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Sylvia Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick”

November 21, 2013 | by

Plath-Hughes-Portrait-Paris-Review

Collage via Flickr.

I am a miner. The light burns blue.
Waxy stalactites
Drip and thicken, tears

I am writing this while pregnant with my first son, just as Sylvia Plath was when she wrote “Nick and the Candlestick” in 1962.

I wanted him: he was no surprise or trouble at all; he was passion and biology. But I am not happy. No one in smiley U.S.A. is supposed to say this at the news of a baby. An expectant mother is supposed to be ecstatic, full of promise and life. It is true, I marvel; the last thing I ever expected to be good at was creating a small person, that my body could nourish him both inside itself and within the world. He’s evidence that something inside me might work, even if other, less visible things do not.

Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean

Before him, I would read Plath quotes from one of those ubiquitous Twitter feeds, feel recognition—and feel like a cliché. I do genuinely love her work, but it’s so expected, so reductive—even if, with him, it feels newly vital for me. We all know the narrative: marry a handsome, destructive man, go from one to two, three then four, and then kill yourself at thirty. Like so many girl-readers, I worshipped her and selfishly romanticized the tragedy. As a young woman, Plath sought the whirl and illusion of enchanted, swift New York, painfully unprepared for adulthood, and like so many others, I recognized all those standard youthful Manhattan dreams, darker when you feel everything twenty-fold, when you’re unsure of having any talent or worth, paralyzed by sensitivity, maybe a little weak, easy to dismantle. A cliché, yes, but the mythology, and the work, remain captivating and solid. As a writer and a reader and a human being with dark tendencies, I have great empathy for everything Plath. There is a reason she has endured. We may all fail miserably at love, family, and living, but we can try to be brave, especially in our work. As Plath says of her own womb, my stomach was always crawling with white newts and calcification, a gut that betrayed me, even when I tried to convince it of happy otherwise. Read More »

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Gossip Archaeology with Edmund White

February 28, 2013 | by

pink_macaronI had planned my disclaimer before he even opened the door. What kind of an idiot, I had realized belatedly, brings noted francophile and former Paris-dweller Edmund White bootleg, neon, NYC-made macaroons for tea at his apartment? “Mr. White, I am so embarrassed ...”

I never had a chance to tell him. He was kind and warm, thrilled with the fat, ersatz cookies, even claiming he loved them, got them himself sometimes. We sat down together in White’s living room with a pot of English tea and two Fiesta teal-colored teacups, me on the couch facing him, in one of a pair of battered brown club chairs. He was wearing a pale-blue checkered shirt and navy pants. I’d interrupted his taxes, visible on the den table.

We’d been put in touch by Kathryn Hamilton, press attaché of the Cultural Services at the French Embassy, in regards to the Marcel Proust exhibit they organized with the BnF at the Morgan Library for the upcoming centennial of Swann’s Way. This was our initial point of contact, at least. Paris gossip was more pressing. I’d just gotten back from the city where White lived for many years, the subject of his upcoming memoir, Inside a Pearl. He’d initially wanted to call it Paris Gossip, but the publisher wouldn’t have it. They wanted more depth. “I don’t think it will ever be published in France,” White told me, because of French invasion-of-privacy laws. “I used to call myself an archaeologist of gossip,” he said. “That’s sort of Proust, too—not to make a comparison between my humble self and the great Proust.” Read More »

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New York, Not Too Long Ago

November 29, 2012 | by

I hadn’t seen Jake since years ago, when we had met at the Guggenheim before going away to college. I remember only one scene from the encounter: spinning around the museum’s spiraling staircase with our arms spread like wings. When we reached the ground floor, we ran out as fast as we could before anyone could have a word with us about our behavior. I don’t recall talking about France, because I don’t think we really did. I remember just twirling with abandon. He had been the only one to understand my kind of crazy. I wouldn’t see him again for five years.

Our second meeting was in Manhattan at the Odeon restaurant. Jake looked the same as he had in France, though a little taller, a little more handsome, but the same sandy hair and flashing eyes. Except more than ten years of maturity had lent him the calm that had eluded us both back then. He seemed at ease with himself and happy with his work in filmmaking. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t appreciated his attention as much as I should have when we were young, which meant I’d grown up as well. Instead of fixating romantically on Raees, I should have accepted and cultivated my friendship with Jake—that’s really all it was. Raees was no longer tall and he was an art dealer, having left behind dreams of working in cinema.

“If you’d have asked me then what you’d end up, I thought you’d be a hippie, a free spirit poet,” Jake said as he picked apart a piece of bread. “You were like a flower child obsessed with butterflies1—you had this really funny handwriting and drew insects on everything. You had a very beautiful spirit. You were strange, but it didn’t really bother me. I thought it was endearing. You weren’t like the other girls, and they definitely didn’t like you.” He laughed. “Sorry. You know what I mean. It seems as though you’re doing well now.”

“Thank you.”

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Annotations

  1. Just as Egyptian tombs and medieval catacombs were ravaged for treasure, butterflies are also victims of contemporary black market smugglers like Hisayoshi Kojima, the Japanese-born king of a vast multimillion-dollar ring of insect poachers. They were two Queen Alexandra’s Bird-wing butterflies ordered by an undercover agent that led to Kojima’s eventual capture. The species is the largest in the world, with a yellow body and mint-and-black-colored wings sometimes reaching almost a foot in width.

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Character Studies: Lady Brett Ashley

July 19, 2012 | by

Ava Gardner as Ladt Brett

“Damned good-looking” is how Ernest Hemingway—or, rather, his antihero Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises—describes Lady Brett Ashley when she appears at a Parisian club with a mob of pretty boys. “Damned good-looking” is better than pretty. It’s better than the colloquial “hot,” better than beautiful, even.

Damned good-looking, it is.

Imagine Hemingway, the great economist of words, deciding just how he would introduce perhaps his most enduring siren. Original drafts of the novel open with the character Ashley (better known as Brett), though she would eventually come to play a smaller role. Hemingway was bewitched, at the time of writing, by the self-possession of the real-life Lady Duff Twysden, and she—rather than his wife, Hadley—would serve as the partial inspiration for The Sun Also Rises’s heroine. (Indeed, he would dedicate later editions of the novel to her.)

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Joe Bradley

February 22, 2011 | by

The artist Joe Bradley has his studio in an old pencil factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. There is no buzzer. You must call his cell phone to be let in, and then ride a manual elevator to the white concrete space where he works on the fifth floor. Bradley was part of the 2008 Whitney Biennial and was recently featured in two solo shows. I visited the thirty-five-year-old artist to talk about his evolving process as a painter.

Photograph by Michael Nevin.

This building is called the Pencil Factory. When you go outside, there are these giant pencils on the wall. It’s got a lot of light, and it’s quiet and big enough. You can have six or seven paintings up at the same time and don’t have to shift them around.

I don’t go into painting with any kind of plan. The ones I am happiest with I have no idea how I arrived at. The best ones are always a real surprise. For most of the paintings I use unprimed canvas and oil paint. I like drawing when the canvas is on the floor, and then I’ll pin it up and see what it looks like on the wall. Sometimes, I turn it over and work on the other side. The nature of the oil paint is that it kind of bleeds through the canvas so you have some sort of residual marks seeping through from the other side and influencing the composition.

Photograph by Michael Nevin.

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In Search of Proust’s Overcoat

August 30, 2010 | by

Proust’s Overcoat tells the story of Jacques Guérin, a Parisian perfume magnate, who was obsessed with the works of Marcel Proust. In 1929, through a chance connection, he met Proust's family, only to discover that they intended to destroy the author's notebooks, letters, and manuscripts. Guérin ingratiated himself with Proust's heirs, and through bribery and kindness, amassed a collection of Proust's belongings and manuscripts, saving it from destruction. I recently exchanged e-mails with Lorenza Foschini, an Italian journalist, about her book.

Why was Proust’s overcoat so special?

Proust's contemporaries, like Jean Cocteau, described his style as embodying an old, refined elegance. He was a real dandy, always dressed in large silk shirtfronts by Charvet, a double-breasted waistcoat, very light colored gloves with black points, a flat-brimmed top hat, a rose or an orchid in a buttonhole of his frock coat, and a walking cane. But even on the hottest days, Marcel didn’t remove his heavy fur-lined coat. This became legendary among those who knew him.

How did you discover this story?

Those who love Proust know that such passion often becomes a mania. This was so in my case. When interviewing the well-known Visconti costume designer, Piero Tosi, I could not resist the temptation to ask him if he knew the reason why the great filmmaker (Luchino Visconti) stopped production on his beloved project, bringing In Search of Lost Time to the big screen.

In the early seventies, the American studios allocated a lot of money for this project and there was talk of casting actors like Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, even Greta Garbo. Tosi was invited to Paris to go over production plans. It was there that he met a very special person. My book comes from the extraordinary story that Tosi told me about this man, Jacques Guérin.

I can understand the need to collect the letters, diaries, and notes of a writer. But can you explain our obsessions with a writer's personal objects? Why a bed? A rug? A coat?

It's because of Guérin that a draft of Swann's Way became available to us. The same goes for several versions of the last volume of In Search of Lost Time.

My book is a story about the incredible efforts of a great bibliophile. Guérin was able to save important papers that offended the bourgeois respectability of Proust’s prude sister in law. After Proust’s death, his family began to deliberately destroy and sell his notebooks, letter, manuscripts, furniture, and personal effects.

Proust's homosexuality surrounded him like an invisible and insurmountable wall. His family's unwillingness to understand this led to a history of silence that mutated into rancor. This transformed into acts of vandalism as his papers were destroyed and his furniture abandoned. Finding the coat is only the conclusion of a series of adventures and coup de théâtre that Guérin had to face. I do not want to reveal them now; you have to read the book.

Of all of Proust's objects collected by Guérin, which is your favorite? Read More »

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