Obituary of a Wartime Spy (#1)

I was very heartened by the recent New York Times project called “Overlooked” addressing the fact that many accomplished and, indeed, heroic women were never given an obituary in the Times due to the fact that they were women and deemed not important enough to merit a eulogy in print. Such Better-Late-Then-Never acknowledgement is so important. The Times project inspired me to dig out a poetry project I began some time ago while in a class at The Poetry School in London led by the superb British poet and writer Simon Barraclough.

For years I have been collecting obituaries–an art form I revere–of intrepid women who lived long and intriguing lives, some with brief flashes of fame, others with enduring careers, most of whom I had never heard of. The women I collected shared a few things: they were women, they were dead, and they had each made it through the obituary gatekeepers to get an avowal of their lives into print and the public eye. They also tended to be quite old when they died. I had no idea what I was going to do with these obituaries but was finally inspired by Simon to make found poems out of them. (My Obituary Series of poems is not to be confused with my series of poems called “Dying,” but they do share a theme, I suppose.) The Times project made me realize that by letting this series of poems languish in a file somewhere on my computer, I was contributing to the great silence that is integral to the female experience on so many fronts and in so many ways. Paradoxically, I value silence greatly, above much else, it is up there with love in my pantheon of virtues, but when silence is used, as it has been so systematically, as a weapon against us, we indulge it at our peril. So in praise of women, of silence, of speaking up, of obituaries, and of poetry, here is the first of my found poems.

Eileen Nearne

Obituary of a Wartime Spy
Eileen Nearne dies at 89

Only the cats remembered
her parachute-heart,
licked her

once-shaven head, admired
her once bright loyalty-
blue eyes.

But one by one they left
her too, padding across
a shadow-life out

into the Torquay brume, leaving
her alone, headed for
a pauper’s grave.

The medals finally gave
her away. “Destiny,”
she liked to say.

(John F. Burns, The New York Times, September 21, 2010)

More on Eileen “Didi” Nearne here and here.





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The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte, translated by me–and a reading in Bushwick.

malaparte cover

The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte has just been published by New York Review Books. If you have never read Malaparte than this will be a discovery, if you have, then you know the thrill you are in for. It is available here at 20% off.

Also, on Friday, April 20, International Translation Day, I will be giving a reading along with other translators at the excellent reading series Us&Them at Molasses Books in Bushwick at 8pm. More information is here.

Hope to see you there!

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Neapolitan Chronicles by Anna Maria Ortese, Translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee: Upcoming Events

Dear All, Ann and I were very intrigued by these powerful stories that evoke yet another Naples, Ortese’s Naples, complicated and disorienting, painful and stunning, always infinitely fascinating. Our translation collaboration was also an enthralling adventure. As we write in our introduction: “Translating and writing are profoundly collaborative acts across time and texts, involving an ongoing, cacophonous conversation among writers, readers, and translators. We have not only been part of this greater conversation; we have also carried on a conversation with each other for more than twenty years. The decision to challenge and explore our own process as translators by collaborating on a text in this way and seeing what came of it was interesting, informative, surprising, and above all, delightful.” I hope you will find this book as beguiling as we do and we would love to see you at any of our upcoming events.

Neapolitan Chronicles                                                Anna Maria Ortese

“Required reading for Ferrante fans and scholars of Neapolitan literature.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Ortese’s articles and stories serve as a provocative showcase of how a city once associated with ‘ecstatic happiness… deteriorated into vice and folly.'” — Publishers Weekly

“Anna Maria Ortese is a writer of exceptional prowess and force. The stories collected in this volume, which reverberate with Chekhovian energy and melancholy, are revered in Italy by writers and readers alike. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee reward us with a fresh and scrupulous translation.” — Jhumpa Lahiri, author of The Lowland and In Other Words

“As for Naples, today I feel drawn above all by Anna Maria Ortese … If I managed again to write about this city, I would try to craft a text that explores the direction indicated there.” — Elena Ferrante in Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey

“This beautiful book is a landmark in Italian literature and a major influence on Elena Ferrante—both as a way of writing about Naples and because Anna Maria Ortese may have been the model for the narrator of Ferrante’s quartet of novels set there. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee have rendered Ortese’s lively, Neapolitan-inflected Italian in vivid, highly engaging English prose.” — Alexander Stille, author of The Sack of Rome and Benevolence and Betrayal

“This remarkable city portrait, both phantasmagorical and harshly realistic, conveys Naples in all its shabbiness and splendor. Naples appears as both a monster and an immense waiting room, whose inhabitants are caught between resignation and unquenchable resilience. Beautifully translated, this lyrical gem has been rescued from the vast storehouse of superior foreign literature previously ignored.” — Phillip Lopate, author of Bachelorhood and Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan

“Anna Maria Ortese’s Neapolitan Chronicles is a mother lode, in every sense, for the work of Elena Ferrante. Ferrante drew inspiration from Ortese, not only for the characters, voices, and places in her great tetralogy, but for the power of the woman’s voice that narrates them.” — Judith Thurman, author of Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller and Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette

“Naples is a vast succession of cities—Greek, Samnite, Roman, Byzantine, Aragonese, Spanish, Bourbon, Savoyard—and every phase has had its chronicler. In the aftermath of World War Two, battered, humiliated Naples found no abler witness than Anna Maria Ortese. Sixty-five years later, with international interest in Naples unexpectedly high, Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee have given us an essential, eloquent translation as faithful to Ortese’s time as it is vividly alive for our own.” — Benjamin Taylor, author of Naples Declared and Tales Out of School

“Gives an essential glimpse into the origins of Ferrante’s work … A mesmerizing companion to Ferrante’s Neapolitan project as well as a daring work of both social criticism and narrative inventiveness that stands, toweringly, on its own.” — Seraillon

“Anna Maria Ortese was the last great writer of the generation that produced Italo Calvino and Primo Levi. Today, few critics would disagree with the poet Andrea Zanzotto, who rates her as ‘one of the most important Italian women writers of this century.'” — The Independent

“An astonishing descent into the underworld … A modern artist has rarely rendered so intensely the spectrality of all things.” — La Repubblica

Upcoming Events

Friday, February 23 – 3:45pm – NYU Casa Italiana (by invitation only)

Ann Goldstein, Jenny McPhee, and Rebecca Falkoff will be discussing “Traduttore/Traditore: The Art of Translation” at this NYU Italian Studies Graduate Student Roundtable event focused on “Translation: Professional Practice and Literary Craft.”

Sunday, March 4 – 5:00pm – Dorothea’s House, Casa di Cultura Italiana, Princeton, N.J.

Lessico Famigliare: Novelist and translator Jenny McPhee will discuss her love of things Italian and read from her most recent work, a translation of Natalia Ginzburg’s most celebrated novel, Lessico Famigliare (Family Lexicon). The program will feature an Italian/English format with McPhee reading in English and Princeton University Professor Pietro Frassica reading in Italian. McPhee, who grew up in the Princeton area, has also translated works by Primo Levi, Giacomo Leopardi, and Paolo Maurensig, among others. Click here to learn more about this event.

Tuesday, March 13 – 7:00pm – Community Bookstore in Brooklyn

Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee, translators of Neapolitan Chronicles, celebrate the publication of Anna Maria Ortese’s classic work. Click here to learn more about this event.

Wednesday, March 14 – 11:15am – Leo A. Guthart Cultural Center Theater (in the Joan and Donald E. Axinn Library) at Hofstra University

Join Jenny McPhee, Ann Goldstein, and Giovanna Calvino for a discussion of the art of translation and Italian literature. They have translated works by Natalia Ginzburg, Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Elena Ferrante, and Anna Maria Ortese, and they will talk about how translations endure over time, why works need to be retranslated, how we build a readership for works in translation and much more. Click here to learn more about this event.

Tuesday, March 20 – 7:00pm – Book Culture, 450 Columbus Ave, NYC

Celebrate the release of Anna Maria Ortese’s Neapolitan Chronicles with the book’s translators Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee at Book Culture on Columbus. Click here to learn more about this event.

Saturday, March 24 – 2:00pm – Goethe-Institut (Festival Neue Literatur) NYC.

This year’s translation event at the Festival Neue Literatur, entitled “Inside Translation | Outside Ourselves: Connecting Our Worlds,” pays homage to works in translation that have enlarged our lives and countered literary, political, and cultural isolationism. Panelists are Yoko Tawada, Barbara Epler, Ann Goldstein, and Jenny McPhee. Moderated by translator and Guggenheim Fellow Tess Lewis. Click here to learn more about this event.

Tuesday, March 27 – 7:00pm – 192 Books, 192 10th Ave, NYC

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Dying #4

The Heart Nebula

My vocation is
to perform
the voices of
the dead.

My vocation is
to assemble
body parts.

My vocation is
to fill
a bathtub full
of my organs.

I live
in a wounded

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Lady Liberty give us your guidance in what promises to be another woeful and treacherous year!

(This photograph was taken in Red Hook right near Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies. As long as this Key Lime Pie persists, something is right in the world. #sublime.)

(New Years Resolutions: more yoga, more blog posts, more patience, more writing, more joy.)

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Despite our horrendous challenges, both past and present, I am extremely grateful to be American and to live in the same country, the same world as the artist Kerry James Marshall, whose work unites us all,  yes, in our painful existence of injustice, inequality, silence, absence, and erasure, but also in our love of exquisite beauty, our capacity for outrageous joy, our simple kindnesses. Happy 4th everybody. Share the love, share the art, share. BANG!


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The Art and Passion of Translation via Natalia Ginzburg, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ann Goldstein, Giovanna Calvino, Alessandra Ginzburg, Ann Goldstein, Lynn Schwarz, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, and myself

Ginzburg panel
Left to Right: Alessandra Ginzburg, Giovanna Calvino, Jenny McPhee, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ann Goldstein, and Lynne Sharon Schwartz

An extraordinary panel of translators and writers celebrated my new translation of Natalia Ginzburg’s novel, Family Lexicon, at NYU’s Casa Italiana recently. The panel, composed entirely of women, was moderated by historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, and featured Jhumpa Lahiri, Ann Goldstein, Giovanni Calvino, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, and myself. As a surprise guest, and a total gift for me, Natalia Ginzburg’s daughter, Alessandra Ginzburg, also joined the discussion.

Natalia Ginzburg’s stories of her family were woven throughout our wonderfully collaborative discussion about the art and science of translation. Among the many ideas explored were Jhumpa Lahiri’s vivid descriptions of climbing into the basement of the novel to examine the mechanics of a writer’s language; Giovanna Calvino spoke of the challenges she faces dealing with the translations of her father’s work; Alessandra Ginzburg talked about her mother’s relationship to translation; and Lynne Schwartz described Ginzburg’s writing as deceptively simple in style but extraordinarily complex in meaning, using uncomplicated language to reveal layers of meaning.

Casa Italiana had a full house with an overflow room to accommodate as many guests as possible–Viva translation!!!! Viva women in translation!!! The stories we told to illuminate our relationship with writing and language and our conversation about how we mine the depths of another’s writing when translating were riveting for me and I think also for the audience. The serendipitous timing of my translation of Family Lexicon was not lost on the panel, or the audience, given its relevance to our current political climate.

Click here to see a video of this event

And for those who read Italian here is a great write up from La Voce di New York: Natalia Ginzburg: a joyful writer a cavallo tra due mondi

And here are a couple of lovely reviews from the LA Review of Books and Bookforum

I also spent the day recently at Princeton University visiting Jhumpa Lahiri’s translation class, speaking with faculty and graduate students, the day culminating in a bilingual reading with the wonderful Sara Teardo of the Italian Department. The Trenton Times even wrote about it! Read here.

And last, but by no means least, I came across this 15-minute podcast essay by the translator Daniel Hahn, part of the BBC Radio 4 series How to Write a Book. It is quite simply sublime and just about sums up what it is to be a writer. Reader, Writer, Translator, you will love it, I promise: On Writing Don Quixote


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