The Daily

This Week's Reading

Staff Picks: Actors, Bluesmen, Showgirls

February 27, 2015 | by

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A still from Showgirls.

What’s so great about the new New York Times Magazine? Nicole already singled out the cover art. Dan linked to Gary Shteyngart’s “embedded” report on Russian TV. I like the tack of the whole thing, starting with the editorial letter. I like its transparency, its sense of humor, its confidence. I like the new typeface it unveils, the paper stock, too. (Finally, a newsmagazine that looks as good as New York!) Even the small decision to ghostwrite the “Lives” column shows head-thwacking common sense. (Writers will have to unburden themselves elsewhere.) Underneath these little changes, you can sense real thought about the strengths and limitations of a print weekly today. It’s no accident that the magazine has devoted serious articles to photography and a classic rock LP or that it includes a weekly poem. The editors are making the most of their medium, are paying attention to analogue media as such. That this week’s news features were informative, stylish, and timely comes as no surprise: the magazine has always published terrific features on a semiregular basis. But this week, the well added up to more than the sum of its parts. I’m eager to see how Jake Silverstein and his team follow it up tomorrow. —Lorin Stein

In 1907, Robert Walser wrote a squib in the form of a letter that responds to an actor’s request for theatrical advice. Walser prescribes a tour de force of anguish in which the actor must let out a lion-like roar from the top of the scenery; pull out tufts of (fake) hair, laying it “doucement on the earth”; pick his nose “intently”; produce a “fiery-green snake” from “your pain-warped mouth”; stick a knife in his eye and out through his throat (then light a cigarette “as if you were secretly amused about something”); and, for the big finish, be buried under the toppled scenery, with only a twitching arm visible before the curtain falls. All for the pleasure of the “bankers and spice traders” in the audience—you know, theatergoers. In 2010, Walser’s deadpan satire was translated by Paul North for Ugly Duckling and accompanied by illustrations by Friese Undine that play up the stilted, absurd, self-serious nature of the text, including a helpful quartet of portraits demonstrating proper nose picking. Walser is sarcastic but darkly, delightfully so; he’s mocking, but also, I’d imagine, partly earnest. It’s almost as though he’d written it while watching the Oscars. —Nicole Rudick
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Correspondence

The Stinking Fog of Falsehood

February 27, 2015 | by

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A letter from Saul Bellow to Jack Ludwig, circa February 1961. Ludwig and Bellow had met years earlier at Bard College, where they became close friends. Later, Ludwig began an affair with Bellow’s second wife, Sondra. The romance was something of an open secret; asked at a party if he knew Bellow, Ludwig supposedly responded, “Know him? Hell, I’m fucking his wife.” When at last Bellow learned of the affair, he wrote the letter below, which his biographer James Atlas calls “a masterpiece of comic invective.” The magazine in reference is The Noble Savage, which Bellow and Ludwig had founded in 1960.

Dear Jack;

I have tried very hard to avoid writing this letter, but I suppose there’s nothing else to do now. Your phenomenal reply of February 4th forces me to tell you a few of the things I feel about your relations to the magazine and me, personally.

[…] I don’t think you are a fit editor of the magazine. You have, in some departments, good judgment. I trusted your taste and thought you might be reliable as an editor, but you are too woolly, self-absorbed, rambling, ill-organized, slovenly, heedless and insensitive to get on with. And you must be in a grotesque mess, to have lost your sense of reality to the last shred. I think you never had much to start with, and your letter reveals that that’s gone, too. Read More »

Our Daily Correspondent

The Universal Language of Mankind

February 27, 2015 | by

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Detail from the cover of Neil Diamond’s Serenade, 1974.

“Increasingly rare is the scholar who braves ridicule to justify the art of Longfellow’s popular rhymings,” the critic Kermit Vanderbilt once wrote. One scholar of the human heart who’s never been accused of fearing ridicule is Neil Diamond. And, on his 1974 album, Serenade, he paid tribute to the Fireside Poet with his hit song “Longfellow Serenade.”

In the liner notes to a later compilation, Diamond explains, “Occasionally I like using a particular lyrical style which, in this case, lent itself naturally to telling the story of a guy who woos his woman with poetry.” Read More »

Arts & Culture

Look and Look Away

February 27, 2015 | by

On Songbook, Alec Soth’s new photobook.

Williston, ND, 2012, black-and-white photograph.

Customers waiting for Walmart to open. Williston, ND, 2012, black-and-white photograph.

If you follow the gaze of every shopper pictured in Alec Soth’s photograph of a crowded Walmart in North Dakota, you end up nowhere. The scene of big-box-store mayhem would have you think it’s Black Friday or Super Bowl Sunday morning or the peak of the shelf-clearing shopping spree that is sure to precede doomsday. But in Williston, the city at the center of the oil boom that has afforded North Dakota the lowest unemployment rate in the country, this was just commerce as usual. It was a national story a few years ago: word spread fast that some incarnation of the American Dream was up for grabs in North Dakota, and scores of men and women from all over the U.S. loaded up the family van and set course for the Peace Garden State. 

With this mind, it can be tempting to read Soth’s photograph—the empty shopping carts, the sweatpants in public, the claustrophobia-inducing crowd—as acutely tragic. The journey to a new and better life ends here? There are consumer traffic jams in the promised land? The streets aren’t paved with gold but with some sort of linoleum-vinyl composite? Read More »

On the Shelf

Where Have All Our Zawns Gone? and Other News

February 27, 2015 | by

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William Trost Richards, Rocky Cliff with Stormy Sea Cornwall, 1902.

  • Aquabob, clinkerbell, daggler, cancervell, ickle, tankle, shuckle, crottle, doofers, honeyfur, zawn the English language has historically teemed with vivid, precise words to describe the landscape and natural phenomena. So what happened to all of them?It is clear that we increasingly make do with an impoverished language for landscape. A place literacy is leaving us. A language in common, a language of the commons, is declining.”
  • On the shifting sands of literary fame: “It would be hard to find a poet, in the twenty-first century, who openly claims to write for glory, fame, or immortality. Yet the idea that great poetry was the surest way to achieve fame and outwit death has been very long-lived … Why has this dream of immortality vanished from contemporary literature? One reason, surely, is that in the twentieth century human beings faced a distinctively new uncertainty about the very existence of posterity.”
  • William Powell published The Anarchist Cookbook in 1971, when he was only nineteen. Thus ensued a very unanarchic quest, on his part, to remove it from print, as it tarnished his reputation and took on a new life as a terrorist ur-text: “All hippies at one time or another renounce themselves. Sooner or later they put a tie and a coat on.”
  • A new exhibition celebrates the work of Paul Rand, who designed the iconic logos for IBM, Westinghouse, and Enron, among others—and who, “like Charles and Ray Eames, spread a bright and cheerful image of pax Americana.”
  • The pioneering romance novelist Bertrice Small died on Tuesday, leaving behind an oeuvre of “bold sexual storytelling.” “Her best-known work was the Skye O'Malley series, which starred a swashbuckling pirate queen who commanded her own fleet and once bested Queen Elizabeth I in a battle of wits.” A friend said, “I had the pleasure of knowing Bertrice personally and I’m proud to say she was a true ‘broad’ in the very best tradition of the term.”

Look

Victor Hugo’s Drawings

February 26, 2015 | by

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Victor Hugo, Octopus with the initials V.H., 1866.

Victor Hugo wrote poetry, novels, and drama—more than enough for any mortal—but he also made some four thousand drawings over the course of his life. He was an adept draftsman, even an experimental one: he sometimes drew with his nondominant hand or when looking away from the page. If pen and ink were not available, he had recourse to soot, coal dust, and coffee grounds. He didn’t publish his drawings for fear they would distract from his projects as a writer; instead, he drew for family and friends. His son, Charles, wrote of his process,

Once paper, pen, and inkwell have been brought to the table, [he] sits down and—without making a preliminary sketch, without any apparent preconception—sets about drawing with an extraordinarily sure hand: not the landscape as a whole, but any old detail. He will begin his forest with the branch of a tree, his town with a gable, his gable with a weathervane, and little by little, the entire composition will emerge from the blank paper with the precision and clarity of a photographic negative subjected to the chemical preparation that brings out the picture. That done, the draftsman will ask for a cup and will finish off his landscape with a light shower of black coffee. The result is an unexpected and powerful drawing that is often strange, always personal, and recalls the etchings of Rembrandt and Piranesi.

His drawings are collected in a 1998 book, Shadows of a Hand. Here are a few more: Read More »

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