The Franz Kafka Society announced yesterday that it was awarding the prestigious Franz Kafka Prize for 2011 to the Irish writer John Banville, who has built a reputation for being one of the finest prose stylists working in English--and for being a bit difficult.
First, there are the books themselves. "In their architecture and their style," wrote Belinda McKeon in the introduction to Banville's 2009 Paris Review interview, "his books are like baroque cathedrals, filled with elaborate passages and sometimes overwhelming to the casual tourist." And then there is the personality. When Banville won the 2005 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sea, he proclaimed, "it is nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize." As he explained later to The Village Voice, "the Booker Prize and literary prizes in general are for middle-ground, middlebrow work, which is as it should be. The Booker Prize is a prize to keep people interested in fiction, in buying fiction. If they gave it to my kind of book every year, it would rapidly die."
Art may not be for everyone, but for those who have read his books--16 novels published under his own name, four crime novels under the pen name Benjamin Black, and one collection of short stories--there is no doubt that Banville is an artist. "It all starts with rhythm for me," Banville told the Paris Review. "I love Nabokov's work, and I love his style. But I always thought there was something odd about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Then I read an interview in which he admitted he was tone deaf. And I thought, that's it--there's no music in Nabokov, it's all pictorial, it's all image-based. It's not any worse for that, but the prose doesn't sing. For me, a line has to sing before it does anything else. The great thrill is when a sentence that starts out being completely plain suddenly begins to sing, rising far above any expectation I might have had for it. That's what keeps me going on those dark December days when I think about how I could be living instead of writing."
For an example of Banville's singing prose, we leave off where The Sea begins:
They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. No sail marred the high horizon. I would not swim, no, not ever again.
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There is, of course, no reader of Thomas' poetry equal to Thomas himself. Just listen to this BBC recording from 1951, the year the beloved villanelle was first published. But if dulcet tones and minimalist recordings aren't your thing, then you might want to check out this John Cale version.
For Class Day 2011, Harvard had comedian Amy Poehler, and Yale had Tom Hanks -- two figures who have a whole lot more entertainment value than the speaker at my graduation -- the Assistant County Coroner. Dead serious! Pun only halfway intended. Anyway, I digress. Today, we're featuring Tom Hanks, the two-time winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor, who starts funny, but then turns a little serious, reminding graduates, à la F.D.R., that essentially "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Not a bad talk overall, but we're still most partial to Steve Job's Stanford talk from 2005. Our hands-down favorite...
E. chromi, a short film about a unique collaboration between designers and biologists has won the best documentary award at Bio:Fiction, the world’s first synthetic biology film festival, held earlier this month in Vienna. E. chromi tells the story of a project uniting designers Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and James King with a team of undergraduate biology students at Cambridge University. Using genes from existing organisms, the team designed custom DNA sequences, called BioBricks, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria.The new E. coli—dubbed “E. chromi”—were programmed to express a rainbow of colors when exposed to various chemicals.
Ginsberg and King helped the young biologists dream up a variety of possible applications for the invention.For example, E. chromi could be used to test the safety of drinking water--turning red if a toxin is present, green if it’s okay. Or it might be used as an early warning system for disease: a person would ingest some yogurt containing E. chromi, then watch out for tell-tale colors at the other end of the digestive process.
The E. chromi team was awarded the grand prize at the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For more films on synthetic biology, see the Bio:Fiction website.
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Open Culture editor Dan Colman scours the web for the best educational media. He finds the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & movies you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.