The Daily

This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Screwball, Gothic, and Southern, to Name a Few

December 6, 2013 | by

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“We all find we cannot take on any more patients. We are all waiting for calls from superiors, pick up the phones each time hoping it is one of them, then find it is only another patient. The superiors of course think of us as patients and dread our calls.” Last Sunday I spent the hours between five and eleven A.M. finishing Renata Adler’s 1983 novel Pitch Dark, and they were the best four solid hours of my week. Thanks to NYRB Classics, which recently reissued Pitch Dark and Adler’s earlier novel, Speedboat, Adler is coming to be recognized as one of the great novelists of our time, on the strength of two slim books. Until now I had avoided Pitch Dark because it has the lesser reputation, and because Speedboat seemed to me so perfect, I couldn’t imagine lightning striking twice. But Pitch Dark—the story of a breakup, and of a solitary vacation gone awry—has all the suspense of a mystery, all the wit and companionability of an essay, and all the satirical worldliness I loved in Speedboat. Adler should be required reading for M.F.A students, at the considerable risk of shutting young writers down for lack of anything to say. The rest of us can read her for pleasure. —Lorin Stein

When you think about it, there really are a startling number of remarriages in screwball comedies: His Girl Friday, My Favorite Wife, The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth—and those are just the films in which Cary Grant ends up with an ex-wife. The philosopher Stanley Cavell takes on this phenomenon in 1981’s Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, and argues that the plot device was more than just a way to flirt with the Hays Code. As he writes, “Can human beings change? The humor, and the sadness, of remarriage comedies can be said to result from the fact that we have no good answer to that question.” —Sadie O. Stein

The Fargo Moorhead Observer reports that a Fargo man has been arrested for clearing snow with a flamethrower. The man stated that he was simply “fed up with battling the elements” and that he did not possess the willpower necessary to “move four billion tons of whitebullsh-t.” —John Jeremiah Sullivan

Rarely do I read a magazines from cover to cover in one sitting. However, I couldn’t tear myself away from the Oxford American’s Southern Music Issue. Dedicated to the music of Tennessee, issue 83 gives you plenty of history: our own Southern editor John Jeremiah Sullivan on Junior Braithwaite, Rosco Gordon, and the birth of ska; an epic, posthumous memoir from Memphis blues guru Jim Dickinson; and a Christmas tale by Beasts of the Southern Wild scribe Lucy Alibar. One word of advice: clear your schedule and read near a computer, because every essay will result in a rabbit hole of song searches and obscure musicians. As Sullivan writes, “I wanted to be able to hold the evolution of [the music] in my head, just for a minute, to say how it happened, session by session. You can’t really do it. Even when you know everything.” But you can still try. —Justin Alvarez

Up until this week, I thought it was obvious that epithets, especially negative ones, invariably improve names. (Case in point—no one remembers Tsars Ivan “The Money Bag” and “The Fair.”) But through its poetic inventiveness, War Music, Christopher Logue’s teeming, modern, cinematic take on the Iliad, demonstrates how an epithet might become a bit of a monkey on your back: Achilles doesn’t want to become known as “Wondersulk” in years to come; “Mouse God Apollo” is also hard-done-by, legacy-wise. To counter, Zachary Mason’s project in The Lost Books of the Odyssey is to retouch forty-four episodes from Odysseus’s homecoming, untethering the characters, so that they develop beyond the remit set up by Homer’s fate-sealing descriptors. War Music is a classic, whereas Mason’s stories are self-consciously disposable. In tandem, reimagining in the true sense. —Lucie Elven

After reading Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, I wasn’t too surprised to learn that the author had once received a letter from Freud, who wrote that he’d been avoiding Schnitzler for fear of running into his own doppelgänger. Just look at the subject matter of this short, hallucinatory narrative: sexual jealousy, adulterous dreams, an erotic encounter with a young woman in the presence of her dead father … it’s all there. Traumnovelle was the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which means that one of the central challenges of reading this book is suppressing the mental image of Tom Cruise’s face, leering at you from fifteen years ago, or from the more sinister realms of your subconscious. —Fritz Huber

Some readers do the Gothic, some don’t. Poe never gave me chills. I never got doubles or ghosts. But I confess that certain pages of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, the 1948 novella by the Ossetian Gaito Gazdanov, were scary enough that I skimmed them—then made myself go back and take them in. The story of a veteran of the Russian Civil War, forced to confront the man he left for dead, is truly troubling, a weird meditation on death, war, and sex, with an ending I don’t understand, and don’t want to. I can’t read Russian, but Bryan Karetnyk’s new translation makes you believe in the power of the original, not least when it’s most obscure. —L.S.

If you are in Manhattan before February 23, check out “The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution” at the New York Historical Society. It’s a comprehensive and well-organized précis on the landmark art show that introduced New York to the European avant-garde, scandalizing and delighting critics in equal measure. The exhibit reunites now-classic works by Duchamp, Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, and Gauguin with many names art history has forgotten, but just as interesting is the selection of parodies and writings the Armory Show spawned. As one contemporary New York Times critic wrote, the Cubism and Fauvism on display represented “a general movement to disrupt and degrade, if not to destroy, not only art, but literature and society, too.” —S.O.S.

 

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