Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Shout from Copenhagen, Thomas E. Kennedy


In 1961, in a short story anthology, I read a short-short entitled "Miss Brill." It was about an old vulnerable woman whose joy of life is destroyed by two thoughtless young people. The story, by turns, filled me with sorrow and fury. I was furious at the author for what, I thought, she had gratuitously subjected this vulnerable old woman to. I had not yet learned the difference between a human being and a fictional character or a real occurrence and a dramatic one. Thus, I believed that the author of the story was responsible for the old woman's pain. I was seventeen years old and decided to marshal all my linguistic powers to write a scathing letter to the author, Katherine Mansfield, to convince her that she should top abusing helpless old women.

Reviewing the bio notes at the back of the book, I learned that Katherine Mansfield was beyond scolding, for she had been dead for some forty years. So the author was dead but her character was still sufficiently alive to upset me. Her pain had been immortalized by the power of Katherine Mansfield. It was as though she had reached out of the grave and into my teenaged heart. This was a power that I wanted to make my own – so I decided, on the spot, to become a writer, a decision I have followed ever since.

This year, 47 years later, the brilliant expatriate writer Linda Lappin – American by birth, living in Italy for many years – has published a novel based upon the life of Katherine Mansfield, from the focus of the final period of her life, dying of tuberculosis in France. It is a beautiful novel which presents a moving, insightful portrait of this brilliant New Zealand writer who lived a mere thirty-five years and produced a body of stories capable of reaching into the human heart and changing people, making them feel. Mansfield may have immortalized her characters, but Linda Lappin has immortalized Katherine Mansfield in this novel about her final years.

My colleague, friend, and frequent collaborator, Walter Cummins ( has written a review of Linda Lappin's novel which appears in the current issue of The Literary Review (Vol 52, No 1), published by Fairleigh Dickinson University. I have been given permission to reprint that review here, which I do so with pleasure because I find it concisely and beautifully discusses a beautiful, powerful novel which I hereby recommend as I do Linda Lappin's other remarkable, powerful writings (; and, for anyone who might not be aware of it, Mansfield's work as well which, influenced by Chekov, has been powerfully influential itself ever since.

Linda Lappin. Katherine's Wish. La Grande, Oregon: Wordcraft of Oregon, 2008.
A review by Walter Cummins (reprinted from The Literary Review)

"The more Katherine Mansfield approaches death, the more she comes to life in Linda Lappin's Katherine's Wish. That's not to say that she isn't a vivid character from the very first paragraphs of the novel, in 1918, on a train pulling its way through a blizzard, trapped in a compartment "pervaded by the sickening smell of mothballs, perspiration, and wet galoshes," taking "short, tremulous breaths to keep herself from coughing." This initial image of her in a coffin-like carriage on a frantic journey to Mediterranean sun, in pain, immersed in white embodies her condition and the struggles she will face throughout the next four years in a desperate and futile effort to stay alive.

"Many luminaries populate the novel, from D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf to the more rarified characters, such as Chekhov translator S.S. Koreliansky, Lady Ottoline, and P.D. Ousepensky, along with Katherine's intimates, her wealthy, distant father, Ida Constance Baker, her smitten, service companion since childhood, her self-absorbed, philandering husband, John Middleton Murry, and his mistresses.

"Lappin spent nearly two decades researching and writing Katherine's Wish, as evidenced by the consequent specificity and vivid details. The interiors of the many rooms and the exteriors of the many landscapes are described with a cinematic richness: "This cool, wet August had plumped the blackberries on the bushes along the garden wall. She could almost taste their tartness with her eyes, but the leaves of the willows were edged in brown . . ." This is hardly a typical costume drama, decorated with dusty artifacts and burdened by the mythology of its famous protagonists.

"Of particular note is Lappin's ability to create original portrayals of Woolf and Lawrence, a fresh way of seeing people whose identities are almost clichés, as in this meeting between Mansfield and Woolf:

"'Conversations with Virginia were agonizingly slow to ignite. One had to break through the cocoon of isolation Virginia spun around herself, with her perfect demeanor, her flawless chitchat, even those ludicrous hats and dresses she wore were a deterrent to keeping others from coming too close.'

"But most crucial is the evocation of Katherine's consumption, the painful stages of her dying, her struggles for survival, her growing debilitation. Lappin reveals the spots on the lungs, the dysentery and fevers, the "ominous heaving rumble" of her coughing. Ultimately, she makes readers care about a writer dead for more than eighty years, and share Katherine's own wish that she could live forever. Lappin's achievement is to succeed where medicine failed and, through her words, give Katherine Mansfield ongoing life."

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Stephen Kessler Interview

Stephen Kessler is the translator of some of the best Spanish-language poets of the twentieth century, including Vicente Aleixandre and Luis Cernuda. Click on the following link to see what he had to say when I interviewed him at this past ALTA conference in Minneapolis:

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Classical Education

Children in Sofia often go to a secondary school devoted to one particular language. In a country of under 8 million and a certain amount of emigration, it’s important to know foreign languages. So there’s the French School, the German School, the Italian School, the Russian School, the Spanish School, the Classics School and the English School (popular but apparently poor on discipline). Here pupils devote much of their first year to acquiring skills in their chosen language (4 hours a day) and then go on to study other subjects in that language so that they leave school with reasonable fluency in their adopted mother tongue.

I have been interviewing candidates from some of these schools in English. The most inventive, surprisingly enough, were those from the German School, but I was struck by a fifteen-year-old candidate from the Classics School. When asked about advertising, he described it as “useless”, aimed at promoting the product and not at informing the consumer. When asked about his favourite mode of transport (others answered plane, car…), he replied that he preferred to travel “on foot” since it was generally more reliable. And I noticed that, unlike the other candidates, he seemed to be able to observe everything that was going on around him, including the building across the road. It seems to me these are the traits of a student of these so-called dead languages (apart from good grammar): detachment from the world, detachment from time – and peripheral vision.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Shout from Copenhagen, Thomas E. Kennedy


Benjamin Katz lives in Copenhagen, a psychologist with a private practice bordering on the north side of the center of the city. His advice to his clients is clear, strong, practical, tactical and strategic, effectively illustrated with references to story and art.

"Remember Lot's wife," he might say to a person trying to leave behind an untenable relationship. "Remember what the angel said to her, 'Don't look back.'"

Or he might illustrate the need for change with reference to the Tales of the Dervishes – the river meeting a desert which threatened to destroy it transforming into a cloud and gliding across the sky to bypass the desert, then raining back into a river when safely on the other side.
Or, on the need to continue to function despite contradictions, he quotes Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? I am complex!"

Or to a man destroying his life by succumbing to excessive appetite, he might tell the story of Odysseus and the sirens who would lure him with seductive songs to wreck his boat on the rocks.

Or he might enlist images – Goya's charcoal, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters – as a cautionary instrument to reinforce consciousness when assailed by the monstrous images of self-doubt.

Benjamin Katz's book The Fifth Narrative described the state of humanity and its future journey from the point of view of five great stories. In it, he wrote, "…great narratives influence us as well as we influence them. In the long run, we will, if we give ourselves a chance to survive, transform ourselves to creators, which is our utmost purpose and meaning in our existence." The creation he refers to is the creation of a sustaining life narrative, filled with stories to illuminate our way through the labyrinth we face.

Benjamin Katz's wisdom is rich with illustration – from literature, art, film, music: from the Bible to the Beatles, Buber to Buñuel, Carroll to Candide, Hemingway to Huxley, Simon & Garfunkel to Goya, The Deerhunter to The Little Prince… His intellect is informed by and well-furnished with ready illustrations from Greek and Hebrew writings, Kundera, Lampedusa, Lao Tse, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Orwell, Erasmus, Hesse, Swift, Tolstoy, Turgenev and many others.

And what is more, he has that exceedingly scarce characteristic in our complex massive society: a world view.

And now, I am delighted to report, he has written a new book. It is a brick of a book – nearly 600 pages – yet at the same time it is a gem, with many facets. The book is titled Global Psychology, a title which might immediately sound too big for the heart or soul of one man or woman, but this global view is addressed to the individual in his attempt to live a satisfying, feeling, rational, spiritual, individual life amidst the complex network and seductive sirens of our contemporary world.

Ben Katz was born in Palestine, in 1943, when it was still an English colony. His childhood was shadowed by atrocities and wars and the trauma the holocaust had inflicted on his parents, who left Poland in 1933 to start a new life, "liberated from heavy Jewish mentality and centuries of traditions" to follow their vision of building a just, socialist society. They never saw their families again. Eleven members of Ben's family died in Nazi gas chambers or concentration camps.

Katz says that every conscious person must have a story of his or her life which must make sense to him and grant him some control and meaning if he is not to be doomed to lose his nerve and spirit. Our stories, he suggests, are always built upon our relation to three questions about person, society and species: Where do I come from? Who am I? Where do I go?

"The need to have a meaningful life story," Katz writes, "which sheds ultimate significance and meaning upon ourselves and our lives, is so profound for us as to make us easy prey to our own mental and other agencies' manipulations, be it religion, ideology, or tribal, clan, or national history and identity."

Katz book has two main purposes: to make the reader aware of the most debilitating mental traps and problems that sap life energy from most humans and to present a variety of working tools and techniques, insights and attitudes to reduce psychological, social and existential problems and doubts.

The first half of the book focuses on the micro reality of the individual life and the attainment of a fulfilled life. The second half focuses on the individual's macro reality and the attainment of a new, sustainable and evolving vision as a robust human being in a global setting.

In essence the book discusses the negotiation of the labyrinth of a poorly evolved consciousness – avoiding the many sirens waiting to seduce us into self-destruction – toward the creation of a conscious and meaningful life narrative.

For anyone who does not wish his life to be a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, Benjamin Katz's Global Psychology ( is warmly recommended.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy (
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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Literary Translation on Youtube

At the past ALTA conference in Minneapolis, I recorded a few panels as well as some interviews I did with translators there. The idea is for these videos to eventually form part of the revamped ALTA website. Meanwhile, I'll be putting them up on Youtube. You can now see Alexis Levitin, who translates Portuguese poetry (including the work of Eugenio de Andrade), discuss translation at this link: He addresses how he got into translation, the importance of translation, translation and the ego, and the value of being a member of ALTA. I'll be posting more clips soon.

Monday, December 8, 2008

You Say You Want a Revolution ... in Greece?

Rioting continues in Athens and other areas following the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old by police in Greece. According to the New York Times the Communist Party organized protests against the police, which later became violent.

Panagiotis Sotiris, 38, a spokesman for Uniting Anti-Capitalist Left, a coalition of leftist groups that helped take over the Athens Law School on Monday, told Reuters that the violence was not only connected to the killing, “but is a struggle to overthrow the government’s policy.”
“We are experiencing moments of a great social revolution,” he said.

Must all "great social revolutions" require violence?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Finlandia Prize and Russian Booker

Some recent prize news:

Writer Sofi Oksanen has won this year's Finlandia Prize for literature for her novel Puhdistus ("Cleansing").

Additionally, the Russian Booker has been awarded to the writer Mikhail Yelizarov for his novel Библиотекарь ("Librarian").

Saturday, December 6, 2008

What Price a Language?

I was shocked recently when I walked into the British Council library in Sofia to discover that half the books had disappeared! Poetry, the great Millennium Library (published by Everyman, a collection of the world’s literary classics in English original or translation), Geography, History, Political Science, Law had all but vanished, leaving a large array of English-language coursebooks, contemporary fiction, children’s literature, music and films. While I could understand getting rid of some outdated books that no one looked at (no, I don’t mean poetry), I was unsettled by the cause of such upheaval: to make way for a “One-Stop Shop” on the ground floor of the British Council’s premises in the Bulgarian capital. A “One-Stop Shop” where prospective students can come and register for courses and exams without having to climb the stairs to the first floor.

“One-Stop Shop” is making your intentions only too clear! I was disappointed by my experience as a locally hired teacher at the British Council. Where I had expected high things and mused on poetry readings, nay, even performances of Shakespeare, I found that all the talk was about money. I was also not a little embarrassed about the cost of our courses – a 48-hour General English course currently costs $500 (€390) in a country where the average monthly salary is $350 (€270). Were we not an “educational charity”, as it said on the headed notepaper? This was for accounting purposes, I was informed.

So I decided to make a comparison. What are the relative costs of learning English, French, German and Spanish here in Sofia? Well, for an hour’s tuition at the British Council, you will pay a little over $10. Next up are the Spanish: an hour’s tuition at the Cervantes Institute will set you back $4.50. Then come the Germans: an hour’s tuition at the Goethe Institute costs $2.80. And finally, with a Republican flourish, come the French, an hour at the French Institute setting you back a mere $1.60. Thus, for the pleasure of its services, the British Council charges roughly twice as much as the Spanish, four times as much as the Germans and six times as much as the French.

Colonialism is the art of going into a country that is poorer than yours and extracting some of its wealth. Meanwhile, the first snow has come and already melted. It hid our excesses, muffled our activity, but not for long, signalling the transition to winter.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Best Translated Book of 2008: Fiction Longlist

Over at Three Percent Chad Post has announced the 25 titles on the 2008 Best Translated Book of the Year Fiction Longlist. The finalists will be announced on January 27, with winning titles announced on February 19.

The twenty-five longlist titles are:

The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Simon & Schuster)

What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? by António Lobo Antunes, translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa (W. W. Norton)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions)

Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein (Archipelago)

2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions)

Voice Over by Céline Curiol, translated from the French by Sam Richard (Seven Stories)

The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Archipelago)

The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford Landers (Open Letter)

The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke (Overlook)

Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique by Gert Jonke, translated from the German by Jean Snook (Dalkey Archive)

Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (Telegram)

Detective Story by Imre Kertesz, translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson (Knopf)

Yalo by Elias Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux (Archipelago)

The Great Weaver from Kashmir by Halldór Laxness, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton (Archipelago)

I’d Like by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Dalkey Archive)

The Enormity of the Tragedy by Quim Monzo, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Peter Owen)

Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Melville House)

Death with Interruptions by José Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge, translated from the French by Richard Greeman (New York Review Books)

Camera by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Matthew Smith (Dalkey Archive)

Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange (Ibis Editions)

Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis (Melville House)

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (New York Review Books)

A Shout from Copenhagen, Thomas E. Kennedy

The Danish Xmas Lunch: Eating, Drinking & Dancing It.

Julefrokost, the Danes call it, and those three or four syllables evoke a complex of delight and shame to all who have truly experienced this most Danish of institutions. The big Gyldendal Danish-English dictionary gives “office party” as the English equivalent, but that is not sufficient, is a mere slice of what a julefrokost actually means. Danish Xmas lunch is my preferred translation, but don’t let the singular form deceive you: one may well – indeed is likely to – enjoy multiple Danish Xmas lunches in a single season, and the Xmas lunch season in this ancient kingdom stretches from approximately the penultimate Friday in November until some few days before Xmas Eve.

But a Danish Xmas lunch is far from only an office party, though that too is one of the masks it dons. And a piquant mask it is – an opportunity for men and women who have been appreciatively and more or less obliquely eyeing one another all year to let loose for half a day and half a night and partake of the original Roman Bacchanal that was the pagan antecedent of the birth of Christ: eat to excess, drink to excess, hold speeches fraught with erotic double entendre, tell lewd jokes in mixed company, sing parodies of endeared sweet Xmas songs:

Christmas time is here/Dad is drinking beer/Mother’s lyin’ underneath the table!/No it isn’t true/Yes, it is quite true/Drink another snaps if you are able… (Compare with the American equivalent: Please, daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas/I don’t wanna see my mamma cry…)
And to dance, dance closer, closer, closer… And for the lucky, daring few, yet closer, into the sofa corners, closets, behind locked or barricaded office doors: Ah, at last! I’ve always wanted to kiss you there, my sweet, there and here and…

And because it is, after all, a Christian nation, to drink a bitter dram of guilt next day, to know the horror! the horror! of morality’s hangover (or as the Danes call a hangover, tømmermænd, carpenters sawing and hammering in the head) for the next several days, weeks months – for the most morally susceptible of us perhaps until the next Xmas lunch.

But that is about the Danish office Xmas lunch. There are also family Xmas lunches, club Xmas lunches, pensioner Xmas lunches, society and associational Xmas lunches. There are Xmas lunches celebrated as traditions among friends, school friends, army friends, cooperative apartment friends… There is indeed an Xmas lunch for every excuse and occasion.

A Danish Xmas lunch consists of food, drink and company – much of the former two, at least two of the latter, although in a pinch, one can conceivably eat an Xmas lunch alone, though that might end in a honeymoon of the hand. It requires, first of all, a table, preferably a long one with many chairs, and every place setting, if one is doing it right, will include two small plates, one atop the other, separated by a napkin, to the left a butter board and two forks, to the right two knives (one set of cutlery for the fish, one for the meat – who said Danes are not kosher), and two glasses, one for beer and one for aquavit (aka snaps or schnapps, about which more later). There might also be a tiny candle, a small figure of an Xmas elf, a sprig of pine or the like.)

Along the center of the table, if one is doing it right (as for example my ex-mother in law used to) will be ranged somewhere between a dozen and two dozen or more plates containing: herring (pickled, sherried, curried, fried, other spiced varieties), smoked eel with chives and scrambled egg (all ready for the ground pepper), perhaps a bit of boiled cod roe and caviar, shrimp with mayonnaise, smoked salmon, gravid salmon (which formerly was buried in the earth to be acted upon by its microbes, now is treated chemically) with sweet mustard sauce and dill, breaded and fried filet of plaice with remoulade, roast pork with crackling and chopped, stewed red cabbage, headcheese with pickled beets, sliced meats (boiled ham, roast beef, salted beef, rolled pork, salami) with Italian salad and picadily relish on the side, cheeses (of the cow, of the goat, of the sheep), and an array of condiments and garnish: chives, cress, dill, raw onion, capers, horse radish… And of course, baskets of sliced dark rye bread as only the Danes can bake it, “French” bread, flat bread, a variety of biscuits for the cheese. And, naturally, a variety of bottles of aquavit and bottled beer. The former might include Brøndum and Aalborg and Krone (all flavored with carroway and other spices) and the Norweigan Linje (which is shipped, after distillation, in sherry kegs across the equator – the linje – so it sloshes about in the keg and is flavored by the sherry residue). The latter will certainly include Tuborg and Carlsberg lager, most likely Christmas Brew (5-7%) and possibly also Gold Beer, Giraffe Beer and/or Elephant beer (which goes up to 8 or 9% alcohol).

The way to enter the dining room where an Xmas lunch is being served (or any formal Danish lunch of this variety) is quietly, with reserve, even a bit shyly. You may give your hand to the other guests who are milling about, waiting for the host or hostess to seat you. It is usual to shake hands German-style, in the order of the others’ gender, “importance,” and age: Visiting foreigners are given precedence (no doubt in recognition of the fact that as outsiders they cannot be expected to know their place in the pecking order) as are women and the agéd. “Importance” may be decided by rank or achievement or popularity. This might sound snobbish, even dog-like, but in a certain way it makes sense and is not as difficult as it may sound. Normally, the guests will make themselves available for your hand at the right time, instinctively knowing their and your order.

Conversation will be sparse at this phase. No aperitif will normally be offered, and people will seize upon any tidbit of banter – for example, if someone has recently won a prize, completed an education, or had a promotion or an accident or some other bit of bad luck, a brief word of congratulations or condolence might be offered. This is and is allowed to be a somewhat awkward vestibule to what is to come. This reserved manner will continue as you shuffle to table, to your appointed place (if there are no table cards you will be told by host or hostess where to sit – obey!)

Once seated, the reserve will continue until the hostess says, “Be so good as to seat yourself,” and then, “Be so good as to eat.” This does not mean to eat whatever. It means to take a slice of dark rye bread from the basket(s) being passed, to spread butter or fat on the bread, fork on a bit or three of herring from the passing dishes, raw onion, capers, and when every one has on their plates a perfectly composed open herring sandwich, to cut and fork a mouthful into your gob, chew, and wait – until host or hostess lifts his/her aquavit glass (which by now will have been filled), looks around the table at each guest and says, “Skål!”

Only then do all at the table lift their glasses, look around to meet the eyes of all others, say, “Skål!” and – this is a very important, oft overlooked detail – glance at the host to see how much of his glass he takes. A snaps glass is about 2-4 centiliters deep, and the rate at which it is to be consumed, if one is following the rules of traditional Danish julefrokost, is set by the host. If he takes a single sip, it will be a slower start to the festivities. If he “snaps” (bites) a half or even a whole glassful, it will be faster. After the snaps comes the beer chaser, perhaps with an uttered or muttered “Skål.”

Once you have eaten the one open sandwich of herring, you will want to try each of the others, followed by the other courses on the table – fish first (although salmon and shrimp might come later in the meal if one is of such a mind.) Glasses will in due course be refilled, empty beer bottles replaced, and more or less slowly, formality will fall away. The quiet around the table will be broken by conversation, laughter, jokes, perhaps even song. Perhaps someone at the table will sing a Danish Rifle Club or Swedish fishing song – for example, about the eel, a song in which the eel children express dismay to their eel mother about the fact that their eel father has been caught by a fisherman – each stanza followed by a skål.

By now, you may initiate freely your own toasts (“skål!”), though it is very important not to do so before the host’s initial skål, which may result in confusion or chill silence or, as once happened to me, a cutting reprimand from the hostess – which is how I learned about this rule. Still, there are Danes who are not aware of this, by which they expose their breeding, or lack of same.

But after the first snap, there will be many others, and you might freely toast the others. You may even single out a specific person along the table whom you wish to salute and say, for example, “Annelise!” (You gorgeous bitch, you!) “Skål!” The intimate meeting of the eyes, the sip (or snap), and you have announced your wish to be friends, perhaps more.
Not always, but often, after the lunch has been eaten – which is a slow and joyously extended affair – the dancing will begin. If the Xmas lunch is indeed an office party (where partners normally are not present) the dancing will almost certainly begin, and even if you are not normally a dancer, you will almost certainly dance, moved by the snaps to do so. You will, at least at some Xmas lunches, dance fast and slow and long and briefly with many or all of the opposite gender. At bold, blurred moments you may also take liberties – not lewd liberties but decided ones: tips of fingers climbing firmly up the spine, a grasp of a tender flank, a seemingly innocent palm brushed across a luscious buttock, even perhaps a thumb upon a delectable nipple.

Remember that now you are tipsy, as is your dancing partner. That the darkest time of year is approaching, that you are honor-bound in a discreet manner to confirm the life force, and what is the life force if not the attraction of male and female (although in some cases this might be the attraction of female and female or male and male, and some people like that, and I am not putting it down).

Dancing is an interesting custom. Once I asked a Greek fellow whom I sat alongside at a dinner, “What would you say is the function of dancing?” This particular Greek fellow had bad teeth and consequently bad breath and, no doubt related to that, a bad complexion and pitted nose and was also short – even shorter than me – and fat – even fatter than me – but he spoke with great authority when he said, “It is for thee women to move thee sexually-interesting parts of the woman body before thee men and thee men to move the sexually-interesting parts of thee man body before thee women.”

In this manner, at a Danish Xmas lunch, sometimes, though far from always, for the bold and fortunate, the dance progresses to a shaded corner or a chamber separée – and for those still able to perform – the ultimate confirmation of the life force: the two-backed beast.

But in most cases, it is but a flirt, a refreshing flirt, a mutual appreciation of eyes and touch.
And whether or not you do or you don’t, next morning you will regret it. But soon – in days, weeks, months, you will be looking forward the next opportunity, the approach of the next winter solstice, the chance to do it all again, from sober start to staggering conclusion. And if you have a good long life, you will have some three score plus chances to make such a fool of yourself in celebration of the fact that the darkness may be deep, but the light will come again, life will continue.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy (

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

International Literature Online

The December issue of Words Without Borders is up and spotlights works dealing with "domestic conflicts," including a story by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft), who appeared in Absinthe #4.

In addition, the December issue of Poetry International is available and features the Irish poets Billy Ramsell and Ciaran O'Driscoll, and Portuguese poet Luis Miguel Nava, among others.

The future of the book

Check out this fascinating New York Times editorial by James Gleick (science writer and author of two of my favorite nonfiction books, Chaos: Making a New Science and Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything) on the future (though, really, I need to say the present) of the book in light of the Authors Guild v. Google case:

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Archipelago Books Fundraising Auction

If you're in New York on Thursday you might want to attend an event to benefit the excellent publisher Archipelago Books. More information is available at their web site.

Where: The Cultural Services of the French Embassy, 972 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan (between 78th and 79th)
When: Thursday, December 4th, 6:30 - 8:30
Why: To support Archipelago Books, a not-for-profit press, in its mission to publish outstanding and overlooked works of international literature.
What: Silent and live auctions, with refreshments.

The Sex Trade in Europe

Today is International Day for the Abolition of Slavery and at the Huffington Post there's an interesting blog by Ambassador Swanee Hunt and Lina Sidrys Nealon describing efforts to end sexual slavery in several European countries:

After years of parliamentary debate, in 1999 Swedes passed the Sex Purchase Law, which criminalized buying and decriminalized selling sex. This placed the emphasis on the buyers, while allowing women to seek help without being fined or deported. In five years, the number of prostituted women in Sweden dropped 40%. Today, the government estimates that less than 400 women are trafficked into the country, while in neighboring Finland it's 17,000.

and apparently...

Sweden has inspired a trend. Norway recently made it illegal for its citizens to purchase any sex acts anywhere in the world. And Britain's Home Office just introduced a new law making it an offence to pay for sex with somebody who is "controlled for another person's gain," including pimps, traffickers, and drug dealers who force addicts to "turn tricks" to repay them.

You can read the post in its entirety here.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Advice for Obama from Europe

In the Financial Times a week ago, Tyler Brûlé, the editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine (a personal favorite), offered president-elect Barack Obama a few suggestions, including:

6) Media. All US news outlets should devote 30 per cent of their pages or airtime to overseas news and views.
7) Scale it down. Small should be positioned as truly beautiful:­ the new administration should champion small businesses, smaller-scale living and smaller calorie intake.

Good suggestions, though I'm less enthusiastic about his comments on the big 3 automakers: "... Detroit should be left to wither. Yes, there'll be job losses and the state of Michigan will need to rethink what it wants to be (a province of Canada perhaps?) ..."