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Arts & Culture

Updike: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fan

January 14, 2015 | by

Updike

“I can’t remember the moment when I fell in love with cartoons, I was so young,” John Updike once recalled in Hogan’s Alley magazine. “I still have a Donald Duck book, on oilclothy paper in big-print format, and remember a smaller, cardboard-covered book based on the animated cartoon Three Little Pigs. It was the intense stylization of those images, with their finely brushed outlines and their rounded and buttony furniture and their faces so curiously amalgamated of human and animal elements, that drew me in, into a world where I, child though I was, loomed as a king, and where my parents and other grownups were strangers.”

This is one of many passages where Updike talks about his childhood love of comics, a theme that recurs not just in essays but also in poems and short stories. What deserves attention in this passage is not only what Updike is saying but the textured and sensual language he’s using when he recalls the “oilclothy paper” and the “buttony furniture.” His tingling prose, where every idea and emotion is rooted in sensory experience, owes much to such modern masters as Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov, but it was also sparked by the cartoon images he saw in childhood, which trained his eyes to see visual forms as aesthetically pleasing. Indeed, the comparison with Nabokov is instructive since the Russian-born author of Lolita was also a cartoon fan. The critic Clarence Brown has coined the term bedesque (roughly translated as “comic strip-influenced”) to describe the cartoony quality of Nabokov’s fiction, including its antic loopiness, its quicksilver movement from scene to scene, and its visual intensity. I think one reason Updike felt an affinity for Nabokov is because they both wrote bedesque prose. Read More »

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When David Foster Wallace Taught Paul Thomas Anderson

January 6, 2015 | by

Paul Thomas Anderson and Dainel Day-Lewis

Anderson in 2007. Photo: Jürgen Fauth, via Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 1990, years before he published Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace came on as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, in Boston. As D. T. Max writes in his biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, this wasn’t such a hot time for Wallace. He was mentally unstable in those years, and actively ashamed of his latest collection of stories, Girl with Curious Hair; when the Emerson English department posted an advertisement for it, he tore it down. And teaching offered no reprieve from the problems he had with his writing and the culture at large. In a letter to Jonathan Franzen, he called his students “infants”: “you almost have to cradle their heads to help their necks support the skull’s weight.” Were the youth simply too enamored of TV’s easy charms? Max writes,

The students he was teaching made him feel the problem was worse than he had known. They were the Letterman generation he had imagined in [his short story] “My Appearance,” proud of their knowingness. “They’re all ‘television’ majors, whatever that means,” he complained to [David] Markson, adding that he’d had his wrist slapped by his department for “ ‘frustrating’ the students” with a DeLillo novel (he does not say which) by which he meant to wake them up … Wallace knew he did not want to stay at Emerson long.

Still, because he was fluent in TV, Wallace found himself popular with the students. And at least one of them came away emboldened by that “frustrating” experience with DeLillo: Paul Thomas Anderson, whose latest film, Inherent Vice, is in wide release this week. Read More »

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No Sale

January 5, 2015 | by

In Berlin, art and commerce shake hands—sort of.

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Photo: Anai Lee Ender, 2014. Courtesy of Friends with Books, Berlin.

Despite its homespun name, Friends with Books: Art Book Fair Berlin bills itself as “Europe’s premier festival for contemporary artists’ books and periodicals by artists and art publishers.” I have no reason to doubt them. Last month, more than a hundred publishers—ranging from the large to the very, very small—spent two days squeezed behind tables in the main hall of Café Moskau, a haunted leftover of the German Democratic Republic aristocracy on Karl-Marx-Allee. Outside, the building resembled a modernist cake topped with sans-serif signage and a gleaming silver Sputnik. Inside, bespoke chapbooks abutted objets d’art, free posters, and glossy five-hundred-Euro retrospectives, often at the same table. It seemed a stark contrast to the Miami Beach scene from which some attendees were still recovering: the one that had featured Miley Cyrus, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and a veritable fleet of private yachts.

Yes, here was a scene more fitting Berlin, the pink-mohawked little sibling of the art world. Some of the usual industry suspects were present, such as the magazines frieze, e-flux, and Texte zur Kunst, along with international art publishers like Valiz, Walther König, and Sternberg. But these were easily outnumbered by the small presses, many of them volunteer-run passion projects. As I entered the long exhibition hall, I had to sidestep embraces meant for friends who’d just flown in from London, Lisbon, or Copenhagen. (The greeter’s country of origin determined the number and directionality of air kisses, and before long I’d witnessed every conceivable variation without once seeing an awkward fumble. Luckily, no one wanted to kiss me.) As I began to browse the publishers’ tables, I felt like I really was walking among a group of friends who’d gathered for a bookshelf-bragging party. Maybe a hundred people were pressed together in the room and talking at the same time, but softly, with the velvet-lined savoir faire that makes dinner parties here such subdued operations. And they were even talking about the books! Somewhat astonishingly for an art fair, art seemed to be the main subject of conversation, rather than the forthcoming after-party or which infamous collector just walked through the door or whose painting sold for how much. The hall was crowded, the mood convivial, the money nowhere to be found. To witness an actual sale was rare, and I almost felt I’d committed a faux pas when I asked a local distributor for a copy of Raphael Rubinstein’s The Miraculous. Then, when I handed the bookseller a twenty, we discovered he had no change. Read More »

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Ghosts on the Nog

December 19, 2014 | by

The great English tradition of Christmas ghost stories.

One of John Leech’s illustrations for A Christmas Carol, 1842.

I’ve long thought of Christmastime as a season of mostly pleasant intrusions: thirty or so days of remembering to tend, checklist style, to the latest pressing bit of Yuletide business that comes racing back to you. The well wishes. The trip to the Home Depot. The seasonal ales.

This is the Fezziwig side of Christmas, that portion that makes you look up the word wassail when you encounter it and think, Ah, that would be fun. But what of the darker elements of Christmas—and what of Christmas for those people who enjoy making merry most years but may have hit upon a bit of a tricky patch? What succor of the season might they find at the proverbial inn?

Having experienced both sides of Christmas, there is but one constant I am aware of that serves you well both in the merriest of times and in the darkest: the classic English Christmas ghost story. You’d think Halloween would be the holiday that elicits the best macabre stories, but you’re going to want to check that opinion and get more on the Snow Miser side of the equation. Time was the English loved to scare you out of your mind come December, but in a fun way that resulted in stories well afield of your typical ghost story outing. Read More »

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The Kitchen Show

December 18, 2014 | by

How to host an art exhibition in your kitchen.

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Photo: Gun Westholm

During my time at high school and university in Kreuzlingen and St. Gallen, I traveled around Europe looking at art, visiting artists, studios, galleries and museums. I knew that what I wanted to do in life was to work with artists, but I had yet to produce anything. I was searching for a way to make a contribution. What, in this art system, could be a first step, and above all, how could I be useful to artists? I began to think about all the innovative, large-scale museum shows I had seen and whether it was really possible to do something new, combining all the networks I had been enmeshed in, the entire European Thinkbelt. One conviction I had was that it could be interesting to do something smaller, after the gigantism of some of the 1980s art scene which seemed unsustainable after the crash of 1987.

Dependency on endless growth, as the end of each cyclical bull market always teaches us, is unrealistic. I studied political economy with a professor named H. C. Binswanger, who directed the University of St. Gallen’s Institute for Economics and Ecology. Binswanger was examining the historical relationship of economics and alchemy, which he made as interesting as it (at first) sounds outlandish. His goal was to investigate the similarities and differences between aesthetic and economic value, most famously in a book he later published called Money and Magic (1994). At the core of modern economics, Binswanger believed, is the concept of unlimited, eternal growth; he showed how this brash concept was inherited from the medieval discourse of alchemy, the search for a process that could turn lead into gold. Read More »

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How She Knows

December 17, 2014 | by

Penelope Fitzgerald’s shifting reputation.

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From the cover of Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.

Penelope Fitzgerald would have been ninety-eight today. We should mark the occasion by remembering that it is not extraordinary that she became a prize-winning novelist, though you may have heard otherwise.

In 2008, Julian Barnes described Fitzgerald as a jam-making grandmother, carrying a plastic, purple handbag. “Many readers’ initial reaction to a Fitzgerald novel,” he wrote, is, “ ‘But how does she know that?’ ” He said that he has reread the first scene of her book The Blue Flower (2000) many times, “always trying to find its secret, but never succeeding.”

And most everyone knows the story of the Booker dinner in 1979, to which Fitzgerald supposedly wore a flannel housedress. When she beat out V. S. Naipaul for the prize with Offshore, Robert Robinson of Book Programme proposed that the judges had made the wrong choice.

Then there’s Michael Dibdin, who once compared Fitzgerald to Jane Austen, of whom Lord Grey of Fallodon said something like, How astonishing that, despite the dullness of her life, she should write not only one novel, but several, and they are very good, too. Didbin was also incredulous of The Blue Flower: “How on earth was this done?” Read More »

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