Tvetan Todorov

Tzvetan Todorov, Literary Theorist and Historian of Evil, Dies at 77

Tzvetan Todorov, a Bulgarian-French literary theorist and historian of ideas whose concerns in dozens of books ranged from fantasy in fiction to the moral consequences of colonialism, fanaticism and the Holocaust, died on Tuesday in Paris. He was 77.

The cause was multiple system atrophy, a progressive brain disorder, his son Sacha said.

A disciple of Roland Barthes, Mr. Todorov became prominent in the 1970s for his work on structuralism, a method of interpretation — influenced by cultural anthropology — that focuses on recurring patterns of thought and behavior.

He developed his study of the formal processes of storytelling into a 1973 book, “The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre,” which examined the structural features in fantasy-based texts like “Arabian Nights” and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.”



How Thomas Pynchon Turned Seattle Into Nazi Germany Tim Appelo

Here’s big news for literature buffs: Gravity’s Rainbow, the masterpiece by Thomas Pynchon, Seattle’s most-honored and influential writer, turns out to be a savage act of vengeance against our town, inspired by our 1962 Century 21 Exhibition. “Seattle World’s Fair scenes have been exaggerated, parodied, remixed,” writes University of British Columbia scholar Jeffrey Severs in the latest issue of Twentieth Century Literature, “making Gravity’s Rainbow in part a Seattle history.” The book won the 1974 National Book Award and should’ve won the Pulitzer Prize, but the board overruled the judges and awarded no Pulitzer that year.

We’ve long known that Pynchon started his career at Boeing in 1960, writing articles on the Minuteman nuclear missile system. Weirdly secretive, Pynchon surrounded his Boeing desk with enormous, stiff sheets of engineer’s paper, providing privacy while he wrote articles like “The Mad Hatter and the Mercury Wetted Relays,” which warned nuclear launch officers that mercury tubes in their nuke switches could break and make them crazy. (Hat makers often went insane, poisoned by mercury in hat felt, and inspired Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter character).

Pynchon blended the Fair with Nazi Germany. Both Century 21 and the novel’s setting—a combination of Germany 1945 and a nuclear apocalypse—were billed as Cities of the Future. Jet City, as Seattle was known thanks to Boeing, became Pynchon’s Rocket City, an “oppressive realm of performance, spectacle and exhibitions,” Severs notes, with Monorail-like elevated trains and a mad photographer who is “a habitué of mercury fumes,” like Mad Hatters and switch-crazed nuke-launchers.

 Rocket City has a flame-topped tower (like the Space Needle’s natural gas flame in ’62), with an observation deck looking out on Seattle weather “washed and darkening cloud sheets…a magnificent sky, marble carried to a wildness of white billow and candescence.” Its futuristically fast elevator combines the Needle with the Bubbleator, whose operators, like the novel’s, were all tall, striking females.

Elvis Presley shot a movie at the Fair, putting real fairgoers in a fantasy story; Rocket City has a filmmaker who calls the entire world a giant film set. The Fair’s burlesque shows boasted “Girls of the Galaxy,” posing in space-wear as tourists snapped naughty shots on rented cameras; their counterparts show up in Gravity’s Rainbow. The Fair’s X-rated puppet show, Les Poupées de Paris, created by the future creators of H.R. Pufnstuff and the Banana Splits, may have inspired some of Pynchon’s obscene cartoonish scenes, as did Walt Disney, who consulted on Seattle’s Fair.


Catch Us If You Can By Bruce Watson

On a brisk autumn afternoon in 1952, 16 wounded soldiers were brought aboard the Canadian destroyer Cayuga patrolling the Yellow Sea off the coast of Inchon, South Korea. Casualties of the Korean War, the men were in bad shape. Several would not survive without surgery. Luckily, the ship’s doctor had told the crew he was a trauma surgeon. Now, the portly, middle-aged man donned scrubs and ordered nurses to prepare the patients. Then he stepped into his cabin, opened a textbook on surgery and gave himself a crash course. Twenty minutes later, high school dropout Ferdinand Demara, aka Jefferson Baird Thorne, Martin Godgart, Dr. Robert Linton French, Anthony Ingolia, Ben W. Jones, and on this afternoon, Dr. Joseph Cyr, strode into the operating room.


With a deep breath, the faux surgeon sliced into bare flesh. He kept one basic principle in mind. “The less cutting you do,” he told himself, “the less patching up you have to do afterward.” Finding a splintered rib, Demara removed it and extracted a bullet near the soldier’s heart. He was afraid the soldier would hemorrhage, so he slipped some Gelfoam, a coagulating agent, into the wound and it clotted almost immediately. Demara put the rib back in place, sewed the man up, and administered a huge dose of penicillin. Onlookers cheered.

A face pe mortul

Playing Dead: A Journey through the World of Death Fraud By ELIZABETH GREENWOOD

“This is no how-to manual.” Right. Playing Dead is no more not a how-to guide than is The Anarchist Cookbook. Nevertheless, here you will learn (or learn about) the dark art of fabricating your own disappearance. Or, should you wish to go six feet deeper, how to commit pseudocide — fake suicide. For those who prefer the step-by-step approach, there is one of those if/then diagrams, with boxes of questions and arrows that chart your next step depending upon your answer, a map through the mazy minefield of death fraud. Elizabeth Greenwood endeavors to kill herself. That’s commitment, even if she’s only playing.

What do Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakki , Juliet Capulet, Tom Sawyer, and Don Draper share in common? They all faked their death. Playing dead is a hoary old trick, running across species — possums, of course, but it’s also practiced by lemon sharks, snakes, goats, and a passel of others — and serving as a protonarrative for many a myth. It was an exit strategy that Greenwood considered when her student loans threatened to reduce her life to debt management, half steps toward a vanishing point. No, “the dross of life would not inflict itself upon me: I would arrange and edit to suit my specifications. Faking death would be a refusal, a way to reject the dreary facts.”