April 24, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- M. H. Abrams, whose Norton Anthologies have united the bookshelves of English majors across time and space, is dead at 102. His seminal work, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), was that rare thing, a work of criticism that permeated the culture and changed the way we read; it resuscitated the reputation of the British Romantics and launched a new school of thought. “The first test any poem must pass,” Abrams wrote, “is no longer, ‘is it true to nature?’ but a criterion looking in a different direction; namely, ‘Is it sincere? Is it genuine?’ ”
- Maureen Freely, Orhan Pamuk’s longtime English translator, has come to see Istanbul through his eyes: “The Istanbul of my own childhood had vanished. I was left, instead, with men streaming down badly paved streets in shabby suits and covered women waiting on the roadside for the bus that never arrived; with collapsing Ottoman palaces, and fountains that had ceased working two centuries ago, and mosques whose lead domes were being plundered piece by piece.”
- Rupert Brooke, who died in 1915 of a mosquito bite, was once of Britain’s most beloved poets—devastatingly handsome, wealthy, and deeply patriotic, he was an ideal poster child for all things English. But today his sonnets on World War I make him look like a “posh idiot nationalist”: “As with the work of many writers whose worlds have so thoroughly vanished and whose lives have sunk into myth, it can be hard to grasp the humor and the lightness in Brooke’s writing.”
- “Philip Glass has written a memoir. The composer Philip Glass has written a memoir. Philip Glass has written a memoir. It begins in Baltimore. The composer Philip Glass has written a memoir. It begins in Baltimore. The American composer Philip Glass, known for his use of repetition and incremental variation, has written a memoir.”
- When the scatological meets the diabolical: a history of poop as a weapon. (Oh, like you’ve never tried to kill anyone with it.)
April 23, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
An exchange between J. P. Donleavy—who’s eighty-nine today—and John Irving, from our Spring 1988 issue. Some two years previous, in his Art of Fiction interview, Irving had disparaged Donleavy at length, speaking of their meeting at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Irving taught in the seventies:
I like meeting other writers, and Iowa City is a good place to meet them, but I didn’t enjoy Donleavy. John Cheever and I, who were in a particularly ritualized habit of watching Monday Night Football together, while eating homemade pasta, were happy to hear that Donleavy was coming. We’d both admired The Ginger Man and we wanted to meet the author. I went to the airport to meet him; I’d written three novels—but not yet The World According to Garp; I wasn’t famous. I didn’t expect Donleavy to have read anything of mine, but I was surprised when he announced that he read no one living; then he asked if we were in Kansas. I told him a little about the Workshop, but he was one of those writers with no knowledge about writing programs and many prejudices about them: to be a student of writing was a waste of time; better to go out and suffer. He was wearing a very expensive three-piece suit, very handsome shoes, and handling a very posh walking stick at the time, and I began to get irritated. In a meeting with Workshop students, he told them that any writer who was lowering himself by teaching writing wasn’t capable of teaching them anything. And so I was quite cross by the time I had to pick up the great man and drive him to his reading. I said we would be taking Mr. Cheever with us to the reading, and that both Mr. Cheever and I were great admirers, and that although I knew Mr. Donleavy did not read anyone living, he should know that Mr. Cheever was a wonderful writer. His short stories were models of the form, I said. But when I introduced Cheever to Donleavy, Donleavy wouldn’t even look at him; he went on talking to his wife, about aspirin, as if Cheever wasn’t there. I tried to say a few things about why so many American writers turned to teaching—as a way of supporting themselves without having to place the burden of making money upon their writing; and as a way of giving themselves enough time to practice their writing, too.
But Donleavy wasn’t interested and he said so. The whole trip he was taking was tiresome; the people he met, the people everywhere, were tiresome, too. And so Cheever and I sat up front in the car, excluded from the conversation about the evils of aspirin, and driving the Donleavys about as if they were unhappy royalty in a hick town. I will say that Mrs. Donleavy appeared to suffer her husband’s rudeness, or perhaps she was just suffering her headache. Cheever tried a few times to engage Donleavy in some conversation, and as Cheever was as gifted in conversation as any man I have ever met, I grew more and more furious at Donleavy’s coldness and unresponsiveness and total discourtesy. I was thinking, frankly, that I should throw the lout in a puddle, if there was one handy, when Cheever spoke up. “Do you know, Mr. Donleavy,” Cheever said, “that no major writer of fiction was ever a shit to another writer of fiction, except Hemingway—and he was crazy?” That was all. Donleavy had no answer. Perhaps he thought Hemingway was still a living writer and therefore hadn’t read him, either. Cheever and I deposited the Donleavys at the reading, which we spontaneously decided to skip. It was many years later that I met and became friends with George Roy Hill, who told me that he’d been a roommate of “Mike” Donleavy at Trinity College, Dublin, and that “Mike” was just a touch eccentric and surely not a bad sort. But I remembered my evening with Cheever and told George that, in my opinion, Donleavy was a minor writer, a shit, or crazy—or all three. I should add that drinking wasn’t the issue of this unpleasant evening; Cheever was not drinking; Donleavy wasn’t drunk—he was simply righteous and acting the prima donna. I feel a little like I’m tattling on a fellow schoolboy to tell this story, but I felt so awful—not for myself but for Cheever. It was such an outrage; that Donleavy—this large, silly man with his walking stick—was snubbing John Cheever. I suppose it’s silly that I should still be angry, but George Plimpton told me that Donleavy has a subscription to The Paris Review [a complimentary subscription—Ed.]; this presents an apparent contradiction to Donleavy’s claim that he doesn’t read anyone living, but it gives me hope that he might read this. If the story embarrasses him, or makes him angry, I would say we’re even; the evening embarrassed Cheever and me, and made us angry, too.
Donleavy wrote the following response; the editors also published a riposte from Irving. Read More »
April 23, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his collection of Civil War poems, is 150 this month—and like the war itself, it’s still perplexing and angering people. Henry James, upon its release, called it “an insult to art … the efforts of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry.”
- In which Mary Shelley trounces taboos: “When she meets the enormously handsome and charismatic poet Percy Shelley when she’s sixteen, she takes him to her special place, her mother’s grave. He’s twenty-one, she’s sixteen, and they sit and talk there for hours, day after day. Finally, it’s on that gravesite that Mary Shelley declares her love for Percy. That’s where we think she had sex for the first time, on her mother’s grave. We can’t prove that they actually had sex, but they certainly declared their love and became intimate. It was a really dangerous thing to do. The next thing they do is they run away to Paris.”
- One might suppose that in the nineteenth century, with no text messages or telephones, it was more difficult for men to be creeps. But one would be wrong, as this assortment of nineteenth-century escort cards shows. Men gave these cards to women at parties, begging them for the privilege of walking them home. “Your coral lips were made to kiss,” one says. And several offer a disturbing ultimatum: either let me take you home or let me sit on the fence, slobbering and drooling at you as you pass.
- Where have all our haruspices gone? These days, it seems hardly anyone can be bothered to divine our future from animal entrails, though we have arguably more occasions for it than ever.
- “All art—all non-propagandist art—is a form of resistance to the idea that the shape, the meaning, the myriad ways of living in and moving through the world should—or even could—ever be one thing. The greatest paintings, performances, sculptures, installations and films refuse to represent anyone as a type: this is, perhaps, art’s finest attribute.”
April 22, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
Earth: it’s a neat-looking place.
Agèd. Spherical. Cerulean-ish.
Problem is, there are more than seven billion people here, gumming up the planetary works with such “advances” as “buildings,” “indoor plumbing,” and “rust-proof tension-mounted shower caddies.” Earth is so crowded with human beings that many of them live and work within mere feet of one another. It is, on Earth Day, something of a buzzkill. Read More »
April 22, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Larry Kramer, seventy-nine, came of age at a time when being gay was still illegal; his latest opus, The American People, is kind of a novel, kind of not, very long, and very gay: “a history of hate [from] one among the hated.” “Most histories are written by straight people who wouldn’t know, see the signs that a gay person does when they look at a person’s life,” he says. “I mean, how could you write the life of Mark Twain without realizing that he was hugely, hugely gay? The way he lived, who his friends were, and how his relationships began. And what he wrote about! I don’t know how you could avoid the assumption that he’s gay.”
- An interview with Atticus Lish, who won our Plimpton Prize this year: “Spoken language is primary, and I want it to be primary. Everything should pass the reading-aloud test; that became a real theme with me before I even was aware of it. I said, ‘Don’t write like a writer; write like a talker.’ ”
- But how do you write like a talker if the person talking is an animal? Fiction is still grappling with animal consciousness, with varying degrees of success: it may be largely impossible, as Thomas Nagel wrote in his 1974 essay “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?”, reminding us that “acts of sympathetic imagination are fatally restricted by the incalculable difference between human and bat.”
- In which Kerry Howley follows two boxers: “Sportswriters talk constantly of ‘focus,’ ‘dedication,’ and ‘single-mindedness.’ It is a measure of this cliché’s persistence that, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary, men still use these words to describe Manny Pacquiao. This is a boxer who sidelines as a working politician and a low-budget-movie star, a man who leads Bible study on Sundays and moonlights as one of the shortest professional basketball players in the Philippines. He has recorded two platinum albums, and a hit single called ‘Sometimes When We Touch’ …”
- And Chris Offutt pursues “trash food,” whatever that may be: “The term ‘white trash’ is an epithet of bigotry that equates human worth with garbage. It implies a dismissal of the group as stupid, violent, lazy, and untrustworthy—the same negative descriptors of racial minorities, of anyone outside of the mainstream. At every stage of American history, various groups of people have endured such personal attacks. Language is used as a weapon: divisive, cruel, enciphered. Today is no different. For example, here in Mississippi, the term ‘Democrats’ is code for ‘African Americans.’ Throughout the U.S.A., ‘family values’ is code for ‘no homosexuals.’ The term ‘trash food’ is not about food, it’s coded language for social class. It’s about poor people and what they can afford to eat.”
April 21, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
Give him your dog-eared, your tattered, your musty tomes yearning to breathe free, the shelf-worn refugees of your teeming library. He will smooth their pages and mend their binding. For he is Nobuo Okano, book repairman.
An episode of the Japanese series Shuri, Misemasu (or The Fascinating Repairmen—would that such programming arrived on these shores) documents his careful conversion of a battered, bruised English–Japanese dictionary to a state of just-published purity. (JAPANESE CRAFTSMEN STRIKE AGAIN, says one headline about his work, as if such people are invading our homes at night with bevel squares and handsaws.) Read More »