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Arts & Culture

The Literary Agent of Yore (Unspeakable Rascal!)

October 14, 2014 | by

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An illustration by Lauren Stout for Lawton Mackall's Bizarre, 1922.

My continuing odyssey across the World Wide Web—I’ll read it all, someday—has yielded these two gems from the public domain, both early constructions of the literary agent as a type; neither, I’m sorry to say, is very flattering.

Now as then, agents get a bad rap. In the popular imagination, they’re usually seen as unscrupulous middlemen, always on the phone, insistently plying their wares. The agent, we’re told, is a necessary evil at best, or, at worst, the first in a line of craven corporate interests designed to suck the marrow from a writer’s work, making it suitable for a wide and churlish readership. In movies, writers are always seeking agents, falling out with agents, or at the very least nervously talking to agents, twisting the phone line in their fingers. And then there’s the editor-agent relationship, in which the agent never wins: he’s either part of a profit-obsessed cabal keeping subversive “new voices” out of print, or he’s a tasteless entrepreneur disturbing the delicate rapport between editor and author.

I’d thought all this was a fairly recent phenomenon—I had always imagined it came from the eighties, when publishers couldn’t conglomerate fast enough and the soul was said to have fled the industry—but these two old books suggest it’s been going on much longer than that. Which makes sense: in publishing, the sky is always falling. Every year is an abysmal year for books and a terrific year for books. Editors no longer edit, except when they do; publishers care only for their bottom line, except when they don’t; the three-martini lunch is always dead, always quietly continuing. That’s what’s fascinating about these excerpts: they’re both about a century old, documenting that same thwarted intersection of art and capitalism.

First, from Arnold Bennett’s Books and Persons, an essay collection composed of work from 1908 to 1911, the parts cited below being from 1908: Read More »

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How to Win the Nobel Prize

October 9, 2014 | by

A close reading of the Swedish Academy’s citations.

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Reading the news about Patrick Modiano today, I was struck by the insipidness of the Nobel Foundation’s citation: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” It bears all the hallmarks of an overblown blurb, one of those in which a bold, gimlet-eyed novelist is elucidating the now, or a limpid, singular poet is saying the unsayable. (Very few poets are saying the sayable these days, if our blurbs are to be believed.)

Let’s unpack this citation, beginning with this business about “the art of memory,” which doesn’t seem like much of an art to me. (To conceive of it as such invites a corny geriatric punch line: “Just wait till you start forgetting so much!”) Granting that it is art, is it really the art through which Modiano “evokes”? That would have to be his writing. If he’d simply sat at his desk lost in memories, he wouldn’t evoke much more than his own sighs. For that matter—can one really “evoke” a destiny, and, having been evoked, is that destiny still “ungraspable,” let alone the most ungraspable? Who’s to say that one destiny can be grasped more easily than another? (“He was destined to be a pediatric podiatrist—he saw it plain as day.”) Then there’s this murky concept of the “life-world,” which sounds like something out of Heidegger—wouldn’t one word or the other have sufficed? To speak of a life-world implies its negative, the death-world, which, despite our best efforts, has never been uncovered.

Drafting these citations must be painstaking, fairly joyless work. This one, at least, reads like an act of circumlocution by committee; the choice to append “the most” to “ungraspable” may have occasioned hours of debate. And for what? The final result could apply to anyone; in the broadest terms, not just every writer but every person in history has practiced the art of memory, evoking destinies and uncovering life-worlds. Read More »

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The Will to Believe

October 8, 2014 | by

Sitting in on the 2014 Objectivist Conference in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, The Venetian

The Venetian. Photo: Dietmar Rabich

Even on a Monday morning at eight A.M.—an hour ripe for sober reckoning—the greatest lie of Las Vegas endures undiminished: if you keep playing, you’ll eventually beat the house. As I strolled through the Venetian, I saw the familiar ring of mostly young men crowding the aprons of a long line of craps tables. If any moment in Vegas should lend itself to second thoughts for these men, it would’ve been this one, the morning after a boozy weekend of debauchery. Yet the only concession to the occasion were the mimosas hanging pendulously over the Pass Line.

I was late for a different sort of spectacle, so I didn’t stop to watch. The Venetian, by some measurements the largest hotel in the world, had set aside a tranche of its 289 “meeting rooms” for the annual summer conference of the Ayn Rand Institute, an organization founded in 1985, a few years after the death of its namesake, with the express mission of fostering “a growing awareness, understanding, and acceptance of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.”

Open conferences are admirably egalitarian, which makes them something of an awkward format for discussing Objectivism, the name Rand choose for her canon of unalloyed elitism. “The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time,” her avatar, John Galt, declares in Atlas Shrugged. Meanwhile, “the man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.”

One need not be an honors geometry student to understand where on this pyramid most of us must fall. Throughout her writings, which began with allegorical novels and evolved into a miscellany of short works—speeches, essays, newsletters, and even, for one year, a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times—Rand was an evangelist for an aristocracy of talents. She characterized her aesthetics as “a crusade to glorify man’s existence” and the essence of her philosophy as “the concept of man as a heroic being,” descriptions which, if they mean anything, would lead one to believe an assembly of her acolytes might resemble a cross between a meeting of Phi Beta Kappa and an afternoon among the bodybuilders at Venice Beach. Read More »

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Just Slap Something on It

October 2, 2014 | by

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A sketch of a cicada in a van Gogh letter from July 1888.

Next month will come Ever Yours: The Essential Letters of Vincent van Gogh, which runs to nearly eight hundred pages and is frequently more absorbing, expansive, and instructive than a collection of letters ought to be. (He seldom seems to miss the forest for the trees, you could say.) As I thumbed through it, a passage leaped out at me from exactly 130 years ago—a letter van Gogh wrote to his younger brother, Theo, on October 2, 1884. It’s both Grade A existential grousing—were it not for the (faintly) uplifting conclusion, I could’ve believed that Thomas Bernhard wrote it—and, it seems to me, pretty sound advice.

Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.

You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.

Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares—and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t.’

Life itself likewise always turns towards one an infinitely meaningless, discouraging, dispiriting blank side on which there is nothing, any more than on a blank canvas.

But however meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, and who knows something, doesn’t let himself be fobbed off like that. He steps in and does something, and hangs on to that, in short, breaks, ‘violates’—they say.

Let them talk, those cold theologians.

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A letter of van Gogh’s from May 2, 1890.

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Under One Roof

October 2, 2014 | by

Ludwig Bemelmans’s Paris bistro, La Colombe, combined two of his passions: art and innkeeping.

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Ludwig Bemelmans's Woman with a Dog, a mural from the La Colombe restaurant.

“It was precisely what I had been looking for—a lovely house, half palace, half ruin, an old house covered partly with vine,” Ludwig Bemelmans wrote in his 1958 illustrated memoir, My Life in Art. In 1953, he’d bought the hôtel particulier that once belonged to La belle Ferronnière (mistress of François I) at 4 rue de la Colombe, in the shadow of Notre Dame. “It had a bistro on the ground floor frequented by clochards and a small garden in front in which people sat.”

He christened the bistro La Colombe and covered its walls with near life-size frescoes of café society—Bemelmans’s own Bemelmans Bar. But it was not to last.    

“Fifty three was a marvelous year for him, and a terrible year at the same time,” explained Jane Bayard Curley, the curator of the New York Historical Society’s current exhibition, “Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans” (on view through October 19). “He was doing La Colombe, he was painting the murals for Aristotle Onassis, he was publishing his Caldecott Award–winning Madeline’s Rescue. So many good things were happening that year and then the wheels came off.” Read More »

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Come, My Lad, and Drink Some Beer

September 18, 2014 | by

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry.

From James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson was born on September 18, 1709; Boswell wrote this passage in 1777, on the occasion of Johnson’s sixty-eighth birthday.

Thursday, September 18. Last night Dr. Johnson had proposed that the crystal lustre, or chandelier, in Dr. Taylor’s large room, should be lighted up some time or other. Taylor said, it should be lighted up next night. ‘That will do very well, (said I,) for it is Dr. Johnson’s birth-day.’ When we were in the Isle of Sky, Johnson had desired me not to mention his birth-day. He did not seem pleased at this time that I mentioned it, and said (somewhat sternly,) ‘he would not have the lustre lighted the next day.’

Some ladies, who had been present yesterday when I mentioned his birth-day, came to dinner to-day, and plagued him unintentionally, by wishing him joy. I know not why he disliked having his birth-day mentioned, unless it were that it reminded him of his approaching nearer to death, of which he had a constant dread.

I mentioned to him a friend of mine who was formerly gloomy from low spirits, and much distressed by the fear of death, but was now uniformly placid, and contemplated his dissolution without any perturbation. ‘Sir, (said Johnson,) this is only a disordered imagination taking a different turn.’

He observed, that a gentleman of eminence in literature had got into a bad style of poetry of late. ‘He puts (said he,) a very common thing in a strange dress till he does not know it himself, and thinks other people do not know it.’ BOSWELL. ‘That is owing to his being so much versant in old English poetry.’ JOHNSON. ‘What is that to the purpose, Sir? If I say a man is drunk, and you tell me it is owing to his taking much drink, the matter is not mended. No, Sir, ——— has taken to an odd mode. For example, he’d write thus:

“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray.”

Gray evening is common enough; but evening gray he’d think fine.—Stay;—we’ll make out the stanza:

“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray;
Smite thy bosom, sage, and tell,
What is bliss? and which the way?”

BOSWELL. ‘But why smite his bosom, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, to shew he was in earnest,’ (smiling.)—He at an after period added the following stanza:

‘Thus I spoke; and speaking sigh’d;
—Scarce repress’d the starting tear;—
When the smiling sage reply’d—
—Come, my lad, and drink some beer.’

I cannot help thinking the first stanza very good solemn poetry, as also the three first lines of the second. Its last line is an excellent burlesque surprise on gloomy sentimental enquirers. And, perhaps, the advice is as good as can be given to a low-spirited dissatisfied being:—‘Don’t trouble your head with sickly thinking: take a cup, and be merry.’

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