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The Art of Writing: James Wood on Primo Levi

November 25, 2015

“On the basis of the first chapter alone, you know that you are in the hands of a true writer, someone equipped with an avaricious and indexical memory, who knows how to animate is details, stage his scenes, and ration his anecdotes.”

Such a succinct description of the art to which all we writers aspire, and so seldom achieve.

Consider these ideas in turn.

“An avaricious and indexical memory.” Nothing escapes the author’s notice; he is greedy to accumulate names and descriptions and circumstances, and careful to file them all away where they can be called upon, like money in a bank deposit accruing interest all the while.

“Animate his details.” Data is not information. A wealth of details carelessly piled too deeply smother the life out of each other until the whole passage is rendered dead to the senses.

“Stage his scenes.” Life is a drama, fiction is a story, the narrative of nonfiction must be paced like a play on stage lest the audience be confused and sensing the lapses of the playwright leave the theatre before the climax can arrive.

“Ration his anecdotes.” The narrative as a whole IS the story, and any anecdotes that help to shape it should do no more than that, or else THEY become the story, and dilute the narrative to a thin consistency no longer worth recommending, or remembering.

The introductory sentence is quoted from James Wood’s “The Art of Witness” New Yorker (9/28/15) piece on author Primo Levi. Levi’s mastery of the narrative art in his book “If This is a Man” bears compelling witness to his experiences in Auschwitz, and those around him who did not survive.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 30, 2015 3:38 pm

    Thanks 4 sharing. I’ve read this article also. It’ll b fun to discuss it. C U on the 10.

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