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Marx’s Literary Style: a Letter from the Editor

"It’s so satisfying when an email like that arrives, like a thirty-year burden of guilt and shame at not having published this book in English being thrown off in a few lines" – Sebastian Budgen, Editorial Director.

Verso Books 4 July 2023

Marx’s Literary Style: a Letter from the Editor

Marx's Literary Style by Ludovico Silva is part of our January Verso Book Club reading. See the rest of our spring book club picks here.

Sometimes, just sometimes, a message in a bottle ends up in the right hands. Ludovico Silva’s book, first published in Spanish in 1975, is the kind of text that acquires a magical aura for non-hispanophone readers (although it was also translated into Italian): mentioned positively by figures like Umberto Eco and Fredric Jameson (in Representing Capital), but only in passing, it is classic in Latin America and is the kind of book that is on any Marxist editor’s wish list of books that should be translated should a leftist millionaire ever decide to fund a translation programme (it’s got to happen one day, right … right?). But I was never expecting a full translation to end up in my lap.

In 2018, the Verso blog carried a wonderful piece The Best Books on Marx to mark the bicentenary of Marx’s birth. We invited Verso friends and authors such as Mike Davis, Sara Farris, China Miéville, Maïa Pal, Esther Leslie, Sophie Lewis, Veronica Gago, Asad Haider, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Camille Barbagallo to nominate their favourite texts on the Old Moor. The choices were stimulating and quirky (Mike Davis’s being characteristically obscure and off-piste, but that is another story…) and it was so interesting that I think we should repeat the exercise regularly with different comrades. In any case, Alberto Toscano was also part of this roster and nominated the Silva book. On the other side of the Atlantic, it seems that this pricked the ears of Paco Brito Núñez, and English instructor at Orange Coast College in California, who took it upon himself to translate the whole text and then wrote to Alberto, who connected Paco to me. It’s so satisfying when an email like that arrives, like a thirty- year burden of guilt and shame at not having published this book in English being thrown off in a few lines…

All readers of Marx, a former fledgling poet, are aware that he was steeped in the classics and was deeply influenced by the literary works of figures such as Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe. Anyone who has any doubts on this score should read S.S. Prawer’s indispensable Karl Marx and World Literature (and they should pursue this theme with Marshall Berman’s All that Is Solid Melts into Air). And these impressions are hammered home when one pays attention to the writerly quality of Marx’s texts, especially the Grundrisse, the first volume of Capital, and a number of political texts such as the Communist Manifesto (see China Miéville’s important new book A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto) and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

As Alberto Toscano describes, in the excellent introduction penned for this edition, figures from the Marxist movement such as Franz Mehring and Wilhelm Liebknecht did note Marx’s style and, more recently, Daniel Hartley has published a major study of the question of style generally in the Marxist tradition. But it is surprising that no one other than Silva had taken on the task of a full-scale, book-length analysis of the question. Perhaps it is all the more surprising that such a work should find its origins in Caracas, something of a backwater in theoretical terms for Marxists in the 1970s, certainly when compared to the flamboyance of Buenos Aires or Mexico City (indeed, Venezuela was chosen as a point de chute by a figure like the left communist Marc Chirik in the post-war era precisely because, with the looming fear of an impending nuclear war, it seemed so out of the way that it might be spared the worst effects of the imperialist apocalypse…)

But, as Alberto describes, the strikingly hirsute Silva was no ordinary Marxist theorist and seemed to have more than enough flamboyance of his own to outmatch his peers to the north and south:

Born Luis José Silva Michelena in 1937 to a well-to-do family in Caracas (his older brothers José Agustin and Héctor were prominent academics, the first a sociologist and anthropologist, the second an economist whose contributions to dependency theory would influence his younger brother), after attending a private Jesuit college Ludovico continued his education in Europe between 1954 and 1960. There he studied philosophy and literature in Madrid (where fellow student-poets baptized him with the name he would use from then on), French literature at the Sorbonne and Romance philology at Freiburg under Hugo Friedrich, whose readings of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé in The Structure of Modern Poetry would hold an abiding influence over Silva – introducing him not just to formal study of les poètes maudits but to what he called the ‘dense and jagged, if ultimately tender, forest of the German language’. …

Upon returning to Venezuela, Silva began establishing himself as a poet and essayist – his first collection, Tenebra, is from 1964, while his second book, Boom!!! (1965), a poem on nuclear warfare in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, would be prefaced by Thomas Merton. For Silva, poetry was ‘an indispensable weapon to attain a genuine knowledge of things. It is, in its deepest essence, dialectics.’ … Silva’s life seems to have borne greater affinities with Baudelaire’s (or Bukowski’s) than with that of a typical revolutionary militant or theorist. As his brother Héctor reminisced: ‘Tormented existence? Yes! Together we traveled to alcohol’s chiaroscuro kingdom, together we caroused in the bars and taverns in the whirlwind of the República del Este and the Callejón de la Puñalada, together we gave food and drink to beggars and gangsters at high dawn.’ In 1986, Silva would be briefly committed to an asylum for the mental disturbances caused by ‘a demonic acid they called ammonium’, generated by his alcohol consumption – an experience recorded in short harrowing and delirious texts, scribbled on any available surface, including cigarette packets, and published posthumously as Papeles desde el amonio. He would die two years later, at the age of fifty-one, of a heart attack caused by cirrhosis of the liver.

I think that the technical term in English for this would be a ‘character’, or possibly a ‘dude’ in Usonian. He was also a wordsmith capable of conjuring up titles for his books such as Belleza y revolución, La plusvalía ideológica, Anti-manual para uso de marxistas, marxólogos y marxianos, Filosofía de la ociosidad, En busca del Socialismo perdido, In vino veritas, Cuadernos de la noche, La interpretación femenina de la historia y otros ensayos, La torre de los ángeles and La soledad de Orfeo. Let us hope that the publication of Marx’s Literary Style will serve as another bottled message flung into the ocean that will inspire new translators on other shores!

Sebastian Budgen, Editorial Director, Europe

Verso, London

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In Marx’s Literary Style, the Venezuelan poet and philosopher Ludovico Silva argues that much of the confusion around Marx’s work results from a failure to understand his literary mode of expression. Through meticulous readings of key passages in Marx’s oeuvre, Silva isolates the key elements of his style: his search for an “architectonic” unity at the level of the text, his capacity to express himself dialectically at the level of the sentence, and, above all, his great gift for metaphor.

Marx's Literary Style
In Marx’s Literary Style, the Venezuelan poet and philosopher Ludovico Silva argues that much of the confusion around Marx’s work results from a failure to understand his literary mode of expressio...

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