The Daily

Correspondence

Driveling Idiots from All Over Europe

September 2, 2015 | by

Joseph Roth, potentially exercised.

Part of a letter from Joseph Roth to Blanche Gidon, his French translator, sent October 11, 1932. Roth, born on this day in 1894, used his letters to vent his spleen, often about money and politics; in this note he rails against French publishing. (“Une heure avec” refers to a regular interview feature in the literary weekly Les Nouvelles Littéraires.) “His actual molten, sun-spotted core,” writes his English translator Michael Hofmann, “flares nakedly in these letters.” Hofmann’s Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters was published in 2012.
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Our Daily Correspondent

One Shade of Grey

September 2, 2015 | by

Photo: Bookfoolery

“A 1907 page-turner about American heiresses marrying impoverished, effete English aristocrats,” reads the description affixed to the shelf below The Shuttle. Obviously, I want to read it. And obviously, this is the work of Persephone Books.

You don’t need to go to their shop in London to read Persephone, of course. Their Web site lists all their titles, and many can be found at bookstores around the English-speaking world. Their catalog makes for good reading, too—and it’s lovely to look at, with the same attention to color and pattern that enlivens the flyleaves of the entire gray-jacketed Persephone library. Read More »

On Translation

The Age of Udge

September 2, 2015 | by

Learning a word from John Ashbery.

From Edward Burtynsky’s Oil, 2012, color photograph.

It started, as things sometimes do, with an Ashbery poem: “Staffage,” from his book A Wave.

The poem is more than thirty years old now, and it’s remarkable how well it captures the generation then just being born: “I am one of a new breed / Of inquisitive pest” (the poem makes clear-ish that this is a pest from the perspective of the older speaker, not in the eyes of the poet himself) “in love with the idea / Of our integrity, programming us over dark seas / Into small offices, where we sit and compete / With you, on your own time.”

It’s a kind of prophecy Ashbery can still pull off, for instance with the artisanal children of today in a poem from 2015’s Breezeway called “Seven-Year-Old Auroch Likes This”: “Will research tell us tomorrow / of normal morals? Take a Brooklyn family / in fracture mode, vivid, / energizing, throbs to the earlobes … Exeunt the Kardashians.” I predict this poem will make perfect sense in thirty years. Read More »

On the Shelf

Postcards from the Postapocalypse, and Other News

September 2, 2015 | by

Ryan Spencer, Such Mean Estate #12, unique panchromatic instant print, 2.9" x 3.7". Image via Guernica

  • So you’re writing a sex scene—congratulations! The journey ahead will be arduous, and likely totally unsexy, but there are some rules of thumb for these things. Your first major decision is what to call the penis. “Do go for the etymological dictionary for epithets that feel historical: like, membrum virile, arbor vitae (from the late eighteenth century, for a type of evergreen shrub), wrinkly (early fifteenth century) or bole (early fourteenth century, from Old Norse bolr meaning tree trunk).” From here, it’s all smooth sailing.
  • Today in creative responses to impending doom: Leslie Jamison has collaborated with the photographer Ryan Spencer on Such Mean Estate, which “interweaves photographs of episodes from apocalypse movies with what Jamison refers to as her catechism: an essay structured as a series of questions and answers pertaining to the images on the page.” “I was really drawn to the sense of aloneness that rose from so many of these images,” Jamison says, “I also like the way that apocalypse scenarios in film sometimes allow an outsider—a wacko scientist, ignored Cassandra prophet, loner—to play some crucial or necessary role, to become part of his community again.”
  • Wittgenstein’s language philosophy is surprisingly relevant to the way we interact online: “The shift to online communication, textual interactions separated from accompanying physical practices, has had a persistent and egregious warping effect on language, and one that most people don’t even understand. It has made linguistic practice more limited, more universal, and more ambiguous. More people interact with one another without even realizing they are following different rules for words’ usages. There is no time or space to clarify one’s self.”
  • Since humankind has essentially turned the planet into a mall, it’s time to refurbish our concept of nature—time to acknowledge, that is, that nature is a mall, and to maintain it as such. “No place is natural any longer, and so the entire environment has become in a certain sense a built environment … If the entire environment has become a built environment, would that not then mean that it was time to think about an environmentalism of the built environment? Indeed, one might even start to wonder whether the emphasis on the protection of nature—if nature is gone, or even if nature is simply going—might actually be an obstacle to clear environmental thinking: if most or all of the world that ‘environs’ us is not natural, shouldn’t it be the built environment, and not nature, that is the focus of our environmental concern?”
  • Jason Scott is “the guy who can save bits of history right before they disappear.” He digitizes things. Recently, for instance, he scanned about fifty thousand obsolete engineering manuals that were soon to be thrown away. “There’s value and meaning here,” he says. “Everything from the fonts and the layouts … How a company presents its brand, how it appraises things. And other times you pick one up and, wow, nobody writes with this brilliance and clarity about technical subjects. These manuals feel like they’re a project as important as the item they’re describing.”

Arts & Culture

Cheddar, Cheever, and the Burbs

September 1, 2015 | by

An illustration from Muriel Stanek’s How People Live in the Suburbs, 1970.

Fifty years ago, John Cheever published The Wapshot Scandal, his second novel. Like many second novels, it’s more ambitious and more playful than its predecessor, the work of a writer who suspects he’s better than he feared. The traditional form suddenly seems boring, the same old themes threaten a categorization that the writer doesn’t want, and the writer—encouraged by praise, validated by awards, perhaps softened by income—realizes he can write just about anything. So he does.

The Wapshot Scandal begins where The Wapshot Chronicle ended: with the Wapshot family leaving the safety of St. Botolphs and searching for fulfillment in more modern suburban communities. An acrid whiff of cynicism rises from the page: we know this won’t end well, Cheever knows we know, and now it’s a matter of how and when. Moses and Coverley Wapshot bring their wives to Proxmire Manor and Talifer, respectively; the first is an archetype of the suburban nightmare, the second an archetype of a Cold War community, built around a missile-research facility.

Scandal is very much of its time, but even in its time the satire was well-trod: husbands drink too much, wives betray, wealth corrodes, families splinter, sex—granted or withheld—destroys. Cheever’s cynicism isn’t unique; he never claimed it was. What was, and what remains, unique, are passages like this:

The village, he knew, had, like any other, its brutes and its shrews, its thieves, and its perverts, but like any other it meant to conceal these facts under a shrine of decorum that was not hypocrisy but a guise or mode of hope.

This is what made Cheever special: he understood that the desperate idealism behind existential decay is still idealism. Which brings me to, well, me. Read More »

Our Daily Correspondent

Varieties of Reluctance

September 1, 2015 | by

ethelindfearonreluctantcookalexjardine

One of Alex Jardine’s illustrations from The Reluctant Cook.

I was delighted, at a London bookshop, to encounter a recent reissue of the 1954 Ethelind Fearon manual The Reluctant Hostess. As far as I’m concerned, Fearon’s entire oeuvre should be in print always, regardless of commercial considerations. She is that idiosyncratic.

Fearon, who died in 1974 and at present doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry, was an authority on restoring medieval houses and an accomplished gardener—at one point she kept H. G. Wells’s garden—but as her official Random House bio would have it, “under pressure from publishers and an eager public she also wrote a number of books on such diverse but essential subjects as pigkeeping, pastries, how to keep pace with your daughter, and how to grow herbs.” (I want to meet every member of this supposedly clamoring public.) Read More »