The Daily

This Week's Reading

Staff Picks: Peasantry, Propaganda, Playground Crises

May 29, 2015 | by

filmvault

A still from Forbidden Films: a nitrate film vault in the Federal Film Archive in Hoppegarten, Germany.

9781555974466After several years of hearing Norwegians describe Dag Solstad as their greatest living novelist, I finally read Shyness & Dignity—and got some idea what the fuss is all about. Like the title, the plot is defiantly unprepossessing: a high school teacher notices something new about the play he’s teaching (for the umpteenth time), and this discovery triggers an existential crisis on the playground. The part that every Norwegian remembers is when the hero beats his umbrella to death against a water fountain, but behind this moment of high drama lies an amazingly compact story of one career, two marriages, and the history of Western philosophy, with particular attention to Kant and 1968. It is suggestive, sad, and extremely funny. I’ve already forced my copy on a friend. —Lorin Stein

Felix Moeller’s disturbing new documentary Forbidden Films begins outside the fortified bunker where Nazi propaganda films, still banned by the German government, are stored. There’s such a high quantity of nitro-celluloid, an archivist tells the camera, that the facility officially qualifies as an explosive device. It’s a somewhat heavy-handed attempt to literalize Moeller’s central metaphor: seventy years after their creation, the films still have the capacity to ignite controversy and endanger viewers. Moeller documents the rare screenings the government allows, as audiences turn up in droves for … what, exactly? the novelty? the danger? a dose of national guilt? (Film archives take note: turns out you can sell out a black-and-white movie just by slapping on a ringing endorsement from Joseph Goebbels.) I left the theater stunned at the propaganda films’ ability to grab and sway 2015 audiences—to frighten elderly Germans, to shock students, and to galvanize neo-Nazis, who still use the films to attract teenage followers. It’s worth seeing the look on the face of a middle-aged German man as he walks out of a screening and praises an anti-Polish film for its educational qualities: more people should know, he says, that it was really the Polish who started WWII by persecuting and interning ethnic Germans. —Rebecca Panovka
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Our Daily Correspondent

Good Digestion

May 29, 2015 | by

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Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins (detail), ca. 1500.

It’s impossible to be completely happy when you have no appetite—or when you’re sated. People talk about the contentment that comes with a full belly, but to the food lover, this seems paradoxical. After all, if you are of the sort who lives to eat, rather than the other way around, being full means that, for the moment, you don’t have much to live for.

I’ve quoted Iris Murdoch on the subject before, but the quote bears repeating: “Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.” Read More »

At Work

Ruthless Levity: An Interview with Our London Editor, Adam Thirlwell

May 29, 2015 | by

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Photo: Eamonn McCabe

“As usual the world was powdery and blue, like a rococo miniature. I was driving underneath the tree canopy and behind those trees were mansions and their many vehicles, gently arranged on the drive. It was the world as I had always known it, when being driven by my parents to music lessons or football practice or the first ever parties of my youth, the ones that ended at dawn with everyone staring at each other calmly in a field, feeling tired. That was how I always lived, out here on the outskirts of a giant city: the world occurred to me as a series of impressions seen from the windows of a car.”

Adam Thirlwell’s third novel, Lurid & Cute, is made up of such impressions—charming, nostalgic, not quite tethered to reality. The unnamed narrator—formerly a child prodigy, he tells us—is a privileged young man who has quit his office job to pursue his art, and who now lives with his wife at the house of his adoring parents. His talent, as he puts it, is mostly for thinking. The observations above occur to him as he drives his bloodied, comatose best friend to the emergency room, having discovered her suffering some kind of hemorrhage in his hotel bed after a night of ketamine and sex.

At thirty-six, Thirlwell dresses like a youngish teenager—silver sneakers, jeans, T-shirts emblazoned with the Eiffel Tower—and looks perpetually exhausted. In our Skype conversation, he had a way of speaking that, like one of his characters, “sometimes seemed like teasing and sometimes seemed like it wasn’t and it wasn’t always easy to be able to tell the two apart.” “Multiplicity! Levity! World History!” he later wrote to me in an e-mail about what he seeks in his reading. “Those kind of T-shirt slogans.”

Your dialogue is very funny. It seems very stylized but then, when you read it aloud, it’s perfectly realistic. Do you have rules for dialogue? Whose do you admire?

Maybe perversely, I love Henry James’s The Awkward Age, which is written almost entirely in dialogue and is therefore almost incomprehensible. Everyone is speaking in intimation and allusion—which is so much like life that the reader has desperately to work out what the degrees of irony and lying are. That kind of flatness seems to me the ideal. There’s a great moment in a Lampedusa essay where he praises the dialogue in Stendhal’s novels, because none of it is celebrated, nothing is quotable. I wonder if in novels, rather than plays or screenplays, the dialogue can become this baroque surface thing, because it’s free to be as close to audiotape as possible, without the burden of meaning anything, or conveying plot. Although I don’t know if this is some kind of London problem—how little is actually said in conversation. Okay, sure, there might be mutual understanding—but the sentences are only nonsense, or nonsense poetry. Read More »

My First Time

Christine Schutt on Nightwork

May 29, 2015 | by

My First Time” is a new video series in which we invite authors to discuss the trials of writing and publishing that first novel, that first play, that first book of poems. Consider it a chance to see how successful writers got their start, in their own words—it’s a portrait of the artist as a beginner and a look at the creative process, in all its joy, abjection, delusion, and euphoria.

We conclude our first installment today with Christine Schutt, whose first collection of stories, Nightwork, appeared in 1996, when she was forty-eight; John Ashbery said it was the best book of the year. Here, Schutt recalls her early attempts at writing, in her twenties, and the feedback she invariably received: “You can write very beautiful sentences and beautiful descriptions, but it may take you twenty years to figure out how to do a story ... I thought, Twenty years, my god! I’d be in my forties!”

Be sure to watch the three other “My First Time” interviews we’ve posted this week:

Later this summer, we’ll introduce the next chapter in the series; this trailer gives a preview of what’s to come.

This series is made by the filmmakers Tom Bean, Casey Brooks, and Luke Poling; we’re delighted to collaborate with them.

On the Shelf

Clown Pain Is True Pain, and Other News

May 29, 2015 | by

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Hans Breinlinger, Clown mit Spiegel, 1948.

  • Face it, America: ours is a culture that hates clowns. Coulrophobia is real, and it is systemic. But how do its victims feel? “I want respect, and I don’t want respect,” Boswick, a clown from San Francisco, has said. “I want respect for who I am and my résumé and how hard I work, how many classes I’ve taken, and at the same time I think respect for clowning is the dumbest thing in the world. Why would you have respect for clowns? Clowns are the ones who’re making fun of the world. If you respect the clown, the clown’s doing something wrong.”
  • Americans don’t give French Canadians much respect, either—and even if most of that can be blamed on Celine Dion, it’s still time to make a change. We might start by reading Raymond Bock’s Atavismes: Histoires, now available in English: “Readers will need to break through its decidedly specific references: the book, a collection of thirteen short stories, makes few concessions to those unfamiliar with the particulars of Quebec culture—a helpful appendix explains joual cursing (in which equivalents of chalice and host are two of the most vile expletives) and French Canadian touchstones such as the Quiet Revolution, les filles du roi, and the folksinger Paul Piché.”
  • In which Arthur Conan Doyle experiments with drugs—specifically with gelsemium, a dried rhizome of yellow jasmine: “A thick, black cloud swirled before my eyes, and my mind told me that in this cloud, unseen as yet, but about to spring out upon my appalled senses, lurked all that was vaguely horrible, all that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe.”
  • To look at a list of the most popular headlines on social media is to become deeply sad and afraid: “publications’ sensibilities have conformed to the platforms that send them visitors; their sites have adopted the tone and language of social media; news and entertainment, mixed as ever, now mingle according the demands and preferences of the feeds into which they are deployed.”
  • In Europe, fiction is the new reality in the workplace—if you can’t get a job, you can try to get a fake job. “Inside virtual companies, workers rotate through payroll, accounting, advertising and other departments. They also receive virtual salaries to spend within the make-believe economy. Some of the faux companies even hold strikes—a common occurrence in France.”

Look

Where We Live

May 28, 2015 | by

Atlanta, GA, 1996

Atlanta, Georgia, 1996. Photo via Laurence Miller Gallery

David Graham’s “Where We Live: Photographs of the American Home” is at Laurence Miller Gallery through June 26. Graham’s photographs span more than thirty years; he aims to “document the American home as both sanctuary and playful expression of individuality.” You can see more of his work here.
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