullio Regge

An erudite and entertaining exchange between two notable Italian minds. Is it relevant that they are Italian? Yes, since one of the things discussed is the impact of Fascism on education and science in particular. And yet here they are, survivors in more ways than one, in the case of Levi.

Primo Levi explains why, at the age of past sixty, he felt he must learn to write with a word processor – and this was in the late seventies/early eighties.

I read Pozzoli’s book Writing With a Computer, and it had on me the effect of the bugle call that wakes you up in the barracks. I realised that today one can certainly live without a computer, but one lives at the margins and is bound to become more and more detached from active society. The Greeks said of a person without culture: ‘He can neither write nor swim.’ Today one should add: ‘Nor use a computer’.

I’m surprised that one could say this so early. I got my first computer around 1988 and this was scarcely a common thing to do yet. And a person may be living on the margins with one – I can see that in the case of my mother, for example, who sees them as the work of the devil – but she is very cultured. The connection isn’t one I see, any more than thinking swimming is a cultured thing to do. Full disclosure – neither my mother nor I know how to swim.

Regge on how he became a physicist despite the best efforts of his father.

‘Get a serious degree, my father kept saying. Physics isn’t serious. If you want to do physics, get a degree in chemistry too, because put together they are like a degree in engineering. And when I got my degree in physics with the highest marks and I was given a teaching fellowship, he still insisted. At a certain point I went to Russia and Pravda published my photograph. I cut it out and sent it to my father. “So he’ll stop telling me to get a degree in chemistry,” I explained to my Russian friends who asked me why. This anecdote is still in circulation even now. I always run into somebody who asks me if my father is still insisting.’

Levi on the way in which his training in chemistry influenced how he wrote. And on becoming free of it as his job.

I spent the day after my resignation strolling through the streets of Turin on a working day: a working day – do  you realise what that meant? No more office hours, no more crossing town during the rush hours; and every blessed day, no night calls because a valve has broken or a rainstorm has flooded the cable beds. I felt I had avalanches of free time at my disposal: if before I had written three or four books, working in the evening and on Sunday, now I would write another twenty or thirty. Instead it didn’t go like that: a friend of mine used to say that in order to do things, ‘one mustn’t have time.’ Time is an eminently compressible material.

Scientists discussed include Einstein – this might seem to be a given, but in fact Regge’s important contributions to theoretical physics included work on Relativity – Hoyle, Dyson, Wheeler, Everett, Oppenheimer. And Gödel, this from Regge:

Very shy. Once I met him at a dinner, and I think I’m one of the few people who spent a few hours at table with him. I managed to extract something from him; not very flattering comments on Bertrand Russell, a few more benevolent opinions on Peano. I asked him whether he had been part of the Vienna Circle: he answered with a dry and conclusive ‘no.’ He was a close friend of Morgenstern, the economist, who one day went to see him but found the house deserted. A pot was boiling on the stove but of Gödel not a trace. Knowing what he was like, Morgenstern began to inspect the house and found him in the cellar hidden behind some sacks of coal, his phobia of visitors was so great.

In fact, a lot goes into this little book, even though it feels like a natural meander in the way a conversation should. Anybody interested in history of science will love it.





Heimat by Nora Krug

Started yesterday, finished this morning: this is the first adult picture book I’ve wanted to read, and as anticipated, I couldn’t put it down.

I suppose you could shelve this in some rather specific way. The ‘my grandparents were Nazis’ memoir shelf. Or the ‘ordinary people in the period 1930-1950 in Nazi Germany’ shelf. For me, I’d put it under ‘everybody should read this’. It asks all the questions, without coming up with any answers. But keeping those questions on the tip of our collective tongue is vital to stopping such horror in the future. We need an autistic attitude, we have to feel that these things have just happened, and could happen any moment again. I do believe that the reason we are seeing the resurgence of the extreme right now is at least partly because our memory is slipping, too many feel like it’s a past that isn’t connected to the present. But it is. By blood, by education, by culture, by belief, by greed and by all the bad features of being a human which are after all, the reason why we created society in the first place. To try to hold them in check.

Thank you Nora Krug, for your search for answers. It is your contribution to our never ending discussion about the meaning of life.



From A to X: A Story in Letters by John Berger

Stansted 15 terrorists

In the UK as I write, these people are waiting to be sentenced, having been convicted under anti-terrorism legislation. I think it’s obvious what a hardened bunch they are. They are called the Stansted 15.

The terrorist may be a hardened killer of his fellow man. Or she may be that smiling face in the middle of the front row, wearing a fetching yellow coat and a pink scarf. She may feel that injustice must be protested against. And in the UK right now, the freedom to protest is being dismantled by the politicians. So far the legal system is still on the side of the protesters, but for how long, we may wonder. Around the world politicians are at war with the legal system…or doing dirty deals with it. We knew when we started giving increased powers to ‘deal’ with terrorism, that people like those photographed would eventually pay a price.

This book is about two terrorists. One is in gaol for two life-times. We don’t know whether it is for death and destruction or for some simple peaceable act of bravery, such as carried out by these fine young people who were willing to stand in front of a plane. The other, his lover, is on the outside. She writes him letters, the intimacy of which are supposed to make them feel that they are together. She weaves together reports of the small acts of living with the acts of war being carried out against them. We don’t know where it is.

I’ve never really understood the expression ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’. One minute, one hour, one day, one week, one month, one year, one lifetime. That expressions starts and stops somewhere. It isn’t infinite. These two terrorists will never be together again. Yet with a modest past and a dangerous present, the letter writer creates a life, a shared life, which may approach infinity, despite their irrevocable separation.

There is, as always in John Berger’s books, specific knowledge, radical thought, and the precise and sympathetic eye of the artist. He finds beauty where ever he looks. You will side, as he does, with the terrorists.

To follow the fate of The Stanstead 15, go here.


Slow Man by JM Coetzee

Having been alienated by the end of Foe, I nonetheless plugged on with another Coetzee, bought at Antiquariaat Klikspaan in Leiden. It’s a shop with an excellent range of interesting literature, I picked up lots of books on spec.

Some complain of the tedious nature of the Costello woman but I think that Coetzee is being ruthlessly honest. Writers are self-centered bores with their own ends at heart. Dispensing bits of wisdom to their captive audience at will – and who is more captive than one’s own invention? The writing process not going smoothly today? She drama queens it – she’s going to die, her heart, sleeping in the rough, all that. She doesn’t give a rats about Paul. She wants her story to work, but Paul is not prepared to help her out as she would wish to be. Isn’t this the writer’s life? Characters not behaving themselves. Doing things that the writer disapproves of, or is uneasy about, or can’t see the path of, pages crossed out, files erased, paragraphs blocked and deleted. And in this case in the end, realising that it isn’t possible to change the character. He is what he is.

I love the way his stubbornness is up to hers. Presumably Coetzee himself is both of them.

I did find his portrayal of Paul as being ‘old’ rather odd, given that he is only sixty. The book itself isn’t old enough for that to make sense. That is to say, in 2005, when the book was published, ‘sixty’ was not old. Probably not ‘seventy’ either. My father (also ‘Paul’) was having cancer treatment in 2009 when he was seventy. We all told him he was old because he wanted to be that, he wanted to die ‘old’ and he explicitly corrected us when we called him otherwise.

Given that we are supposed to consider the central character ‘old’, the difficulties he has with that are handled in the way an observant and impartial writer might write of himself. As the book came out in 2005 when he was 65, I guess that it is very personal, this idea he has of his age and how others see him. How he is treated at the hospital. The way in which he is patronised. The way in which aloneness seems to become loneliness. The way which his being physically crippled makes him aware of that he may be emotionally so as well. And all this makes him think he wants children, though I suspect this is just the old person’s regret that a lack of investment in them earlier is now revealing a price. Children could move him around, keep him company. Make him whole again. Justify his existence.

It’s beautifully written. I’m impressed at  how Australian it is too, he captures Adelaide on the page, the migrant experience, the questions and doubts about home and what that is, despite the fact that his own migrant experience was to say the least unique and easy. He fell in love with Adelaide on a visit and migrated there, taking on Australian citizenship, as  Nobel-prize winning novelist. I imagine that such a person never has a difficult time whatever path he wants to take. He is, like Paul, reclusive, and no doubt Adelaide is a good place to practise that habit. We are very tolerant and accepting, we Adelaideans. Want to be a solitary, perhaps even crotchetty Nobel-prize winner? Righto. We’ll leave you to it, but give us a shout if you need anything.


The Doctor Stories by William Carlos Williams

Having read A Fortunate Man recently, John Berger’s account of the world view of a country doctor, I was pleased to discover in a Leiden bookshop the other day, this collection assembled by Williams’ son.

Thirty years earlier, country US, written by a poet who supports himself through doctoring. Whereas it is Berger’s eye which informs what we read about his country doctor, here it is the medico’s eye that informs the writing. Having just been rereleased, there may be a new audience for this slim volume. It’s enthralling to read as a lay person interested in fiction, but Williams’ musings on the world of the general practitioner is not part of the canon for that group the way Berger’s still is. Maybe, even compared with Berger’s, it’s too bluntly honest. Doctors don’t come out of this smelling of any sort of flowers.

Having said that, if you are interested in medical views of literature that strays into their area, you can go here and here.

Highly recommended.

Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante

Oh, if only Elena Ferrante’s books were written by somebody else. Not My Brilliant Friend and its companions, but the rest. She always writes about herself and she is truly the most boring person, with – for me – the least interesting problems, about whom I have ever read so many words. She gets away with it in the series because Lena is extraordinary, and because they are surrounded by people who are interesting. But in both this and The Days of Abandonment it becomes frustrating. The more so because she captures how I perceive the Italy she lives in should be and her portrayal of others around her is terrific. Why does she have to make herself the centre all the time? It does her work no favours.

I have an idea I am stuck in some vortext [I made that up] where one is tossed about between these two things, the good and the bad; and I have an idea that I’m going to keep tormenting myself with more of it. I was so relieved to get to the end of this one, so it’s doubly irritating to think I will be drawn to do it again…..




A Painter of Our Time by John Berger

I read A Painter of Our Time in a disjointed way which did the book no favours. However, it is fair to say it’s a hard slog. Beauty and a rather wry humour abound. But it is essential to the story that it contains a lot of Marxist analysis of the place of art in revolution, as well as in the capitalist environs which provide the physical setting. One moment we are following the charmingly amusing story of the butcher who wants Janos to do a nude portrait of his wife. The next we are in this:

Today every painter worthy of the name is his own master, his own pupil and perhaps finally his own debaser, his own mannerist. We each have to decide everything for ourselves. We each have to choose what is inconceivable for us. As artists – and this is the curse that is upon us – we must each visualise our own city, ourself as its centre. It is bitter for me to admit this, I who, as a man, believe in the collective, in the revolutionary class not the revolutionary individual.

But art is the most inconvenient of activities, the least susceptible to will or legislation. It is always forward or backward in its desires, defying the present. It is like a flame. It is governed and fed by the present wind; but it is always trying to flicker under the wind, to lick the wind off from its source. Without the wind, without air, the flame would not exist. But the stronger the wind the firmer the grip of the flame on its object, and the swifter its attempts to undercut the wind. We can take over the means of production; but we cannot altogether take over the means of expression. Thus I remain lonely, holding no brief for loneliness. Thus sometimes I question my own choice. Sometimes, such as tonight, I look at my city, the way of life that my art presupposes, with incredulity. I stare at it like a peasant from the countryside…..

The way in which he discovers, and is eventually overcome by, his guilt at the death of his friend who remained true to the revolution, is almost surreal, couched as it is in this sort of analysis.

And, of course, one can see the incipient beginnings of what became his influential series. But as he developed as a writer, he seemed more able to keep the stiff didactism separate from his fiction, which really did deserve this break.

It’s well worth reading, as long as you know what you are up for.