Vol. 10 No. 16 · 15 September 1988

Search by issue:

Levi’s Oyster

Bravo on your excellent article about Primo Levi (LRB, 4 August), and thank you for rubbishing the egregious F. Eberstadt. But The Drowned and the Saved is not ‘the last of [Levi’s] writings to be translated and reviewed in this country’. Faber will publish his Collected Poems in November. On a personal note, may I say that small press publishers believe strongly in all their books, but the one I feel most pride in having published is Levi’s erstwhile Collected Poems: Shema (1976). Finally, there is no doubt whatsoever that Levi would have been horrified by Israeli policy towards the Palestinians and would have spoken out forcefully. The Drowned and the Saved is deeply pertinent to the question of the silence of Jews and, indeed, all people on issues of fundamental principle. I discuss this in an article on Israel and Palestine in the New Humanist.

Anthony Rudolf
London N12

Fateful Swerve

I have provided you separately with photocopies of the documents I cited in my letter of 7 June to which Professor Derrida (Letters, 4 August) has taken exception. The first, re the 1939 de Man letter, appears as an extract provided by the diligent Belgian researcher Ortwin de Graef (‘Aspects of the Context of Paul de Man’s Earliest Publications’) and appended to the copies of the hundred and seventy articles de Man wrote for Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land that Mr de Graef furnished. The question of its authenticity should ultimately be addressed to him. The quotation reads: Intéressez-vous d’avantage aux hommes, me dîtes vous. Comment donc, si je m’y intéresse; ils me passionnent, mais uniquement aussi longtemps que je reste détaché, non lié, non polarisé.

The second, the Culler citation, appears in a paper he wrote for the Irvine conference, ‘Humanities Centres and the Reconfiguration of Knowledge’. The full citation is on pages 4-5: ‘A major goal of the humanities, it seems to me, ought to be the elimination of the social sciences, which consume valuable resources to little purpose.’ He goes on to state that the ‘more interesting aspects of social thought’ have been ‘taken over’ by ‘people working in humanities departments’, which may or may not be the case: the eliminees might wish to participate in that judgment. It also leaves the status of that ‘social thought’ – my real question – an open issue.

Finally, Professor Derrida’s comments were tape-recorded and hopefully could be reconstructed competently. I was aware that they referred to his role in constituting the fine institution that the Collège is; I was not aware that he made a sharp distinction between that activity and his writing and thought.

In the end, I found Professor Derrida’s last sentence obscure, and have discovered three ways to read it. The first, intoned as ‘I will answer, not her,’ has him taking the task of answering the question out of my incompetent hands. The second, intoned ‘I will answer: not her,’ has him saying that he will come forth and respond but will not address the response to me, the direct object of the verb. The third, which is presumably what he expected to mean, ‘I will answer: not her,’ is that we cannot believe ‘J.F. MacCannell’.

Juliet Flower MacCannell
University of California, Irvine

Gissa job

Recently, various writers have expressed surprise at my having advertised for readings or adjudications, and for an agent, in your paper. There are two answers to these people. One is, why not advertise? My own publishers choose not to on the whole, Andrew Motion once told me, because they had found it didn’t pay. Apart from the isolated case of Chatto and Windus, advertising seems to work and be a sensible way of selling houses, cars services – whatever a person has to offer. My other answer is that I need to. I have worked very hard, been very ill-paid, and now have almost no prospects. My adverts were, in a sense, an attempt to find out if there was anyone among your readership courageous enough to lend a helping hand.

On the surface, my current misfortune’s odd – people are supposed to want and pay highly for wit. I’ve written witty collections of poetry and have a full-length, extremely unusual, comic travel book, Journeys to the Underworld, due out in October. Yet, within the last year, my poems have gradually become much less acceptable. I can now only publish in foreign outlets, women’s magazines and the odd small press rag– things outside the British literary scene, in other words. Similar problems exist on the readings circuit. I’ve not been allowed to give a reading from any of my six collections at the Poetry Society. More recently, my last two readings – firm bookings – were axed with extremely vague explanations. Either I’ve been blacklisted or I’m suffering from a singular dearth of work.

I deal with proofs and correspondence quickly, enjoy publicity, can make an audience laugh, have broadcast often, made TV appearances, been interviewed by many journalists and have lots of fans. So, if there is any editor from a major publishing firm willing to give this model character contracts at a standard rate rather than the unusually low 5 per cent offered by Chatto, he/she will be welcome to Pitt-Kethley’s exciting new collection or a Selected Poems. I would also consider offers from small presses for older work – hundreds of poems and two novellas. I’d like to do more journalism, readings, adjudications – anything of that sort, and I need an agent to represent me, as I have ideas for and have started four novels. I am prepared to work hard – I only ask to be allowed to earn a living.

Poets who may be thinking of emulating my vulgarity and gambling a few pounds on an advert may be interested in the results I’ve obtained so far – a fee paid in advance for one reading, vague promises of others and tentative calls from a couple of agents. The situation has also had its comic fringe benefits. One caller who wasn’t eager to give her name rang to tell me what a wonderful firm Chatto and Windus is! Another, presumably not an ‘enterprising agent’ or poetry reading organiser, simply breathed – at first. A budgie was chirping merrily in the background. I have visions of the bird betraying him to his wife (or mother?) by saying: ‘I’ve got a nine-inch cock. Do you want to hear me come?’ Who wouldn’t advertise in a paper that has such a choice and varied readership?

Fiona Pitt-Kethley
St Leonards, East Sussex


Being one of the few natives who can read, I was deeply surprised by Professor MacGregor-Hastie’s nasty letter in the LRB (Letters, 4 August). For the most part his statements are either false or fantastic. In 1985 there were nearly 1,600,000 illiterates in a population of 52,500,000 people; in 1981 58.9 per cent of the population owned his home; 13.6 per cent of the houses had no ‘indoor sanitation’, as MacGregor-Hastie calls it; a full professor earns from four to six millions per month (and in the last years no position was cancelled by the Government); in 1985 the gross national income was 680.530 billions of lire and the gross national saving was 121.557 billions of lire. And so on. I don’t bother to answer the more grotesque assertions. The English reader can find a fair presentation of today’s Italy both in La Palombara and in Italian Labyrinth by John Haycraft. To be sure, I have repeated what the official statistics say. MacGregor-Hastie does not believe in Italian statistics: but were did he find his figures? Has he personally checked everything? If he would care to stop reading Barzini’s old book and to look around him when living here, he might find some startling and disturbing evidence. MacGregor-Hastie likes Italy, but generally dislikes Italians, and it seems all too clear that he has problems in building a positive relationship with his wife’s Italian parents, relatives and friends. Nobody here would feel deprived if he decided to spend his free time elsewhere.

Carlo Natali
Padua, Italy


I write as a long-standing and contented subscriber to the London Review, which lights up my retirement very pleasantly once a fortnight. I make no pretence of being an Eng Lang or Eng Lit expert, though my job has always involved the use of words – I ended up as a draftsman of statutory instruments. One little perplexity keeps coming to me: namely, the growing use of the expression ‘self-deprecating’. It is used by Patrick Parrinder in the 7 July issue. Up till about 1950, reputable writers used only ‘self-depreciating’ and ‘self-depreciation’. Why did ‘-deprecating’ creep in? And how do I set about ‘deprecating’ myself, if I want to?

Alastair Ross
London W5

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences