Primo Levi’s Death
Although I am not one of those who believe that Primo Levi could not have committed suicide, I would suggest that it isn't very probable. We know that just before leaving his apartment he instructed the nurse to mind the telephone, saying that he was going out to look for the concierge. If he only decided to hurl himself down the stairwell after he'd left the apartment, then he must have made that decision in a matter of seconds. This doesn't seem entirely plausible. However, contrary to what Thomas Laqueur writes (LRB, 5 September), we do have evidence that he was suffering from dizziness. On the Thursday before his death (which happened on a Saturday) he called Dr Giorgio Luzzati and told him he felt tired and was having dizzy spells. It is possible that he leaned forward into the stairwell looking for the concierge, who had been delivering the mail to his apartment a few minutes before; if while doing so he'd had another dizzy spell the weight of the upper half of his body would have been enough to drag him over the banister.
All Souls College, Oxford
In his review of my biography of Primo Levi, Thomas Laqueur mentions Levi's enthusiasm for Azio Corghi's Modernist opera based on Rabelais's Gargantua. Does anyone know of this opera's existence? Is a recording available? Is the composer, Azio Corghi, still alive?
Implosion in the Glens
What's with Christopher Harvie's analogy between Scotland and Baden-Württemberg (LRB, 5 September)? If he is right about economic implosion in the glens, then a better comparison would be with Thuringia or Calabria. Perhaps he avoids them because both regions are hugely dependent on money from a central or federal government. It wouldn't do for such a sublime Scots aspirationist to admit a fiscal truth. Scotland is needy, and since the money won't be coming from Brussels (why are the Irish so unenthusiastic about enlargement of the European Union?), London is his only hope.
I was grateful for Susan Eilenberg’s generous reading of my Iris Murdoch: A Life and The Saint and the Artist (LRB, 5 September), but unhappy about being advertised as anxious about the scandalous potential of my material and therefore disguising Murdoch’s youthful ‘erotic excess’. What constitutes a statistically acceptable number of lovers has presumably not been computed; Eilenberg quotes Murdoch as writing: ‘I still make my love very seriously & let it tear my guts out every time.’ What Murdoch wrote was: ‘I still take my love very seriously’ – rather different. My anxiety had to do with depicting a muddled young Iris metamorphosing into a wiser older one: neither wisdom nor moral change is fashionable, and both precoccupied Murdoch’s life and work. Conflating epithets used of her in 1938 with those from 1990 minimises both. Who, by the way, compared Murdoch to a ‘water buffalo’?
I too find it hard to believe that Dorothy Sayers wrote ‘Go to work on an egg’ (Letters, 8 August and Letters, 22 August). Perhaps Joan Rockwell is getting confused with Montague Egg, a character in a short story by Miss Sayers. She is, however, credited with two more famous slogans: ‘It pays to advertise’ and ‘Guinness is good for you.’
I think we can now take it as given that Dorothy Sayers wasn't around in advertising, or even on Earth, in the days of the Egg Marketing Board. What's striking, and also predictable, is that whenever some prominent literary figure, whether Sayers or Fay Weldon, turns out to have spent time as an advertising copywriter, authorship of one or more epochal slogans is automatically ascribed to them, as if that were the least they might have been expected to achieve during their time in an agency. My own time in advertising taught me that slogans were more likely to happen than to be deliberately thought up, as ordinary headlines lucky enough to take off.
It won’t do for Bruce Kent to perpetuate myths about the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan (Letters, 22 August). First, there was absolutely no need ‘to find out how well they worked’, as it was abundantly clear how effective they would be after the Alamagordo test explosion earlier in 1945. Second, it is not the case that the ‘Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender’: why in that case did they not surrender after the dropping of the first bomb? It was only when the Government realised that it might face the total obliteration of every major city in Japan that it surrendered (even then it refused to do so unless the position of the Emperor was guaranteed in any postwar settlement). Third, many lives (and not just American ones) were saved by the atomic bombings. An earlier (conventional) raid on Tokyo had created a ‘firestorm’ that claimed 100,000 lives: 30,000 more than were lost at either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
It is unlikely that the bombings were intended to overawe the Soviets and demonstrate US power in the Pacific for at least three reasons: first, Truman informed Stalin of the existence of the bomb, and Stalin urged him to use it; second, before the Nazi surrender, Berlin had been seriously considered as a possible target; third, at that point relations between the Western Allies and the Soviets had not yet broken down, and there is evidence that Truman was reasonably confident that it would be possible to ‘get along’ with the Russians in the postwar world.
Bruce Kent is right on one point: without the atom bomb, the Japanese would still have been forced to surrender before the end of 1945. But the principal reason was the prospect of famine. Once Japan's trade routes had been cut, there was nothing like enough rice in the country to feed the people, and what little there was the military took for its own purposes. By the middle of 1945 most civilians were half-starved: the Americans and their allies had only to blockade the country to kill several million Japanese. Had they done this, Bruce Kent would now no doubt be writing to ask how the Americans could be so cruel as to impose a lingering death on millions of women and children when all the time they had at their disposal a weapon that could have brought the war to a quick end.
Al-Jazeera is not exactly what Tariq Ali makes it out to be: a source of ‘ruthless analysis of what is wrong with the Arab world’ (LRB, 22 August). I watch the station regularly. It is, of course, a big departure from Arab government networks, but its ideological make-up is unmistakably pan-Arabist and pan-Islamist. There is a great deal of criticism of the West, in particular of the United States, but criticism of Arab political culture is rare, and of political Islam non-existent. And there seems to be no room for anyone’s suffering except the Palestinians’.
Theresa Heine is wrong when she writes that after 1871 the Prussian Army became part of the Imperial German Army (Letters, 8 August). Germany did have an Imperial Navy, but the armies of the individual German states retained their respective identities, although they were trained according to Prussian doctrine.
Ole Stig and Tevfik
The note to John Burnside’s fine poem ‘The Last Man to Speak Ubykh’ (LRB, 22 August) names the linguist who found him but not the last speaker himself. There is no reason why he should be lost along with his language. Let us name him too: he was Tevfik Esenc.
Keighley, West Yorkshire
People, Food, Drink, Travel
I enjoyed John Lanchester on Fleming almost as much as I do Fleming himself (LRB, 5 September). Yes, Fleming wrote so well – that is the point – almost as well as Raymond Chandler, whose books he revered. (In Goldfinger Bond buys the latest Chandler at the airport.) Andrew Lycett's is indeed a splendid biography: John Pearson's is good too, and so is Donald McCormick's, which I reviewed for the LRB in September 1993, pointing out – a bit like Lanchester – that we read Fleming neither for the sex nor for the violence but for a robust fictional world of people, food, drink, travel – the stuff of most good books – in the same way that we read his brother Peter's masterpiece, News from Tartary, alas, together with Brazilian Adventure, long out of print. Incidentally weren't there four Fleming brothers, two of whom were, so to speak, normal and financial?
Reading Richard Eyre’s story (Letters, 22 August), I recalled an experience of my own from that time. I was working as an Anglican chaplain in a difficult but close ecumenical partnership in the new University of East Anglia. My Roman Catholic colleague was a big-hearted, iron-willed, pugnacious Irish priest from Cork. No lack of nationalist sympathies from him. He was quite used to my protestations about the repeated shootings by the IRA of British soldiers in the weeks leading up to Bloody Sunday. The day after that event I summoned all the diplomacy I could before facing him. ‘Awful thing yesterday,’ I mumbled when we met. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘the soldiers were only boys, and the provocation was extreme. How could they have held out against that crowd? They were only human. We won’t talk about it again.’ Nor did we.
Canon John Giles
The issue as to whether The Sexual Life of Catherine M. is fact or fiction is more than just a matter of publishers’ categories. Jenny Diski’s statement (Letters, 5 September) that ‘I’m not sure it matters much – fiction and non-fiction being largely publishers’ categories’ is a glaring instance of woolly Postmodern thinking. I realise that much fiction is based on fact and that much autobiography is highly subjective, but surely it matters whether something (multiple joyless sexual encounters, for example) happened in reality or not. To categorise the book as non-fiction rather than fiction must have increased its sales: the reader’s prurient interest is likely to be more excited by the belief that these encounters actually happened than by the thought that the author imagined them.
All Mouth and …
Maureen Dowd’s description of George W. Bush in the New York Times (25 August): ‘All slaw, no ribs.’
I use the expression ‘all mouth and no trousers’ to introduce my sixth-formers to the distinction between synecdoche and metonymy. I don’t think this would work if you took away the ‘no’.
King Edward’s School, Edgbaston