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Author Archive

Once and Future

October 24, 2014 | by

White-in-Boston-CollegeII copy

T. H. White. Photo: Burns Library, Boston College

Perhaps you’ve read Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, or the volumes of poetry she wrote (some with her partner, Valentine Ackland). Lolly Willowes, her best-known work, is a sly novel about a spinster who takes up witchcraft, and well worth seeking out. But my favorite, and the one that’s been on my mind lately, is her 1967 biography of T. H. White, a small masterpiece of humanity.

White, born in 1906 and known to his friends as Tim, was the author of the Arthurian epic The Once and Future King and a number of successful sci-fi titles. A former teacher, he was prone to passionate enthusiasms—falconry, snakes, plans—and wrote a memoir about his experience training a goshawk. Townsend Warner captures his boundless excitement about these things, his humor, his kindness. But more than anything, this is a portrait of loneliness. White had no known relationships with men or women. Townsend Warner speculates that White was “a homosexual and a sado-masochist,” although others disagree on the question of his sexuality. In any case, he was profoundly alone; Townsend Warner wrote, “Notably free from fearing God, he was basically afraid of the human race.”

He did love his dog, an Irish Setter called Brownie. Townsend Warner writes extensively about his bond with Brownie, the love he could not express in other facets of his life. Upon Brownie’s unexpected death, he wrote the following heartbreaking letter to his friend David “Bunny” Garnett, presented in its entirety on the Futility Closet blog. Read this only if you are feeling emotionally tough: Read More »

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Sharing Economy

October 23, 2014 | by

tools

From a Dutch election poster, 1981.

I had never used one of those Web sites in which you list an odd job and ordinary people vie to do it for you. The arrangement seems almost too good to be true. So when I was faced with a household repair, I decided to make a go of it: I started a profile and posted a request.

“Small Welding Job” I titled it. “I have an old brass bed with a shaky frame that needs to be soldered. I think it will be a straightforward job if you have a welding machine/iron. Thanks so much!”

Within minutes, I had received a notification: I had a match! The young woman in question looked omnicompetent and had a bunch of glowing reviews. We arranged a time and I gave her my address, feeling very pleased with the whole business.

That night, I got a message. “Please call me by 10:30 P.M. or this task will be canceled,” it said ominously. I called. We reconfirmed our appointment. I gave her my apartment number.

At five A.M., I was awakened by an incoming text message. It was my handywoman. “There is no trace of the existence of your apartment online,” she wrote. “I do not feel safe with this situation. Thank you for understanding.”

I wasn’t sure how to defend myself against this. “I swear it’s real,” I wrote back lamely. Read More »

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Tiny Books About Cats

October 22, 2014 | by

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From Adlai Stevenson’s Veto 1949, illustrated by Alice Garman.

Given the passionate nature of bibliophiles, the fanatical devotion of cat fanciers, and the obsessive tendencies of miniaturists, it only stands to reason that when the three join forces, it is to form the most powerful coalition in the world. (Or the least powerful, I suppose, depending on how one quantifies these things.) In any event, what you end up with are miniature cat-themed books, a prominent subgenre.

I fell down this particular rabbit hole when I ran across the miniature bookstore on Berlin’s Torellstraße. It’s affiliated with Freundeskreis Miniaturbuch Berlin, one of many associations of miniature-book collectors; there are miniature-book societies around the world. (The best museum for miniature books is said to be in Baku.)

As Louis Wolfgang Bondy, an enthusiast, wrote in his 1988 book Miniaturbücher von den Anfängen bis Heute (Miniature Books from the Beginnings Until Today),

In this small world, books occupy a place of honor. They join to the great skill lavished on their creation the crowning glory of man’s spirit enshrined in their text. Small wonder then that the ranks of collectors who specialize in them and who cherish, nay adore, them is forever growing … An increasing number of people are convinced of the dictum that small is beautiful.

Read More »

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Trick Lighting

October 21, 2014 | by

Photo: Walt Stoneburner

I ran into the guy while I was taking a walk through what is now called the Columbia Waterfront District—but then, this was nearly ten years ago.

“Excuse me, do you live around here?” he said. I thought he wanted directions, but it turned out he was a location scout for a small indie film. Did I have a railroad apartment, he wondered, in an older building? I did. And would I be willing to let them shoot there for a few hours?

They came to check it out a few days later. For some reason, their approval seemed important; I scoured the place and had fresh coffee brewing (realtor-style) when they came in. This time it was a director—a middle-aged man—and a few assistants. They conferred a great deal about angles and light and what they’d have to do to make the place work before giving their qualified approval. A shooting time was set.

I had grown to hate that apartment. It had looked nice when we moved in a year before, and had felt like a fresh start. But then had come the months of unpacked boxes and unhung pictures and the day I had a burst of enthusiasm and tried to arrange everything myself. And then the anger at my slapdash methods and the walls of crooked frames, my tears. My boyfriend hated his job and, I think, me. I would walk through the door and find him sitting in the dark. We almost never had people over. And the row of small, windowless rooms, which had initially felt cozy, now looked dark and dreary. Our landlady, who it seemed was in violation of about every housing code, had long since fled the state, so any maintenance—of peeling paint or faulty wiring—was out of the question. I was glad to be forced to clean, to open ourselves up to scrutiny. Read More »

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Rote Learning

October 20, 2014 | by

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A postcard of the Bleecker Street IRT stop, 1905.

“I’ve never seen the point of New York,” someone said to me last week, in a foreign city, upon learning that it was my hometown.

I must confess to being nonplussed by this. I hadn’t fielded such an idiotic remark since middle school. Back then, I would have responded in kind with some nonsense—“Well, since it’s not pyramid-shaped, neither have I,” or something about John Stuart Mill, if I knew about him—but now this did not come so easily. Most of us have long since learned that there’s not much sport in breaking the fine-print clauses of the social contract.

And most of us learn the hard way. My most shameful memory is of creeping around a tree, perhaps in second grade, at Reynolds Field, and hissing, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker,” at a mystified five-year-old. I knew instantly that I had not conjured the mystery and allure I’d been going for; that I was, in fact, an ass. I have never admitted that before. I wonder if that kid remembers it. I really hope not.

But now I am a grown-up. So I quoted to him one of the few things I know by heart:

On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.

I finished. We stared at each other blankly.

“That was E.B. White,” I said.

“I meant it rhetorically,” he said.

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Globalization

October 17, 2014 | by

Berlin-Cab-Driver

A German cab in 1971. Photo: Eugen Nosko

You expect to feel humbled when you travel. Strange public transit, alien customs—add a language you don’t speak and it’s an immediately chastening experience. When the residents are so inured to your national arrogance and laziness that they don’t even visibly resent conducting transactions in English, it is more galling still. It’s sort of like being a baby—helpless, barely verbal, sleep deprived—except you can’t throw a tantrum. On the contrary, you are often expected to conduct business.

All this I expected. I was even impressed and charmed, on my first visit to Berlin, to find people eager to discuss Spinoza in restaurants and quote Schiller on the plane. Here is what (or who) I did not expect: my cab driver to the airport. It’s not that I was shocked by his exquisite English, his verbatim recitations of Kleist, or his strangely in-depth knowledge of the Frankfurt Book Fair (“I wondered about the Finnish literature they featured … Well, I try to keep up with such things.”) Here is what was deeply intimidating: he had actually read Patrick Modiano. And not just La Place de l’Étoile! “But not all thirty,” he said.

On the plane, I was seated between the aforementioned Schiller scholar and a teenage girl. I watched Maleficent and devoted considerable thought to the derivation of the term fruits of the forest, as used to describe that one mix of luridly red berries occasionally found atop old-looking tarts and cheesecakes. The teenager appeared to be writing diligently in a journal; I felt abashed anew. Then I glanced down at the page and, from her rounded, teenage-girl handwriting, I could see that it was a list of German words: a food diary. Before I looked away, I clearly saw a sentence beginning “Mein chicken nuggets.”

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