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Our Daily Correspondent

She Taught the Boys Anatomy

May 27, 2015 | by

college widow

From the poster for The College Widow, 1927.

In her essay “Yellowstone Park,” collected in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy describes a friend:

In school she had the name of being fast, which was based partly on her clothes and partly on the direct stare of her reddish-brown eyes, very wide open and rounded by the thick lenses of her glasses so that the whites had the look of boiled eggs. She made me think of a college widow.

Now, there’s a term you don’t hear anymore! The “college widow”! Once a byword for a predatory vamp, the college widow is an extinct American species. Read More »

From the Archive

False Alarm

May 27, 2015 | by

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Cheever, right, with Updike on The Dick Cavett Show in 1981.

From “On the Literary Life,” a series of excerpts from John Cheever’s journals published in our Fall 1993 fortieth-anniversary issue. Cheever, born on this day in 1912, had amassed twenty-eight notebooks by the time he died, in 1982; he wrote the extracts below between 1974 and 1978. “These were workbooks, a place to take notes, to practice and to fume,” Cheever’s son, Benjamin, says in his introduction. “Please remember that this is just one piece of the man. An interesting piece, I think: diverting, instructive, candid, and intimate. But not the whole guy.”

The telephone rings at four. This is CBS. John Updike has been in a fatal automobile accident. Do you care to comment. I am crying. I cannot sleep again. I think of joining Mary in bed but I am afraid she will send me away. I think I am right. When there is a little light I feed the dogs. I hope they don’t expect to be fed this early every morning, she says. I do not point out that John will not die every morning and that in any case it is I who feeds them. The restraint costs me nothing. When I go into the kitchen for another cup of coffee she empties the pot into my cup and says: I was just about to have some myself. When I insist on sharing the coffee I am unsuccessful. I do not say that the pain of death is nothing compared to the pain of sharing a coffee pot with a peevish woman. This costs me nothing. And I see that what she seeks, much more than a cup of coffee—is to gratify a sense of denial and neglect—and that we so often, all of us, put our cranky and our emotional demands so far ahead of our hunger and thirst. Read More »

My First Time

Gabrielle Bell on Her Book of … Series

May 27, 2015 | by

My First Time” is a new video series in which we invite authors to discuss the trials of writing and publishing their first books. 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.

Our second installment stars Gabrielle Bell, a cartoonist who began to self-publish her work in the late nineties. Every year she would release a new thirty-two page comic: Book of Insomnia, Book of Sleep, Book of Black, Book of Lies, Book of Ordinary Things. In 2003, these were collected in When I’m Old and Other Stories, but before that, “I was selling them for about three dollars each,” she says, “which is about how much they cost to print.” She talks about her struggles to remain disciplined and the intensity of her yearning for a role model. “I remember having fantasies of some great cartoonist just taking me under their wing and teaching me everything they knew ... I was really struggling with depression a lot, I think ... I was almost able to directly translate it into the comics.”

If you missed yesterday’s interview with J. Robert Lennon, you can watch it here—and stay tuned for videos with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Christine Schutt later this week. There’s also a trailer featuring writers from future installments of “My First Time.”

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

On the Shelf

The Guillotine Messes with Your Head, and Other News

May 27, 2015 | by

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Unknown printmaker, Les formes acerbes, 1810.

  • You probably haven’t been worrying about John Ashbery, but if you have, don’t—he’s still got it. His new collection, Breezeway, expands the range and influence of what might be called his trash magic; reading his poems “is sometimes unnerving, as though somebody had given you your own garbage back as a gift, cheerfully wrapped. Ashbery is nearly eighty-eight; more than ever, his style is a net for the weirdest linguistic flotsam.”
  • The photographer Mary Ellen Mark is dead at seventy-five. She was known for the intimacy of her photographs and for her unflinching choice of subjects: prostitutes, homeless teenagers, mental patients, and heroin addicts. But her earlier goals were more modest: “She had two main ambitions in high school … to become the head cheerleader and to be popular with boys. She succeeded at both.”
  • Nothing begets insanity like a bloody revolution—and so the French Revolution seems to have left a preponderance of madness in its wake. The journals of Philippe Pinel, a contemporary French physician, remark on the era’s various delusions, such as “that of the clockmaker, convinced that he had already been guillotined. Somehow the verdict had been reversed, but his head had become confused with others in the basket and he had been given back someone else’s … Pinel staged an intervention, this time by a fellow patient who cheerfully pointed out the absurdity of his delusion. The clockmaker ‘retired confused amid the peals of laughter all around him and never again spoke of his change of head.’”
  • This is graduation season, wedding season—and Father’s Day is just around the corner. You need gifts that bespeak of your intense thoughtfulness and generosity. Here’s one: a gold locket containing a strand of Mozart’s hair. Estimated value: twelve thousand euros.
  • Reminder: Los Angeles is a complicated place. “Growing up in L.A. taught me that beautiful people get away with practically anything: it is an aesthetocracy. To be beautiful is to transcend, to move through the world frictionlessly, as consistently pleasant as the weather: temperate, no clouds, photo ready … It is possible to become so healthy that you become sick … It’s a paradoxical lifestyle, self-improvement as an ethos. It demands one remain just shy of perfect, leaving some room to improve.”

On Translation

The Sesquiquincentenary

May 26, 2015 | by

Looking to the stars to find Dante’s birthday.

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Sidney Hall’s etching of Gemini, 1825.

Dante Alighieri was born 750 years ago, although the exact date of his birth is, authorities say, unknown. The Vatican played it safe by starting its celebrations on May 4, with Pope Francis expressing his hope that Dante and his work will accompany us during this year on our dark way. That same day, Roberto Benigni read from The Divine Comedy on the floor of the Italian Senate, a reading broadcast to the nation. (His lovely, nonhammy recital of Canto I of Inferno is online, along with many other clips.) Well, let church and state proceed with caution. I say it’s today.

Dante’s journey to the underworld, and overworld, took place during Easter week of the year 1300, when he was “midway on his life’s journey”: halfway to the Biblical seventy, or thirty-five years old. So he was born in 1265, as Boccaccio, in the first biography of Dante, confirms. Read More »

Our Daily Correspondent

The Symbol of Hospitality

May 26, 2015 | by

Ferenczy,_Karoly_-_Pineapple_(1911)

Károly Ferenczy, Pineapple, 1911.

Yesterday, I was walking down the street, enjoying the warm weather and the city’s relative emptiness—a lot of people had gone away for the long weekend—when I saw someone who looked familiar, an old man on a bench outside an empty asphalt playground. How did I know that face?

It came to me all of a sudden. It was the old man I had seen some months ago in the supermarket, yelling at the cashier and accusing all and sundry of elder abuse. Back then, his face had been contorted with impotent rage and the terror of senility.

Now, as I stared at him, arrested, he met my eyes. “Can I have a few pennies?” he said. “A few pennies for a pineapple?” Read More »