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Author Archive

No Hours But (Sort of) Sunny Ones

September 19, 2014 | by

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From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: a mad tea party.

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From Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”

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From Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”

Alice_in_Wonderland_by_Arthur_Rackham_-_10_-_Off_with_her_head!

From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “Off with her head!”

Galligantus_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_17034

From Galligantus

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From Peter Pan: away he flew.

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From Jack and the Beanstalk Giant

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From Wagner’s The Rhinegold and the Valkyries

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From Wagner’s Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods

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From The Three Bears

You could spend hours marveling at Arthur Rackham’s work. The legendary illustrator, born on September 19, 1867, was incredibly prolific, and his interpretations of Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Rip Van Winkle (to name but a few) have helped create our collective idea of those stories.

Rackham is perhaps the most famous of the group of artists who defined the Golden Age of Illustration, the early twentieth-century period in which technical innovations allowed for better printing and people still had the money to spend on fancy editions. Although Rackham had to spend the early years of his career doing what he called “much distasteful hack work,” he was famous—and even collected—in his own time. He married the artist Edith Starkie in 1900, and she apparently helped him develop his signature watercolor technique. From the publication of his Rip Van Winkle in 1905, his talents were always in high demand. Read More »

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Inherit the Earth

September 18, 2014 | by

REBECCA

From Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Rebecca, 1940.

The moment of crisis had come, and I must face it. My old fears, my diffidence, my shyness, my hopeless sense of inferiority, must be conquered now and thrust aside. If I failed now I should fail forever.
―Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

It must be wonderful to be one of those pedestrians who own the streets. To be one of those people who walks where he likes with Ratso Rizzo–like entitlement, or, better yet, is gracious enough to usher a car forward when, in fact, the car has the right of way. Such people, of course, never give a timid wave of appreciation—a tacit “thank you for not killing me”—when a car lets them cross.

It must be wonderful never to assume your name has been left off the list, or that your card will be declined. It must be wonderful not to have the moment of anxiety, every time you pass through automatic doors, that they will not open. It must be wonderful not to cry every time someone slights you, and feel bruised for days afterward. It must be wonderful to be Rebecca de Winter, rather than her nameless successor.

Whether you consider Rebecca escapist fun, or an uneasy picture of the Electra complex run amok, or a masterpiece of Gothic storytelling, one thing is for sure: du Maurier paints one of the most accurate portraits of shyness in all of English literature. The narrator has none of Jane Eyre’s reserves and mysterious poise, none of the position and dignity of Jane Austen’s uncomfortable heroes. She is instead consumed by the particularly agonizing egotism that is shyness: a paralyzing self-consciousness that is reinforced by every slight, every harsh word, every reaction of the world, real and perceived. (I suppose I should add a spoiler alert here, for those unfamiliar with the plot of Rebecca.) Read More »

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Life Studies

September 17, 2014 | by

bodyworlds

A subway ad for the latest “Body Worlds” exhibition.

With the passage of time come certain revelations. Sometimes these are melancholy; people you love are aging, your window for having a family is shrinking, you will never again know the euphoria of youth. Others are welcome. It is comforting to know there will always be more good books to read than there is time in the average life. And I know I can die happily—and will—without ever going into space, swimming with dolphins, or visiting any one of the endless iterations of that “Body Worlds” exhibition.

When the first such exhibition made its grand tour (in the manner of young gentlemen of a past age), it was a novelty. Vaguely shocking, even—remember the ethics review? Everyone was amazed at the artistry of the preservation. One could lend credence to the creators’ arguments that it taught valuable anatomical lessons and educated the public about biology and physiology and, in so doing, helped encourage healthy lifestyle choices. Imagine how much effort such a show might have saved Michelangelo—to say nothing of grave-robbing Scottish medical students! Read More »

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As Dolls to Wanton Kids

September 16, 2014 | by

thedollshouse

Detail from the cover of The Doll’s House.

It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot ‘do’; they can only be done by. Children who do not understand this often do wrong things, and then the dolls are hurt and abused and lost; and when this happens dolls cannot speak, nor do anything except be hurt and abused and lost. ―Rumer Godden, The Doll’s House

Rumer Godden was preoccupied with dolls. In her many stories about dolls—including Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, Little Plum, Home Is the Sailor, and, of course, The Doll’s House—we are presented with a cast of characters who are at the mercy of children. Some children are rough and wild; others are conscientious and intuitive. They are little gods, and the dolls are their playthings, and when they feel powerless in their own lives, it is the dolls who bear the brunt of this powerlessness. Godden wasn’t the only author to recognize this essential dynamic—The Velveteen Rabbit, Hitty, and later Toy Story truck in the same themes—but no one makes that reality as scary and lonely as she does.

Of all the books, The Doll’s House is perhaps the most sinister. We have Tottie, the stable peg doll; the doll father, who seems to suffer the aftereffects of a rough owner; the mother, who is made of celluloid and so somewhat dotty and scattered. And there is the evil, beautiful Marchpane—more financially valuable in the real world than the others. The dolls are survivors who have found each other—their relationships are resolutely asexual, by the way—but their peace can be shattered by a gust of wind, a candle flame, a child’s whim. It is scary stuff, and compelling, too. There is tragedy here, but even before the tragedy, there is menace.

Of course this appeals to a child. Children are both dolls and masters; they know their powerlessness and need to understand their power. While the subject matter sounds sweet, it becomes a stage for something far darker.

They made a film of The Doll’s House, and while I don’t think it captures the charm of the book completely—Tasha Tudor illustrated one version—it is strange and forceful in its own right.

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The Subtle Thief of Youth

September 15, 2014 | by

selfie stick

The beginning of the end?

Yesterday I saw my first selfie stick. I had read of such things, but I’d never seen one in the wild. It was being wielded by an extremely chic Japanese tourist who held her iPhone at, well, stick’s length, her face shaded by a floppy-brimmed hat, a cigarette drooping from her lips. People tell me such sticks, or “Smart Phone Boom Arms,” are ubiquitous in other countries, and I’m sure they’re all over the place here, too—but it still seems to me that it would take a lot of chutzpah both to carry an implement so explicitly dedicated to the pursuit of narcissism and then to publicly voice-activate it for good measure. “They’re all over the Vatican,” reported one friend.

If you prefer a more private form of solipsism, may I suggest you search for your own first name on UrbanDictionary.com? The rabbit hole that led me to this was a long one—I was curious about the name Beryl, if you must know—but, shamefully, it ended in my finding such reader-supplied entries as: Read More »

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Songs of Innocence

September 12, 2014 | by

Giulio_del_Torre_Zwei_raufende_Buben_1927

Giulio del Torre, Zwei raufende Buben, 1927.

If you live in my building on the Upper West Side, you do not need to own an alarm clock, at least not if you want to wake up at eight A.M. Sleeping beyond that hour is impossible—that’s when the preschool opens its yard for the first playtime of the day.

It is a very lovely way to wake up, if you’re in the right frame of mind. Joyful shrieking, terrified screaming, feuds and rivalries and friendships all at once, magnified by the walls all around them. It is much better to take a Blakean view of it, especially if you work from home, because there are periodic recesses throughout the day, and their collective energy is unflagging.

I always liked the background noise of the playground; working by myself all day, it made me feel less alone. It didn’t really strike me as strange until I conducted an interview in my apartment and, when I tried to transcribe it, realized the voices were obscured by the wall of child-call in the background. Still, I didn’t mind; I threw my windows open and welcomed it, as some people do the constant buzz of public radio. Read More »

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